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Venerable artist Bruce Onobrakpeya at 90 – Part 1

By Dele jegede
14 August 2022   |   2:45 am
When I turned 70 in 2015, there was quite a sizeable coterie of friends, colleagues, and elders who gathered at the campuses of the University of Lagos and the Yaba College of Technology

Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya

When I turned 70 in 2015, there was quite a sizeable coterie of friends, colleagues, and elders who gathered at the campuses of the University of Lagos and the Yaba College of Technology to felicitate me.

The three-day event was organised by Kunle Filani, with the Society of Nigerian Artists as a co-sponsor.

Among those who were at these events were two of my most revered personalities who have continued to exert considerable pull and influence on me. The first is Pa Timothy Adebanjo Fasuyi with whom, by sheer serendipity, I share exact birth dates of April 19. The other eminent personality at that event was, well, guess who!

But let us step back briefly into history. Thirty years ago —in 1992— I had the rare privilege, in my capacity as president of the Society of Nigerian Artists, to organise the 60th birthday celebrations for Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya.

Admittedly the celebrations were perhaps the most niggardly that we could put together as a renascent society that was just emerging from a self-imposed stupor, an inevitable consequence of more than a decade of inactivity.

In January 1993, just four months after we celebrated his birthday, I left Nigeria for good with my family in tow. But if you thought that not being around would hamper my relationship with Dr Onobrakpeya, you were wrong.

My relationship with him….?
Hmm. I’m thinking.
Hang on.
When exactly did I first meet him?
Give me a second.
I need to joggle my memory.
When did I first meet him?

Well, for sure, I did not attend St. Gregory’s Obalende, which would have given me the chance to boldly proclaim the year I met him as my ‘formal’ teacher. And unlike the Grillos, the Salus, the Ajayis, the Oshigas, the Osundes, and even the Fasuyis and the Ajepes, he never taught my cohort at the Yaba College of Technology in the mid-60s. But his presence has always hovered over me, especially after I arrived at ABU, where I gleaned some precious editions of the departmental journal, Egghead since rested. Dr, Onobrakpeya was obviously one of those I mentally put in the category of ‘immediate masters’, as distinct from the ‘pioneering group’, which comprised all the eminent firsts: from Aina Onabolu through Akinola Lasekan, Etso Ugbodaga-Ngu, to Ben Enwonwu.

But I digress.
Let me resuscitate the nagging question: When did I first meet Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya?

Now, wait a minute. Why nag me over this? Why don’t you Kuku go and ask him yourself? Go ahead; he is here; he is the reason we are here convoked today; he remains as vibrant and sprightly, kakaraka, as a young groom on his wedding night. Yet, he dispenses uncanny sagacity and creative wisdom in generous doses.

Go on. Ask him for me. All I know is that he is older than the old, perforated kobo ayé lu. He has been in circulation since — geez — since he was born. How about that? His physicality—the inimitable quiddities that set him apart from all others—must contain a rare DNA that is impenetrable by age or impervious to any ill-mannered virus or silly ailments. Dr. Onobrakpeya is the embodiment of all that young professional acolytes yearns for. His is the profile that clearly adumbrates epochs; the incomparable inquisitor whose quest for exploratory flings and experimental digests has become a regular habit.

Still, when did I first meet…
Hábà! Ṣé kò sí nkan?

You are asking when I first met a demi-god. You are asking me when I first met a 90-year-old, abi? A nonagenarian. No, I did not say a non-Nigerian. A n-o-n-a-g-e-n-a-r-i-a-n. For all I know, he has not decamped from Delta to become an adherent of Sunday Igboho in the Yoruba Nation army although, since 1956 when he first settled in Ondo and taught art at Ondo Boys High School, he has lived practically all his life among the Yoruba, except for his Zaria years.

These harrowing days, when our hearts continually beat pitty-patty at the mere mention of the word Fulani, we should remember that Onobrakpeya has spent the last 60 years of his professional life laying solid, global foundations for the induction of Nigeria into a global pantheon of creative thinkers and doers.

On this hallowed bench of numinous minds, he joins a few others like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Yusuf Grillo. No one on Nigeria’s political leadership bench can claim to be more Nigerian than our revered icon, Onorakpeya.

The idea of nonagenarians invokes in the minds of many this assumption of involuntary senescence. For sure, anyone who has tried living up to a ripe age…

Wait a minute, what’s my age again? Oh yes, anyone who has tried living up to, say, the age of 77, will know that some nuts and bolts may begin to act up as they increasingly get rickety. The sad part is, that there are no spares. Some in this age bracket may begin to have what is known as “senior moments.” That is when you have occasional brain fog and become temporarily befuddled. Like losing your thread of thought just like that.

