Onobrakpeya, imprints of living legend
By Prisca Sam-Duru
By August 30, 2013, Nigeria’s living Legend and foremost artist, Professor Bruce Onabrakpeya would turn 81 and from all indication, Nigerians and indeed, the entire world are yet to witness more amazing works from the grand artist as he seems poised to do greater exploits.
Undoubtedly Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya needs no introduction in Africa’s artscape be it in Nigeria or across the globe because his career in the arts which spans several decades, has in no small way, positively affected the lives of so many people and also impacted positively on the image of the country.
This icon is perhaps, Nigeria’s most documented artist, who has spent all his life propagating his passion for arts and at the same time, mentoring a good number of individuals in the field that was once regarded as a career for failures in the society.
Beginning from 1953 when he was hired as an art teacher at the Western Boys High School, till date, Prof. Onobrakpeya has continued to increase the tempo of his art. He received training in the Western tradition of representational art, and at the same time, experimented with forms in relation to Nigerian folklore, myths and legends.
And as is evident today, much of his works which use stylistic elements and compositions which are products of traditional African sculpture and decorative arts, have been maintained but perfected with each collection.
His admission in 1957 into the then Nigerian Arts College of Technology now Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, was indeed a stepping stone to greatness for the master printmaker as he met people who had the kind of urge and craving to become artists like he had.
As opportunities presented themselves, he began with exhibition of his works in Nigeria and Germany which led to receiving an award from the old Bendel State. He later began contributing to decorations in town square and by doing things that show that arts is actually there to continue to give the country a new and better name in the world.
For the master artist, his love for art and knowledge that art is a vital tool through which one could contribute to the progress of the nation have remained a driving force. Describing his efforts to enroll many students into visual arts, he said, “…Particularly as a teacher, I infected the students with so much enthusiasm in arts”.
While many delve into business or chose careers mostly to make it big, Prof. Onobrakpeya remains an exception. He persevered in his chosen career until arts became a money spinner due to the emerging auction tradition.
Going back memory lane, he recounted how bad the journey to stardom started: “… as an artist, we live from day to day. We live from hand to mouth. We don’t have the nerve of putting money away in the bank and letting it grow up to become something that gives you joy. So, money is not the essential thing to the artist. The most essential thing to the artist is that you are able to create, you have new innovations, and you are able to talk about the society as it affects the people within.”
Continuing he added , “‘but a lot of money passes through my hands. Money that passes through my hands is put back into the arts, put back into education. I have a Foundation, called the Harmattan Workshop, which is done several times in the year.
The money goes into building the infrastructure for that, buying materials to train the younger ones or even the older ones who are interested to learn and to be able to take something back to teach in the universities, employing younger artists in form of apprentice, to learn from me, trying to exhibit these younger ones and take them to places, like Dakar, Senegal, for exposure”.
“ Sometimes, I even sponsor their exhibitions. By the time you look at it, I can be classified as a very wealthy person because of the large amount of money that enters my hand and because of what I do with that money”.
Interestingly, Onobrakpeya’s immense contributions to the development of Nigerian art have not gone unnoticed. For instance, in 2010, he became the second recipient of the government’s Creativity Award, trailing behind Nigeria’s literary icon, Prof. Chinua Achebe. And during his 80th birthday last year, a lot of events were organized in his honour both within and outside the country, example of which was the show held in New York where his recent works were showcased at the upscale Skoto Gallery.
Onobrakpeya’s kind of art is experimental in which he tries to fuse many ideas together in order to get something that is new. According to him, “I fuse the old and the new to project the future. My art belongs to the synthesis group which is the name given to the Zaria Art Society group”.