One of Africa’s biggest art figures, Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya, unravels his journey so far and his love for the art and creativity as well as what he should be remembered for.
For over four decades, he has been an active player in the nation’s art sector. A printmaker, painter and sculptor, Bruce Onobrakpeya is one of Africa’s best known and most highly respected artist. He has been described as the ‘living legend’ responsible for the renaissance in contemporary art in Nigeria.
Born in Agbarha-Otor, Delta State, in 1932, Onobrakpeya stamped his name on the Nigerian art industry in the early 1960s, during his studies at the Nigerian College of Science, Art and Technology, Zaria, where he became a member of the ‘Zaria Rebels’, who changed the course of art in Nigeria towards a distinctly African aesthetics with three other colleagues, Demas Nwoko, Yusuf Grillo and the late Uche Okeke.
With a career spanning four decades and many notable exhibitions, a visit to the Lagos home and studio of the veteran artist shows a man who is in love with the art practice that he still paints, sculpts and executes commissioned works. The veteran artist still works like a young studio artist, who is eager to make a mark, although, Onobrakpeya had long gained local and international reckoning and an institutional status in the minds of many Nigerian art practitioners, a feat, he recalled, did not come easy.
Onobrakpeya began his journey with arts, especially, visual arts, way back in Agbarha-Otor, where he developed an undying interest in visual arts and other culture-related subjects.
“I owe everything to God, who endows one with talent and the opportunities to develop them”, the octogenarian artist said, while explaining why he uses his works to promote Nigeria and Africa’s rich cultural heritage. The veteran, who will clock 84 years on August 30, 2016, said that an artist should be the society’s watchdog. He should not only use his work to mirror the society and preserve history, but he should also ensure that his work reflects the history and culture of a particular people.
Citing what inspires his arts, Onobrakpeya said: “It is a continuous struggle to give expression to life as I go through it. Expression of small beautiful things and ideas which we encounter everyday. It is a tough job translating this into tangible and meaningful forms. But, because the activity is both work and play, the task becomes easy.’’
Fondly called ‘Baba Bruce’ by his admirers and those he had mentored, Onobrakpeya recalled that the journey has never been all bird of roses but he is always motivated by various commendation he gets from public who admires his arts, To Onobrakpeya, the world is art and art is the world. This simple philosophy drives him, even in the face of challenges.
One of the projects which the veteran artist had propped over the years is his annual Harmattan Workshop, usually organised every year by his Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation (BOF). It is a creative platform which exposes artists to various forms of creativity. It has equally attracted artists from different parts of the world. The event, which also attracts journalists every year, holds in his Agbarha-Otor home town in Delta State.
“I thank God for giving me this vision. The Harmathan Workshop is our informal educational set-up which works as a retreat where artists meet, think, work, experiment and share ideas. It is designed to develop and sustain creative endeavours in the arts, particularly, the visual arts”, he said.
The veteran said that he had equally travelled to many parts of the world, where he compared what others are doing with creativity in Nigeria. Hence, he does not believe that the country is doing badly with its visual arts scene. This is even as many young artists are emerging and putting the name of the country on the global art market.
Onobrakpeya, who disclosed that he relaxes by reading, watching television and attending art exhibitions, said the industry is capable of creating more jobs than oil, if the government pays more attention to the industry.
The road had been long for Onobrakpeya, but the journey has been adventurous and fruitful. With the benefit of hindsight, he said he has nothing to regret being an artist. According to him, some of the greatest challenges he had faced include getting people to see in his art the idea of resource in our past as a way of moving forward to the future; funding for sustaining the yearly Harmattan Workshop and lack of government policies to promote the art industry.
“What I will like to be remembered for is my passion for life as a whole and creativity. Also as a leader and one willing to share his ideas with people’’, he said.
Onobrakpeya is not only known for provocative imagery but for innovative techniques as well. He uses a wide range of printmaking techniques including those he pioneered.