Friday 10 August 2012

At 80, Onobrakpeya says today’s generation of art, culture professionals less privileged

Master printmaker, Bruce Onobrakpeya, is arguably one Nigerian artist, whose footprints have been well recorded on the space of contemporary African art in the past 50 years. As he clocks 80 on Thursday, August 30, 2012, the crucial periods in Nigerian art, on which the artist had imparted generations of artists would not go unmentioned as TAJUDEEN SOWOLE, FLORENCE UTOR AND MICHAEL ORIE in this interview highlight the veteran’s career. 

More importantly, Onobrakpeya expresses his view on recurring issues about the impact of the arts on nationhood challenges across Africa, analyzing efforts of different generation of artists. Historic moments of Nigerian art, in which Onobrakpeya has made his impacts felt include being a member of young artists who, in 1958 started a new direction for Nigerian art under the group, Zaria Arts Society (known in the Nigerian art parlance as the Zaria Rebels); his participation, as a young artist, along with some members of the Zaria Arts Society, in the historic art exhibition held during the Nigerian Independence in 1960; being privileged to be among the participants who benefited from what could be described as Nigeria’s renaissance period of the 1960s known as Mbari Mbayo art workshop, organised by Uli Beier. Twice in 1999 and 2008, Onobrakpeya’s works were the most priced art pieces at historic art auctions in Lagos.

Ahead of his birthday, and on a slightly wet afternoon, Onobrakpeya welcomes his three guests as he takes a break from supervising of an open shed at Ovuomaroro Studio/Gallery, Papa Ajao, Mushin, Lagos.

 “We are rebuilding the shed,” he explains as he swiftly walks us into the gallery on the ground floor.
  Few days earlier, he had insisted that the visit should be put on hold, for a genuine reason. However, we agreed on some terms that would not infringe on his schedule or the proposed plans for the birthday programmes.
  Having again reassured him that his intended modest approach to mark his 80th birthday was well understood as he takes his seat where he oversees the re-construction of the shed, he responds to the first question about his childhood and how art crept into his life.
  He recalls that his interest in art started at primary school, “Eweka Memorial, Iyaro, Benin, (defunct Mid-western Region) in 1941-43”, where, unknowingly, his interest in printmaking started. Onobrakpeya, who is now renowned in printmaking, appeared to have struck a deal with destiny as far back as his elementary school, so suggested his subconscious or innocent love for the medium, even at such a tender age.
  He reminisces, “I started creating some rubber stamps, but it was from a part of cotton tree, which is roundish, and I would then level it with water on clean surface, and increase the letters on it in such a way you could read it. What I was doing then was to write my name and that of the school as well as all the staff on the stamp, and stamp it on our reader.”
  That sounds like printmaking, isn’t it? “Yes. But then, I never knew it was art or printmaking.” 
Although he discontinued his education at Eweka Memorial, the natural instinct for printmaking did not leave him. “When I left that school, I went to meet a guardian-cousin in Sapele, where I started another elementary school called Zik Academy. I started from Standard 3. There, instead of using the wood process, I used small square rubber, which I found at the sawmill, with which I engraved names.”
  Steadily, though subconsciously, Onobrakpeya actually started what would later be a career in art. In fact, he was also building entrepreneur into his art, without knowing it.
  He recalls, “I would get a penny - epinni (one Penny and a half) from fellow students who want the work. I didn’t realise that engraving names on rubber was an art.” And the demand for his works, at that level, seemed to have been enhanced by the situation he notes as “manufactured things being very expensive because it was a period of the World War-II.”
Bruce Onobrakpeya
  At such a young age, he could have had a lot of kid-fun with the money made from his art, but the destiny in him pushed the instinct further. He discloses, “I used the proceeds from the artworks to buy a fountain pen.”
  Next was Western Boys High school, Benin City, which he started in January 1948. Gradually, the reality of taking art beyond a childhood passion, and perhaps a career to look up to must have dawned on him when he was recalled to the school to help in the art section. “After my school certificate, I was recalled because the art teacher had left Western Boys High School.”
