Friday 31 August 2012

Jubilee Festival… retrospection of a patriarch

By Tajudeen Sowole
Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya’s art exhibition titled Ore Idjubili (Jubilee Festival), currently showing at Nike Art Gallery, Lekki, Lagos, may not be the first of its kind. It brings to the fore periods in the career of a Nigerian artist, but the depth of retrospection shows an artist whose skill is not confined to a generation

ORGANISED as part of several activities marking Onobrakpeya’s 80th birthday, the exhibition, which is the artist’s first solo since 1992, sums up 50 years in the career of the artist. It would also broaden the academia and critics’ study of the master printmaker’s art.

More instructively, the show stresses the importance, and perhaps revered place of periods in every artist’s career. In contemporary context, periods offer guides for art historians, connoisseurs and critics to probe the philosophy driving an artist’s creativity, dissect the behavioural patterns and arrive at a descriptive terms for the artist.

Onobrakpeya’s periods in focus include Mythical Realism, 1957-1962; Sunshine, 1962-1967; The Mask and Cross, 1967-1978; Symbols of Royalty, 1978-1984; Sahelian Masquerades, 1984-1988; The Mask, 1990-1995; Social Unrest, 1995-1999; Installation (1995 till date).

However, Ore Indjubili refreshes memories on the concept behind some of his works as well as exposes seeming competitive edge, which the artist’s application of materials and technique has over philosophy. For example, his aggressive use of either found objects or native, but traditional religion-like materials shows how the philosophy powering the entire composite struggles for attention.

Indeed, materials and technique – taken for granted in art parlance – should drive the themes or philosophy, but for Onobrakpeya’s subsisting Installation Period, which started 17 years ago, norms should not be lionized. In fact, his installations such as Golden Jubilee Dance, first presented at the last Dak’Art and Hunters In The Rainbow Forest, though deodorized in shrine-like fragrant, would readily compete with material-craze concepts raging in the art of young artists of today.
Installation, Hunters in the Rainbow Forest by Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya.
Although mounted at one of the two extreme ends, Hunters In The Rainbow Forest still looms into view as one entered the gallery. What exactly has hunters got to do with a rainbow forest? And what is a rainbow forest? Shortly after being welcomed with a traditional bandstand provided by the gallery, the artist responded.
The concept, he disclosed, “is inspired by eghwere (hunters’ muse in Urhobo.)” He, however, cautions that hunting, analogically, goes beyond games or animal hunting context, “but could be applied in expanding your horizon in the search for excellence.”
Indeed, this much is depicted in the two central figures that wear headlamps, and in search of targets or games.
Whatever informed his choice of materials would not require much probe, at least for those who are familiar with the artist’s well-known homeboy-attitude to artistic renditions. He stated, “The materials are inspired by objects I have known through my youth and adult years.” And this led to the idea of a rainbow forest. Perhaps the colours suggest a toga for the forest, he explained, saying “while working, one of my assistants, Da Silva thought it looked like a rainbow; so it is.”

And that the other installation Golden Jubilee Dance also attracted quite a lot of visitors clearly showed that at 80, the artist is not left out in the installation race. In fact, shortly before it left for Dak’Art, the work led to a revisit of the much-debated faint line between some traditional art and African native religions. Onobrakpeya insisted that works in such categories are mere pieces of art, which could be “sanctified,” to remove any perceived fright.  

Represented now at Jubilee Festival, the first of the series, he disclosed, was shown during Nigeria’s 50th Anniversary celebration exhibition in Abuja in 2010. And the real concept, he argued, was about the challenges Nigeria is facing currently, which “I believe that there is so much to celebrate; hence the dance.”

Also stressing that Onobrakpeya is an artist of all seasons are the Mythical Realism and Social Unrest Period. Works representing the Social Unrest period were a combination of past and present, dwelling more on the philosophy rather than technique or style. From the stylised mass women Nudes and Protest, Protesting Youths, Suffering Masses, to Smoke From the Broken Pipe and a recently produced Travails of a Continent, figural and semi abstract impressionism still give quite a breathing space for the philosophy behind the work to germinate.

Two years ago, the Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi-initiative, Yusuf Grillo Pavilion showed a body of works titled Onobrakpeya: The Legacy in honour of the master artist at the second edition of the yearly fiesta in Ikorodu, a Lagos suburb. That was the closest to a solo exhibition after his last Bruce Onobrakpeya – A Retrospective said to have been organised by the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) in 1992, to mark his 60th birthday. However, at his Harmattan Workshop complex in Agbarha-Otor, Delta State, the largest concentration of his works were seen on permanent display during a visit last year. Aside the curatorial inputs of Nike Okundaye, Sam Ovraiti and Bode Olaniran as well as the white walls/floor of the Nike Art Gallery, the Jubilee Festival show appears like a lift from the Agbarha-Otor Gallery displays.

Were some of the works moved to Lagos for this show? “Not at all; nearly all the 70 pieces here are produced for the exhibition,” one of the artist’s sons Mudiare Onobrakpeya, said. “They have never been seen in public before.”

In the brochure of the exhibition, an excerpt from a 1972 piece written by Jean Kennedy, describes Onobrakpeya as an artist whose “outward reserve is misleading. It conceals a resolute intent and an impressive record as a creative artist.”

Among visitors to the show were Dr. Pat Oyelola, U.S.-based Prof Perkins Foss, Mr. Sammy Olagbaju, Dr. Peju Layiwola, Raqib Bashorun and Jess Castellote.

Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya and Prof Pat Oyelola during the opening of the exhibition in Lagos.

While commending Nike Okundaye for giving the space, Oyelola noted that “Onobrakpeya is laying a strong foundation for the future generations of Nigerian artists. “

Among supporters of the exhibition are Visual Arts Society of Nigeria (VASON) and Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF).

Onobrakpeya had his first solo show in 1959 at Ugheli, in the present day Delta State.

In 1998 he started the yearly Harmattan Workshop at Agbarha-Otor, which runs till date attracting visitors within and outside Nigeria.

He is a recipient of Pope John Paul II award for painting the life of Saint Paul; Fellow of SNA in 2006; Fellow of Asele Institute award; Fulbright Exchange Scholar award; honourary D. Litt. from the University of Ibadan (UI) in 1989.

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