Monday, May 4, 2015

Bruce Onobrakpeya – Erudite Nigerian Artist, Scholar and Print-Maker of Many Colours

He is undoubtedly Nigeria's best-documented artist; Bruce Onobrakpeya needs very little introduction in art circles both within and outside of the country. He is indeed a living legend; Bruce Onobrakpeya has devoted his life to his work, and is today regarded in some quarters as the main custodian of Urhobo folklore and culture. He never forgets his roots; he is unapologetically attached to the history, art and culture of the Urhobo people of South-South Nigeria. He tells their rich history and portrays unendingly the colourful cultures of his people in his writings, paintings and of course his major medium of expression – print-making

Bruce Onobrakpeya

Bruce Onobrakpeya is a founding member of the Zaria rebels; they were actually a group of young artists who formed the nucleus of the art department or the Zaria (art) School when the current Ahmadu Bello University was known as the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (NCAST). He is of course also a shining light among the first generation of academically trained artists who were responsible for the renaissance in Nigeria’s contemporary art.

 He was in the vanguard of the early league with contemporaries such as Ben Enwonwu, Yusuf Grillo, Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko, etc. In the course of his academic and studio exploits, Onobrakpeya had pitched his tent with, and triumphed through his vision from St. Gregory's College, Lagos, where he headed the fine art department - teaching, raising and mentoring so many disciples including one of his popular protégés – David Dale, also an accomplished print-maker. 

After a memorable stint in the school which spanned a period of about thirteen years, he retired fully into his studio – Ovuomaroro Studios located in Mushin, a suburb of Lagos. Since then he has continued working assiduously extending his practice and mentoring a host of adherents through apprenticeship, extensive research, guest lecturing and writing. Through his various workshops and symposia, Bruce Onobrakpeya has influenced generations of young artists, and he is today respected and acknowledged as one of the leading print-makers in the world. 

Bruce Onobrakpeya, a Nigerian Urhobo printmaker, painter and sculptor, belongs to the first generation of contemporary artists having graduated from the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (NCAST) presently known as Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. Onobrakpeya's training was based on what is popularly described as the Western illusionistic tradition of representational art. However, many of his artworks do not reflect his training in Western aesthetics. Instead, they portray stylistic elements and compositions that mirror traditional African figural sculpture and decorative arts especially drawing inferences and inspirations from his native Urhobo cultural background.

Plastocast relief work by Onobrakpeya

In 1998, Bruce Onobrakpeya pioneered and established an artistic outfit of a unique nature which holds an annual creative feast of visual artists of various backgrounds, training and age brackets in his hometown of Agbarha-Otor. In this annual convergence, artists are challenged with disciplines and tools that are not their familiar terrains with the aim of establishing a cross fertilisation of ideas and techniques as well as the encouragement of modern processes. The popular creative hideaway which is popularly called the Harmattan workshop (studios) is within a location built by the renowned print-maker and it comes with in-built chalets.

 The Harmattan Workshop studios effectively took off, and since then it has continued to host myriad of artists both Nigerian and international professionals, to a communion which since then has somewhat become a regular annual event. Thus the Harmattan Workshops in addition to his numerous body of works including worldwide collection of paintings, print-making, illustrations and publications, will forever remain a landmark legacy for the present generation of artists, scholars and historians, as well as those of many generations to come. 

And so the Harmattan Workshop and Onobrakpeya’s works have continued to draw artists, researchers and curious minds from all parts of Nigeria and abroad. Bruce Onobrakpeya is involved with art works and projects that show concern for the environment thus also excelling himself as an earth campaigner through the ages. Foremost among his works that tilt towards this direction is the well known series of plastocast relief works (a style he developed) called the Sahelian Masquerades.  This chapter of his works in print-making which was soon to go on an international travelling exhibition more than two decades ago saw the artist and his works touring Europe, America and Southern Africa. Thus Bruce Onobrakpeya has travelled and exhibited extensively in Nigeria and abroad.

Among art scholars however, Onobrakpeya’s plastocast relief works which the master himself refers to as print-making, some arguments had arisen in trying to re-define or classify these works. And as such wouldn’t you for instance agree that these works of plastocast reliefs are just another form of low relief sculptures? Also, can Bruce Onobrakpeya be rightly referred to as a painter as well? Sometimes I see the great master as a mixed media artist; you may want to agree or disagree. Kindly leave your opinions and questions in the comment box below.

By Morgan Nwanguma

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