…says Nigerian artists’ works addressing Nigeria’s problems
By Osa Amadi, Arts Editor
Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya is described as a “Nigerian Living National Treasure who is not only the grandfather of modern Nigerian art, but also widely regarded as the Pride of all Nigerians”.
Onobrakpeya specializes in printmaking, painting and sculpturing. He has exhibited at the Tate Modern in London, the National Museum of African Art of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and the Malmö Konsthall in Malmö, Sweden.
Vanguard cornered the 87-year-old Agbarha-Otor, Delta State-born master artist recently at Alexis Galleries, Victoria Island Lagos, during the press preview of Harmattan Workshop Exhibition which he chairs and extracted this brief chat from him. It is about factors that determine the values of artworks. Enjoy the chat:
At Vanguard, we are always probing the elusive factors that determine the value of artworks; why would a paint splashed on a piece of cloth called canvas sell for hundreds of millions of dollars, for instance?
A lot of things account for the value of a particular artwork. The artist is in a society. What he feels is the same thing that other people feel. But like a poet, he is able to articulate it. So, the idea that an artist brings forward at a particular time; the strength of it, the beauty of it, are what make for the value of that work.
Also, if an artwork is created (for an audience) and the audience perceives that work as a perfect expression of something they themselves wanted to express but were not able to express, then, that also will influence the value of that work.
The philosophy behind a particular artwork also adds to the value of the artwork. Age is also another factor which determines the value of artworks. The dexterity of the artist is also there.
Having said all these, we find that the value of a particular artwork actually relies on what the people think. If people think that a particular artwork is really great, that it means something to them, then it does.
Rarity is another determiner of value of an artwork. Take Monalisa, for example; we were told that there was only one Monalisa painted, but now we hear there are three. Anyway, whether there is only one, three, four or five, Monalisa is a rare work. So, that in itself adds value to the work. And because the person who did the work is no more, and he was famous, that makes Monalisa one of the most expensive artworks in the world.
Other things that make for the price of an artwork is super price. When copies of the work of an artist begin to show up, you should know that that artist has arrived, and that the value of the work is already there. Super price attracts fakes. Fakes, copies, theft, etc., all determine the value of an artwork.
Should fame also be part of those factors? An ordinary splash of paint on canvas by Bruce Onobrakpeya could sell for millions of dollars while the most beautiful painting by a less-famous artist would be struggling to bring in a few hundred thousands of naira.
You are right. That also determines the value of artworks. Original thought, original feelings and ideas and the way the person is able to express the philosophy of his age counts also.
You have also spoken about message. In the music sector of the arts, we have activists who use their music to address the social and political problems of their societies, even though we hardly see them any longer these days; do you think that Nigerian visual artists are using their artworks to fight the social and political problems facing us presently in Nigeria?
Yes; it is going on.
Well, it may be going on, but are we seeing enough of it?
They may not be doing enough, but it is going on. If you look at the series of my artwork which I call “The Totems of the Delta”, they are commenting on the ills of the society; about the environmental degradation of the Delta region coming from oil explorations.
When one of my works was shown in Abuja, accompanied with a poem, an ‘oyibo’ curator (a white person) was told to remove that artwork from that exhibition in Abuja. That meant it touched the government.
So those things are going on. You see, we have a very big country and its not possible to know everything the artists are doing. What is lacking now, however, is robust art critique in the media. The other day, I asked an art journalist from one of the national newspapers why he does not comment that this work is very good, or that this one is very bad, etc. He said well, they used to do it but they don’t comment like that anymore.
So, the media also has a role to play. It is your duty to look at artworks and then bring out in writing those things that strike you about them, so that people who are reading you will be able to say, ‘oh, this is talking abut this. Let us learn from it’. So, the newspapers, the media has a role to play in that regard.