One moment you knew what you wanted to do. But the next moment, you simply lost that idea. Like getting to your car only to ask yourself, “What did I come to pick up here?” Or powering your phone on only to wonder which application you originally wanted to open.

Or this: you hold two items in hand after a quick snack: a plate and a used napkin. You then throw the plate in the trash and gently tuck the used napkin in the plate basket. These are some of the jokes that age plays on people.

Don’t just take my words for it. Listen to Ebenezer Obey in his album, Vanity, as he neatly compartmentalises the various stages of life and what, in his opinion, each age bracket signifies.

According to Obey, between the ages of 20 to 40, we are just at the beginning of our life. When you slide into the 50- to 60-year bracket, you’re moving up there. In your sexagenarian life, between 60 and 70, you are at the twilight of life. In Obey’s dioramic schema, anything after the age of 80 is over time. Really?

Apparently, Obey has neither heard about nor seen Onobrakpeya. At any rate, for those of you who are soccer aficionados, you know how exhilarating overtime games can be. Rather than embrace Obey’s malodorous worldview on ageing which, by the way, appears to be a mild form of ageism, it is much more profitable to attempt bucking the trend and, in the spirit of Onobrakpeya, start life anew at age 90. When you have the opportunity of living in his presence, you marvel at this man’s physical and mental sharpness.

In the summer of 1982, I arrived in Bloomington, Indiana, to commence research that would focus on Onobrakpeya and his studio practice for my dissertation.

Up till that moment, my relationship with him had been essentialised by an exhilarating admiration that dates to the first time that I attended one of his numerous solo exhibitions and fell under the mesmerizing influence of his dazzling prints. This particular exhibition was at Goethe place then on Broad Street; the late Professor J.F. Ade Ajayi opened it.

Buoyed by such spectacular productivity as evinced by the ‘immediate masters’ group, there then was no question about what my dissertation would be about.

At Indiana University, where I was studying with Dr. Roy Sieber, who pioneered African art history in the United States, I knew that the nascent field was yet to come to grips with the conception of African art that deviated from ancient visual expressions in three-dimensional forms, or was associated with African material culture involving consecrated artifacts, propitiation, veneration, adornment or such items as catch the fancy of anthropologist, linguists, or historians. Although the literature on contemporary African art during this period was miserably paltry, the imperative of narrating and historicising contemporary manifestations overrode the obligation to stick with ‘traditional’ topics for my dissertation.

“Dó Sah.”

“Ma Ghare,” he would reply.

It was still the summer of 1982 and the first time I had embedded myself in his studio at the famous 39 (now 41) Oloje Street in Papa Ajao, which required, at that time, a serious consideration of what outfit you wore during the rainy months as the roads were always in a combative mode.

Onobrakpeya welcomed me to his residence and invited me to follow him to his third-floor studio. Before I could satisfy my visual curiosity trying to admire all the prints and 3-D pieces that dotted the winding stairwell, he had vanished.

What just happened? Where did he go? He was 50 and I, was a mere 37. Yet, he just turned a simple introductory welcome into something akin to the race between the hare and the tortoise with me as the tortoise of course. At 37!

If you recall Ebenezer Obey’s schemata on life, that was precisely the age at which Onobrakpeya was supposed to start feeling the gnawing vibrations of oldness while I had supposedly just started chopping life. I beg to differ. The third floor of his studio was an expansive space where piles of paper assumed an assortment of positions—hanging on the line, lying prostrate, flat out on their back, or simply waiting on the queue to be wrung through the press.

With 20/20 hindsight, my embedment with him revealed certain critical lessons about the person whom we are gathered here celebrating. The first is his work ethic. You have probably heard a popular witticism, ascribed to Albert Einstein, which defines insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” With apologies, I believe that this aphorism was targeted at Onobrakpeya as it beautifully encapsulates his approach to work. Oh no, I am not implying that he is mad. Please, don’t hear me wrong o! Èmi Ke!

He most certainly has been doing the same thing all his life, which is that he has been rigorously consistent in applying himself to the seemingly simple task of artmaking. The reason that he has attained different results lies in the ontology of art; he has unquestionably re-defined what art entails, and what making it is comprised of. Indefatigably, he has cultivated a fervid approach to this business, with unforgiving commitment.

