Saturday 19 November 2011


At 76, master artist, Onobrakpeya, tries new tricks
By Tajudeen Sowole
 (First published Tuesday, August 12, 2008)
AS the veteran artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya, clocks 76 years on August 30, 2008, another honour is being conferred on the master printmaker in Washington, U.S. this week.
  Shortly before his departure to the US from Lagos, Onobrakpeya disclosed that he had been invited by St. Gregory's College, Lagos Alumni Foundation, in America to receive an award. The honour is in recognition of his contribution to the college as an art teacher from 1963 to 1979.
   The award, sources from the organisers said is holding on Saturday, August 16, 2008 as part of the 2008 Gregorian Reunion taking place at Hilton Alexandria Mark Center, Washington DC.
Back home, an exhibition is scheduled to hold later, featuring his works in a special feature of arts from Nigeria and the U.S at the Ambassador's residence, Abuja, from September 12 through 15, 2008.
   Seventy-six years in the life of any artist in this part of the world could have gone unsung, anyway. But not so for Onobrakpeya, a 'rebel' print exponent, master, mentor, and arguably, one of Africa's biggest art exports to the rest of the world.
    Over the ages, art continues to prove that to become a master is not a child's play. And indeed, in the visual arts, when an artist, early in  life, earns the status of a master just like Picasso in his late 20s with his celebrated work, Les Demoiselles D'Avignon and Salvador Dali with masterly impact in his 20s, such feats endure for life.
   Having come this far, what more does the art constituency expect from Onobrakpeya, the engraving exponent?  he stated that "I am still experimenting because as time gets on, my art changes. Sometimes you set out in search of a particular thing; along the line another thing comes up which could turn out to be better than what you set out for initially. So, as for my art at 76, experiment continues." 
Bruce Onobrakpeya
    His earliest international exposure in the arts has been traced to his participation in the Sixth Biennial, Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1961 while he was still a student at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, Zaria, (now Ahmadu Bello University).
   Like quite a number of masters of the post-renaissance, Onobrakpeya's bolder prints on the art scene came when, at 37, he discovered the engraving technique, of which his work is widely known for today - it has earned him laurels and recognition across the world.
   In its study of Onobrakpeya's work, Cornell University, New York stated: "Nigerian painter and master printmaker, Onobrakpeya, is one artist who has successfully synthesized the vitality of Africa's great tradition with the convention and styles of modernity. He has fused his training in Western techniques and materials with his own heritage, cultural experience and an inventiveness that is undeniably African. The result is the creation of paintings and prints of vivid colors and magical imagery in a medium that speaks of the past and present to the future in a language of Pan-Africanist universalism."
Prof. Emeritus John Picton, a commentator on contemporary African Art from the University of London, with almost 50 years research on West African art said: "Onobrakpeya is among the most successful artists to have emerged in West Africa during the 20th Century. He has a continuing and commanding influence on the generation of artists in Nigeria."
    From pioneering a technique, to the annual art resource event, the Bruce Onobarakpeya Foundation (BOF)-organised Harmattan Workshop in Agbarha Otor, Delta State and lately recorded as the most priced artist at home, courtesy of the last art auction, it is quite interesting that the artist has continued to be in the front seat of history. 
  The auction record, for example, was actually the climax of his engraving technique. The Arthouse Contemporary Limited-organised auction, which saw an impressive turnout of collectors with 97 works, had Onobrakpeya's work, Greater Nigeria, carted away by a bidder at N9.2 million. 
   Beating the asking price of between N4. 4 million and N5.5 million, the work, made in 2007 and of bronze foil and ivories mounted on wood 82 by 174 inches, took off from a starting bid of N2.8 million. After about 10 minutes of bidding, perhaps the longest at the event, the last bidder finally got the panel work at N9.2 million.
   Earlier in 1999, the artist had proven that indeed he is a master whose prowess knows no bound – irrespective of medium – when his oil painting, Palmwine Ladies was recorded as the highest bid at an auction held in 1999 at the MUSON Centre, Onikan Lagos. The work went for N1.2m.
   Still on the potency of an artist in advanced age, Onobrakpeya has further confirmed that the visual art is perhaps the only sub section of the arts that brings out the masterly character in an artist as age sets in. And the factor here is the combined spirituality and intellectualism involved in the business of creating an art piece.
   If Onobrakpeya were to live in the generation of Henri Matisse, Picasso and Leornado Da Vinci of that period, and of course, in that environment, he would have been equally celebrated.
   Shortly after the last auction, Onobrakpeya disclosed that one of his most cherished works is Four Altar Panels. Also in the mural-size family, the content of the brass foil relief four-panel explains a journey into the deep forest of Urhobo tradition.
The panels, he said, were done over a period of four years: 1982, 1984, 1985 and 1985 respectively. "The first altar is a tree showing the owl and other birds which portends doom. Next are set of twins believed to be resistant to any form of harm, and lastly the butterfly, which is the form the human spirit assumes when it leaves the body.
"Second altar, Aro Oloku, a household shrine for the Oloku goddess believed to bestow fortune and fertility; third altar, Edjokpa is for the worship of the palm tree god, believed to be responsible for bountiful harvest of palm."
   The fourth altar, he continued, is the worship of the hand, "believed to be responsible for human wealth and good fortune"
Irrespective of what anyone wants to believe as regards the sensitivity of such subjects in a dynamic society of today, an artist as a custodian of history and its documentation owes his profession a duty to enrich the art archives for intellectuality.
   Born in Agbarha-Otor, Delta State, Nigeria, in 1932,
Onobrakpeya has given back to the society as much as he got; his initiative, the Harmattan Workshop is perhaps, an example of how to plough back into the system.
Started in 1998, the annual forum brings together people of diverse traditional and academic art practice to share ideas.
Interactive, practical and instructive, Harmattan Workshop gives participants the opportunity to work on any subject, issue, themes as well as new art forms.

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