  Still untrained, but equally valued like other certificated teachers, having had a good self- discipline in art, Onobrakpya later joined Ondo Boys High School (Western Region) from where he got an opportunity to open the most crucial page of his career. He explains how the principal of the school helped him in securing admission to formally study art in Zaria.
  Recalling, he says, “There, the principal informed me that the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (NCAST), with the branch in Ibadan, had transferred the art department to Zaria. He applied on my behalf and I went for the interview and was accepted. So, by October 1957, I was in Zaria.”
  So much has been said and written about the Zaria Art Society, otherwise known as the ‘Zaria Rebel’, a group of young under-graduates, of which Onobrakpeya belongs, with others such as Prof. Uche Okeke, Simon Okeke, Demas Nwoko and Odechukwu Odita.
  As much as Onobrakpeya would not disassociate his thoughts from the rebellion perception that has been enlivened in Nigerian art history over the decades, he insists the group was not against the teachers, noting, “What went on was that our teachers were always using British curricular. Though the school was in Zaria, we could as well have been in London, at St Mathew; they adapted the Oyinbo curriculum.
  “Some of the things we were trying to express, from the folklore, our history, proverbs and philosophy were hard for them to see. However, from the learning of art techniques in the classroom, we created some things differently.”
  He stresses the philosophy aspect of art as the interest of the Zaria Art Society, and that art goes beyond the techniques. “We proved to them that painting too is very scientific. In our cubicle we were working, inspiring one another and that is where the real creativity among us grew. Because we were in a group, the public got to know us as our thoughts then became what every person identified with. And that was how the Zaria Art Society grew and stuck.”
  Being among the generation of Nigerian artists who has proven that art is no less a discipline compared to other professions such as medicine, law or engineering, Onobrakpeya argues that people’s perception is odd. “I find that very strange; our colonial masters encouraged reading, writing and arithmetic (the three-R.)”
  He traces the apathy on lack of development of art in Nigeria to the post-independence era. In fact, he recalls how the Nigerian education administrators of the colonial period held the view that “for a country to really stand up and function as modern society, art and culture must be reckon with.”
Recipients of 1989 University of Ibadan Hon Doctor of Letters (Litterarum Doctor; D.Litt.;), Chief Otunba Balogun (left), Prof Thurstan Shaw, Bruce Onobrakpeya and Prof Chinua Achebe. PHOTO: C/O BRUCE ONOBRAKPEYA FOUNDATION 
Few months ago, one of his colleagues at Zaria, Prof. Uche Okeke – the 2012 celebrant of the yearly art fiesta organised by Yusuf Grillo Pavilion – disclosed that the nationalism aura of the pre-independence era championed by statesmen such as late Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamidi Azikiwe, Anthony Enahoro and others influenced the proactive character in art of the then Zaria art students.
  Corroborating Okeke’s assertion, Onobrakpeya explains how the nationalism mentality, both in Nigeria and Africa, inspired them. “Nationalism entered the consciousness of the artists, seeing it as part of the development as a new era in Africa, not only just in Nigeria. There was Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, Kwame Nkruma in Ghana, Awolowo, Azikiwe in Nigeria. These were the movers of the nationalism that took us forward.”
  As great as it sounds for Africans to be proud of the Onobrakpeyas of art and those who have taken the arts to higher grounds such as the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, late Senegalese poet and statesman, Leopold Senghor, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Ben Enwonwu and others in similar status, critics are worried about a vacuum in the current generation.
  For example, Fela, Soyinka, Enwonwu started using the arts to impart their immediate society, even on state level at the same age most creative people of today are clouded from the challenges of nationhood. Are the current generation of young and middle age artists, writers, musicians overwhelmed by impacts of the older and departed people in the creative sectors?
  Onobrakpeya’s response seems more cautious and modest: “Some generations had certain advantages which others didn’t have. Every generation tackles issues of their time. Some generations may be more favoured than others. For example, at the time we were emerging, we had people like Azikiwe, Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, Jomo Keyatta and others. We were breathing the same air without our knowing it. It’s just for us to now look at issues that are big enough to generate similar responses among our young creative people. If you look at the work the young people are doing today, you will find out that there is some greatness in them. But what they need is some form of helping hand both from the old hand and critical writer to lift them up.”