The other time I heard the Vice-President, Osinbajo, on tv saying again and again, “calm down,” I thought that he was addressing Dr. Onobrakpeya. Boy! Was I relieved to learn that the VP was at a political rally, which is something that this artist has learned to distance himself from, at least from the view of outsiders. Besides, it is far too late in the day for any latter-day sexagenarian to demand that his elder, a nonagenarian, should calm down although both are, well, Nigerians. On this score, here’s my direct message to our celebrant: please do not calm down; do not slow down. You are simply too set in your ways to start listening to politicians!

In addition to his work ethics, the second insight that I could intuit looking back now at Dr. Onobrakpeya’s enriched world concerns a proclivity towards suspicious inquisitiveness. This, indeed, is one of the firmest pedestals that have sustained his colossus status as an artist. He has never stood in the way of art. Instead, he has, all his life, offered himself as a tool—a vessel—through which art thrives.

Soon after he left Zaria, he mixed and mingled with the art-producing crowd on the streets of Ibadan, those plebians whose lack of exposure to book knowledge tickled Ulli Beier’s imagination no end. Surprisingly, this suspicious inquisitiveness has been a crucial factor in the incredible density and diversity that we now see in his work. For one who majored in painting, he has continued to expose himself to new creative paradigms, which in recent years led to assemblage, bricolage, and installation.

To these two critical lessons, let me add a third, which is his capacity for creative intelligence. For sure one can make the argument that Dr Onobrakpeya’s dispositive approach to artmaking — mixing and mingling with people, things, and places—is unashamedly sophomoric or even pedestrian, especially given his status as one of the new class of elite Nigerians in post-independent Nigeria, it did take someone of his cerebral capacity to correctly calibrate the end-result, one that would take years in coming to fruition.

His foray into printmaking, with all the attendant mistakes, gave birth to new etching methods and lingo. His relentless pursuit of spaces to exhibit his work led to exhibitions at local, national, and global platforms just as it earned him residencies and catapulted his work to an international audience and into major museum collections.

Undoubtedly, the most enduring quality, which has resulted in the positively influential status of Dr. Onobrakpeya is his enchanting personality. Arguably, he is not only Africa’s treasured persona whose presence in international art circles creates waves, but he is also the one who most consistently has been accorded, on account of the totality of his work and achievements globally and locally, the status of Nigeria’s foremost living art persona.

That is what more than six decades of creative exploration, with innumerable accolades and the Nigerian National Order of Merit Award to boot, does.

Devoid of the superciliousness that tends to characterise the personality of many internationally acknowledged artists, Dr. Onobrakpeya’s humility is at once instructive and endearing.

His residence, which also doubles as his studio, beacons to all who aspire to learn and thrive under his mastership. All of this was not mere happenstance. Right from the beginning, the innate penchant in him as a storyteller—the same predilection that resulted in the illustration of several books —instructed his penchant for documenting his own work, often in a mélange of poetry, prints, and explanatory narratives.

Here, then, in our midst, is a cultural ambassador of the highest order, one who has consistently stood as an apostle of all things Nigerian in general, and Urhobo in particular. As I have said in another forum, Dr Onobrakpeya is one of Africa’s leading culture producers.

But deconstructing him cannot be profitably engaged outside of his Urhoboness. His body of work, which is an admixture of poetry, folklore, orature, myths and mythology all expressed in his paintings, prints, blastocysts, and installations: all of this constitutes a compendium of Urhobo culture and, by extension, modern Africa itself.

The artist as an inveterate self-narrator brings up the fifth column of Onobrakpeya’s structure. Those of us in this field know that an important contributory element to an artist’s profile is the narrative that heralds such an artist. The narrative is as important as, or at times even more important than, the artist’s work. All art is local. There is a correlation between an artist’s success and the artist’s patronage base. Oftentimes, we neglect locality at our own expense. But the global art community also plays a significant part in shaping local taste and patronage. Onobrakpeya’s creative longevity cannot be dissociated from his locale.

The irrefutable fact is that the values that we place on art, the determinants of aesthetics, and the willingness to invest in a particular artist is governed as much by the quality of the artist’s work as by the values ascribed to, or associated with, the artist.

In Onobrakpeya’s situation, longevity and consistency are critical factors. At this point, there is, theoretically, a body of patrons who will buy whatever he produces. This is because he has earned his stripes, to a point where the appendment of his name on any item instantly transforms such an item into art. If he were to doodle something on a napkin at a restaurant, it is theoretically possible to monetize it.

A sixth pedestal in the Onobrakpeya chronicles concerns insightfulness. The results of the man’s visionary deftness are apparent everywhere today. Perhaps it is in the establishment of the Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation that we see his determination to entrench and perpetuate his vision. In this vein, the creation of the Harmattan Workshop in 1998, together with the erection of an edifice—the Conference Center—to actuate the ideals of the workshop, remain an unassailable testament to his immortality.

