Venerable artist Bruce Onobrakpeya at 90 – Part 2
To these two critical lessons, let me add a third, which is his capacity for creative intellection. 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 at 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 story-teller—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 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, plastocasts, 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 catalog.
And he never had any exhibition that did not matter. The urge to document himself appears to be a healthy obsessive compulsion. Which brings to mind this short anecdote that reveals my private nemesis on this score.
Onobrakeya’s exhibition catalog 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 catalog 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 in to 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 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 center around the professional indefatigability of Dr. Onobrakpeya, who all of us should see as our hero. 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. Which 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 to 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 is the conclusion of jegede’s keynote address delivered at Bruce Onobrakpeya @ 90 Conference, Agbarha-Otor, Delta State on August 5, 2022. jegede, PhD.,is a Professor Emeritus, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, United States of America