  He recalls how his set of students of the Fine Art Department of NCAST, Zaria “fought for recognition.” The department, he notes, was though opened in 1956, ahead of his set’s coming into the school, but previous students, he states, were not given opportunity of having courage to believe that they could make a living out of art.
  “Our set was different; we made sure that art was seen as a serious discipline, and gradually we were accepted.”
  The four-years at the NCAST Zaira Art School, he explains was regarded as a graduate programme, stressing, “those of us who did an extra year were rated as postgraduate scholars in the education department.”
  Irrespective of whatever apathy anyone may have for informal art tutorial, history of evolution of Nigerian art would not be complete without the several workshops, which heralded the nation’s art landscape in the past 50 years. And quite instructively, Onobrakpeya appears to be a bridge between the academia and informal setting, largely due to his humility.
  For example, despite having had a sound academic upbringing from one of Nigeria’s foremost art schools, Onobrakpeya was submissive enough to recognise the potency of the informal training, hence his participation in Nigeria’s leading art workshop Mbari Mbayo, organised by the late German linguist Uli Beier.
  He explains: “I wanted to get something that is extra curricular and so I attended the first workshop that was arranged by Beier in Ibadan in 1961, the year we graduated with our Diploma certificate.” The workshop clearly rescued his natural gift from being confined into conventional painting; it returned him to the path of destiny, which he had earlier started, subconsciously as an elementary pupil over 20 years back.
  He notes how “the workshop liberated me and showed new ways of doing art aside painting which I specialised in at Zaira.”
  It was not just Beier. A Dutch printmaker, Prof. Ru van Rossem from Amsterdam, whom the German brought, two years latter, contributed to Onobrakpeya’s printmaking career, as he recalls, “Rossem taught us the techniques of printmaking. It was then in 1964 I realised that my life was in printmaking. It was a 10-day course, involving Jimoh Akolo, Solomon Nwangboje and some of the Osogbo artists. Three years later, I went into printmaking with passion.”
  From the Mbari Mbayo experience, to his further involvement with Beier and Rossem at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), ten years after – in addition to a brief residency in 1975 as a Fulbright Scholar at The Haystack Mountain School of Art, Maine, U.S., where he taught art – the passion for workshop kept growing. This much grew into an initiative of his, the Harmattan Workshop, which holds yearly at Agbarha-Otor, Delta State. Currently in its 14th edition, Harmattan Workshop has hosted nearly who is who in Nigeria’s contemporary art as one of the longest running informal art programmes in Africa.
  “After 1975, I felt that if ever I have a passion to do anything, it is to open an art workshop that will give other people the same exposure that Beier has given to me in those workshops. In 1982 I bought a piece of land in Agbarha-Otor, and by 1989-90 we started building. The building didn’t take any shape until we started the first Harmattan Workshop in 1998, involving about 15 of us.”
  Full time studio practice, he discloses was never in his agenda. “As a natural teacher, you want to keep teaching. I came back from Zaira as a scholar and before then I had been interviewed to go to University of Nigeria, Nsukka. However, the post I wanted was filled by one of the local indigenes. At that point I wanted to teach because I had a teaching certificate. Timothy Fasuyi (Grillo’s classmate and former Art Adviser to government) and the late Simon Okeke fixed me up at St. Gregory College. It was quite a huge experience, and there was acceptance from the boys because I blended my teaching with story telling. I entered St. Gregory College in January 1963 and was there till 1980. I put in 21 years into regular teaching activities. At the time I was there, all my friends were teachers in the universities and other higher institutions.”
  If he thought that teaching in a secondary school in Lagos was a disadvantage, fate however had a better plan for him. In Lagos, he was working and gradually building studio practice. He must have seen a better prospect later as he rejected an offer to teach in a university.
  He recalls, “Positions opened up later, but I was already building up a base in Lagos; working and exhibiting. When I turned down offer for an Assistant Research Fellow from University of Ife, my friends were angry.”