By now, only a harebrained dolt would contest the evidence that Onobrakpeya remains his own best chronicler, promoter, and publicist. All you need do is look at the body of literature that he has produced about himself. If an exhibition mattered, there was a catalogue.

And he never had any exhibition that did not matter. The urge to document himself appears to be a healthy obsessive compulsion. This brings to mind this short anecdote that reveals my private nemesis on this score.

Onobrakeya’s exhibition catalogue for 1992, The Spirit in Ascent, was edited by my colleague, G.G. Dara. While the catalog must have been confined to the archives now because of the 445-page 2014 magnum opus, Masks of the Flaming Arrows, which I had the privilege to edit, a very visceral development concerning my contribution to the 1992 catalogue remains indelible because of a careless error contained in my essay’s heading.

In those days when every department had a pool of typists, I turned in my piece to one of the ladies in the office. Once I made what I thought were all the corrections to the typed piece, I turned it into G.G. Dara. Behold, to my eternal mortification, the title of my essay came out in print as “The Humane of Onobrakpeya.”

Confounded, I rushed to check the original copy that I sent to the editor. Behold, our elite typist had edited my original title, which was “The Humaneness of Onobrakpeya.”

This blemish on my academic integrity felt so visceral that I shared my anguish with a colleague, Nigel Barley of the British Museum when we met at a conference in Tokyo two years later. Ah, that’s not such a big deal, he consoled me. He then shared with me a similar faux pas that he had seen at his place of work, where a publication came out titled “Kind Red Spirits” instead of “Kindred Spirits.”

Still on Onobrakpeya’s personality. I continually marvel at the generosity and wonderment of the prescient Lord in designing a human being who is as rugged, clairvoyant, blessed, and unperturbed as Onobrakpeya.

At my age, I have finally embraced the idea that I may never…let me change that…that I will never be the same person that I was when, for example, we organized his 60th birthday three decades ago.

I have been forced to reconcile myself with the idea that my wife has peddled for so long, an idea which I treated at first as a rumor but which, as recent events have revealed, is probably now a fact. The idea is that I have slowed down, physically at least.

It started during the waning years of my tenure at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I observed that during a casual walk from one campus building to the other, my students suddenly appeared as if they were ever in a hurry even when they seemed quite relaxed as they sped past me.

However, I have managed to resolve that conundrum. I discovered that it was I who had slowed down. It didn’t matter how fast I thought I was moving; I was always left behind by my students. When, as I alluded to earlier, Onobrakpeya was at my 70th birthday at Unilag, I was stunned at how trim and to fit he not only looked but also felt.

On that occasion, I came to the realization that something was probably wrong with him. It was not right for a respectable 83-year-old to be that sharp and walk at that fast speed. I knew that he used to extend to me the privilege of sharing his bottle of beer in the comfort of his living space anytime I visited. I know certainly that he does not smoke. Not even cigarettes.

Now, don’t go misinterpreting me again. I am not inferring that he smoked anything else! Nobody is implying something sinister. Dr Onobrakpeya does not smoke, period. So, where does he derive his incredible feistiness from? If he drinks only moderately and smokes absolutely nothing, where does he derive his vim and vigor from? That’s a question I cannot answer.

Ah! I just had an epiphany now. I learned that my heart throbs with glee whenever discussions centre around the professional indefatigability of Dr Onobrakpeya, who all of us should see as our heroes. As regards the other elements that are constitutive of his greatness, I am secure in my conviction that his love for the arts, his full, unalloyed commitment to professing art, and the unparalleled success that has attended his efforts in this regard are incontestable facts.

But when it comes to comparing my physicality with his, I tend not to do too well. Of course, I’m not sick. Other than a back problem here and a carpal tunnel there, or whatever else my legs may cook up tomorrow, I am healthy. This is why I struggle to define Onobrakpeya’s physical irrepressibility.

Of course, I’m not a medical doctor. But I am old enough to have a healthy presumption about how nonagenarians are supposed to look, Obey’s age paradigm notwithstanding. I suspect you can imagine where, in conclusion, I’m headed with this.

So then, I end with just a question, one simple question: Would it be, em…would it be too impolite to ask INEC (the Independent National Electoral Commission) for a recount on this score? Can we ask INEC to help us take another look at Dr. Onobrakpeya’s certificate? I mean, his birth certificate.
Oghene Phiyo Ke We (May God Bless You)

This keynote address was delivered at Bruce Onobrakpeya @ 90 Conference
Agbarha-Otor, Delta State on August 5, 2022.
Jegede, Ph.D, is Professor Emeritus, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio