Sunday 2 June 2019

In 60 years, Onobrakpeya's art blossoms as metaphor for 'Where the Elephant Has Passed By'

Eghrighri (Rainbow), plastograph, 89 x 118 cm, 1985, by Bruce Onobrakpeya,

 Viewing the oeuvre, in printmaking, of octogenarian Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya at just one spot is no doubt a rare and amazing experience. A legend in printmaking, Onobrakpeya, 87, is currently celebrating 60 years of studio practice.

The artist's work in six decades of practice covers other medium such as painting, sculpture and installation, but in printmaking lies his legendary signature. To cover Onobrakpeya’s retrospect as much as possible, curator Sandra Mbanefo Obiago has assembled prints of the artist, dated from his Nigerian College of Art Science and Technology (NCAST), Zaria days till recently.

Currently showing as Eni! You Can Always Tell Where the Elephant Has Passed By, till July, 2019 at The Wheatbaker Hotel, Ikoyi, Lagos, the exhibition, according to Obiago, is sectionalised into three themes. Apart from exhibitions organised to mark the artist’s six decades studio practice,  a “special reception and Artist Talk” are scheduled for June. Another important exhibition of Onobrakpeya’s installations and sculptures is currently on at Freedom Park in Lagos, while a third show is planned for Agbarha-Otor, Delta State in August.

Showing Onobrakpeya's landmark retrospective such as this in a non-art gallery space would have raised an eyebrow, but there is something else at stake. The Wheatbaker, having proven its consistence as art destination hotel in the past eight years of hosting big exhibitions seemed to have passed the integrity test to exhibit the on going Onobrakpeya retrospective show. 

While professionalism context dates the printmaking of Onobrakpeya from his years at NCAST, another record, however revealed that the artist, sub-consciously started printmaking as early as elementary school period. This much, Onobrakpeya disclosed when he celebrated his 80th anniversary in 2012. In an interview published in The Guardian, he explained how his printmaking interest started at primary school in Eweka Memorial, Iyaro, Benin, (defunct Mid-western Region) in 1941-43. “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," Onobrakpeya told a team of writers from the newspaper. "What I did 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 process of creating art was no doubt in the family of printmaking. But the young artist who would be a renowned printmaker later in life recalled: “I never knew it was an art or printmaking.”

And 76 six years after that subconscious experience, the master printmaker is sharing stunning works that should be preserved for museum collection.

Onobrakpeya’s background and upbringing in native Urhobo values was perhaps boosted by the art philosophy of his Zaria Society group of young art students. The students who were later christened ‘Zaria Rebels’, based on rejection of taking western art teaching hook line and sinker, built their native thoughts on what they termed ‘natural synthesis.’ In both thematic and aesthetic context, Onobrakpeya’s work leans heavily on native narration via visual culture.
Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya.

In building his concept on the pedestal of native Urhobo theme, the artist, sometimes, links similarities among cultures of other tribes. For example, the title of his current show Eni! You Can Always Tell Where the Elephant Has Passed By has similarity in meaning to the Yoruba adage: Ajanaku koja mo ri nkan firi (The passing by of an elephant is more than a brief sight).  For his choice of Eni… (elephant) as a visual narrative, Onobrakpeya expanded the native meaning: “wherever the elephant matches on, the footprint creates a depth from which other animals drink.”

Whatever lovers of painting and drawing derive in the texture of the canvas is not in anyway missing in the printmaking work of Onobrakpeya. One of such pieces with rich texture in the exhibition is 'Eghrighri (Rainbow), plastograph piece of 89 x 118 cm and dated 1985. Radiating impressionism aura, the piece is enriched with many motifs that broadens the artist’s resplendence rendition of rainbow. Culturally, 'Eghrighri explains the diversity of myths woven around the rainbow. For Onobrakpeya, his Urhobo culture myth of a man who goes to hit the rainbow with cutlass appears to have inspired the work, but, in general and broader terms, rainbow, he said, represents opportunity for people through adventures.

Celebrating monochromatic tone is a sea of heads titled ‘Chibok Girls’ and ‘Aro Osomo’ (Tribute to Fathers). In plastograph, and dated 1974, ‘Aro Osomo’ is populated with signs and motifs, as the central figure leaves no one in doubt of the burden that most fathers carry to keep the home together.

At 87 with six decades of studio practice, Onobrakpeya also recalled how art was never seen as a source of economic sustenance when he started as a young artist. “60 years is just like yesterday when I started as an artist,” Onobrakpeya told select preview guests ahead of Eni’s opening. “I had no idea of what the future looked like then as I didn't know that art has any future to sustain people like us.”

Artists of Onobrakpeya’s generation of Nigerian modernists fete their art in proudly African identity.  But in contemporary behaviourial patterns of most artists, the African identity is being misunderstood as a disadvantage to compete on global space. “There is no need to deny African art,” Onobrakpeya argued and suggested: “you can call it post-Africanism if you like.”

While the visual and literary works of creative professionals like Onobrakpeya, Uche Okeke, Ben Enwonwu, Yusuf Grillo, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, among others reflect the pre and post independence challenges of Nigeria’s political space, contemporary artists appear not as loud on the current issues confronting the Nigerian nation. Perhaps, the challenge and approach of the today’s visual and literary professionals differs, Onobrakpeya said. He recalled how the visual artists then, for example, “used the nationalism spirit and independent struggle,” to enrich their art contents.  “We (Zaria Art Society) also look back then at things that we thought was good from our native environment and not just about foreign all the time.”  He however insisted that “the artists today are not exactly out of touch,” noting that “every generation has their contents” and perhaps the nationalism “spirit is still continuing till date.”
'Aro Osomo’ (Tribute to Fathers), plastograph, 87.5 x 69 cm,  1974.. by Bruce Onobrakpeya.

Whoever is familiar with Onobrakpeya’s work – across medium – must have seen one of his popular themes, 'Nude and Protest' in painting. The theme, again features in the current exhibition, but as a print. “It reflects the Urhobo culture of protest,” he said, but also noted that nudity as weapon for women protests cuts across African cultures and time, even beyond the continent. “Apart from the past, women have also used protest in recent times such as against pollution in Niger Delta and when a youth was killed by police recently.”

Among other works in the exhibition are those that treat African curiosity about science as seen in a piece titled ‘Luna Myth’; and one about exodus, specifically on Nigeria-Ghana trajectory, which the curator noted that the exodus theme also relates to today's refugee issue across the world.
Supported by Louis Guntrum Wines, Eni…, according to Mbanefo Obiago is the fourth since 2013, that SMO Contemporary has been showing Onobrakpeya’s works. She described some of the exhibits as  “rare prints including those from his NCAST days,” arguing that in the artist’s work, “there is a lesson in our history and culture.” Significantly, Eni… also marks 60 years after Onobrakpeya’s debut solo exhibition in Ughelli, 1959, as a student from the NCAST, Zaria.

For The Wheatbaker, the exhibition came as a privilege. “We are extremely proud to host this internationally significant exhibition of Prof Onobrakpeya’s prints, “ said Mosun Ogunbanjo, Director of the Wheatbaker. “It is important to us that both our international and local guests enjoy some of the best art Nigeria has to offer, as we confirm commitment to using our platform to celebrate the best creativity of master artists as well as emerging talents.”

Onobrakpeya is a recipient of many awards just as his works have  been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, in 1990; the Tate Modern in London, U.K; the National Museum of African Art of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; the Malmö Konsthall in Malmö, Sweden; and the National Gallery of Modern Art, Lagos, among other spaces.
 - Tajudeen Sowole.

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