 (Sitting, left to right), Bruce Onobrakpeya, Yusuf Grillo, Uche Okeke and Demas Nwoko.) Back row) Oseloka Osadebe, Late Nwagbara and Emmanuel Okechukwu Odita, all seven of the eight early members of Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) .PHOTO: C/O BRUCE ONOBRAKPEYA FOUNDATION
Offers kept coming, even outside Nigeria, but the studio instinct in him would not budge. “In 1970, I went with a team of about 15 African teachers from Ghana, Serra Lone, Mauritius, South Africa and others to the U.S. Half way through the tour, a letter came from Howard University, U.S. that I should come and teach. I did not take up the job. I was sad though, but I just had to stick to my plan. In fact, the school was unhappy.”
  Although his first art exhibition, he remembers, was in Ugheli in 1959, the most memorable and historic, however came in 1960. It was made possible by the then Art Council under the leadership of the chairman, Babatunde Majekodunmi and the secretary, Micheal Crowther at an Art Pavilion of Trade Fair organised to mark Nigeria’s Independence in 1960. The final year students of NCAST, he explains, were asked to decorate the cover ways for the fair. Also, the students were given the opportunity to exhibit along with the then masters like Enwonwu, Onabolu, Lasekan and others were mounted for the exhibition.
  That show, Onobrapeya discloses, gave him his first major art sales. “There, some of the prints I had were actually sold for about 14 Guineas (a Guinea is 21 shillings) making the amount about 294 shillings. Those were the first sales I made.”
  And similar encouragement he needed to set up as a full time studio artist also came “when a lady, Jane Kennedy opened her Gallery to Osogbo artists and included my works. It was called Thursday sale, so on Friday we go back there to collect our money; we don’t even know how much they were being sold. Such earnings were motivations to me. Thereafter, I realised that one can live on art.”
  On themes, Onobrakpeya’s philosophy is conspicuously traditional and native such that some observers hardly draw a line between his art and African traditional religious settings. He insists his works are derivatives from the Zaria group’s perspective of art. “As part of our manifesto of the Zaria Society, we always want to look back in time and search some of the artistic values we have and upgrade those. We found that our folklores, history, artistic values, philosophy are neglected just as the third world countries are neglected. Our people who go to study graphics in the university would go into Greek histories, study Odyssey and would not look into the folklores written by people like Amos Tutuola or D.O. Fagunwa, for example.
  “So I went back to get inspiration from Fagunwa and Tutuola and take the folk art and talk about the philosophy of our people which is embedded in their names. At Zaria, we also opened ourselves to foreign art, hence what we called Natural Synthesis which have been translated in different ways. Because of colonialism, our religion and majority of the things we have are looked down upon. The shrine set-up and masquerades were some of the highest development of our art apart from the Ife bronzes and Benin sculptures.”
  And he must have paid a price for being an Africanist. “There had been times when people warned each other to be careful what they buy from Bruce. Even now people are still not satisfied with my work; they still look at it cautiously. My message is that the themes are artistically beautiful and acceptable and are things that could make you think and add something to your life. The materials that were used, I try to free them from the fletch connotation so that they could be consumed by all the people. My motivation is in early Christianity, when there were pagan feelings all over, but was corrected.
A panel foil, Greater Nigeria, by Bruce Onobrakpeya sold at record price N9.2m Naira at Art House Contemporary auction in Lagos, 2008.
So, I know someday this will be accepted by people here too without question. For instance, recently, we had students from the Redeem College and the questions they were asking were about the artistic content, and not whether they are fetish. We are appealing to government and religious people: please, don’t destroy artworks, which are suspected to be fetish. The saying is that use this form, sanctify them by bringing out the good themes and do not connect them with ritual.”
  At 80, what more could an artist like Onobrakpeya ask for? However, is there anything that he wants to recall he would have loved to do differently?  
  “If life were over I would say I missed this or that, but the life is still going on. So, what I’m doing in life and in art is to re-examine situation. If I make any mistake in any artwork, I revisit it. That kind of feeling is going on all the time. I still have time to do some of the things, which I could not do in the past”.

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