over half a century, Bruce Onobrakpeya , an octogenarian and a master of contemporary arts in Africa, has
remained bonded in love with his paint
and brush and his crusade for the advancement of the Urhobo culture.
years, among many latest works. His collections which are well documented and archived
reflect the wealth of experience of a veteran artist who has made iconic
statements worthy of note.
remain remarkable through training programmes for young artists who come for
Industrial attachment. His art platform for telling some of Africa’s history
earned him the ‘Living Art Treasure’ award from the Federal Government of Nigeria
in corporation with UNESCO, and conferment of the honorary award of MFR.
part of events marking Nigeria’s 50th Independence anniversary.
Onobrakpeya felt highly honoured because 1999 was the last time that award was
given to recognise Chinua Achebe.
as the foremost printmaker, Onobrakpeya concentrated on printmaking art between
1964 and 1967. He has used his works of art as medium for projecting and
preserving his native Urhobo culture, which was once rumoured to be among
minority group cultures in Africa likely to face extinction.
no fears about cultural extinction of the Urhobos particularly, Onobrakpeya
believes that the philosophy of the Urhobos and those of other cultures he captures
in his works would endure the ages to come, bearing in mind the publicity given
the annual ‘Harmattan Workshop’ that
pools resources from around the world.
making his mark in cultural affairs, Onobrakpeya delved into folklore which
records the way of life of his people. He said, “ I realized that if people
have been in existence for long, there must be some thinking and belief in
them, some hope in them that keeps them
going. These are brought out and translated in various ways, in the names they
give to their children and in their thought pattern.”
‘ibiebe’ that is like letters , though
‘ebe’ means leaves in Urhobo. He
developed some ideograms that captured the concept, the Urhobo thinking, as a
way of conserving the culture of the Urhobo
people ,and moved on to
other ethnic groups. He said, “They are mainly oral, but I
now give body to them through painting, drawing so that people can see them,
and that keeps the concept alive and projected towards the future.”
up, he was educated at different times in Ughelli, Sapele and Benin. Before
going to the Nigerian College of Arts , Science and Technology in Zaria, he
worked briefly as a teacher. In school,
he studied painting and got a special interest in printmaking which is an
aspect of painting.
recalled how the art workshops organized by a renowned artist helped to
establish his guts in printmaking. “ During my last year in school, I
would usually come all the way to Ibadan
to attend workshops by Uli Bier who brought resource persons from abroad to
handle these workshops. There, I realized that printmaking was my calling which
I should have done in college. I missed that out due to peer pressure.”
continued teaching for another 17 years at St. Gregory’s College, Ikoyi after
his graduate and post-graduate programme.
But while teaching, he had the vision of developing himself through
various workshops that gave him the opportunity to travel abroad for better
exposure. While abroad ,he became an artist-in-residence and earned himself a
similar position at the University of Ibadan where he was also made an
himself than continue in the employment of another. He started by doing some sort of freelancing
painting, and he had several exhibitions. But by 1998, he created the
‘Harmattan Workshop’ with the Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation to support it. Since
then the Foundation has been taking students, art professionals and those who
just appreciate the arts to Agbarha-Otor where art skills are taught.
for some time now, Onobrakpeya shifted attention more to what is called
Installation, which has the background of shrines. In this case however,
nothing fetish is done, it is only bringing together of materials from their
different areas to create some kind of beauty for artistic purposes.
Onobrakpeya, he said he has used the urhobo culture as a launching pad to
showcase the everyday lifestyle of the people. He has also not limited himself
to just one culture, as he has done works to reflect the cultures of the
Yorubas, the Igbos and those of the North which he understood by reason of his
being there for five years.
by the large followership he enjoys, Onobrakpeya is more concerned about what
he is doing than the recognition, even though there just may have been some
recognition. He said, “The encouragement has been that one or two persons have
shown recognition and given support at some time. Back home at Agbarha-Otor,
the people have shown so much appreciation after they came to understand the
whole idea about the Harmattan Workshop.”
at the kind of works of arts that are done by young artists, he sees a strong
reflection of the environment and life around them. He says, “They paint in
simple terms what they see as they grow, but as they get older, they just may
begin to get complicated in their expressions. For somebody like me, my works
appear complex because of the period through which I grew up, the things I saw
and the ones that I experienced.”