After extensive celebration and exhibition in Nigeria of the work of acclaimed artist Bruce Onobrakpeya marking his 80th birthday and prolific career, Jewels of Nomadic Images, a solo show at the Sokoto Gallery in Manhattan, provided a fresh look at the artist’s broad talent. Amber Croyle Ekong reports
Opening night provided is own spectacle as major shows launched on the same evening. Also on West 20th Street, New York based photographer and multimedia artist Hank Willis Thomas opened to large crowds, while in the same building musician Graham Nash (of the American band, Crosby, Stills, and Nash) showed his visual work for the first time. Within this context of hype and excitement, Onobrakpeya’s work stood confident and assured without relying on the pretext of reputation or celebrity.
Compared to his most recent shows at the National Museum and Nike Gallery in Lagos, which featured a large scale retrospective of Onobrakpeya’s work, the presentation at Skoto Gallery offers a more edited view, distilling the work down to the artist’s essence. Rather than impressing through quantity, the spare selection allows each piece to make its own commentary and shine in a singular boldness that suggests an unseen breadth.
For the New York audience, such a presentation is key as many are not yet familiar with Bruce Onobrakpeya, let alone contemporary African art in general terms. In this case, it is important to not underestimate the role of the gallery as an expert in showing to its own audience. Skoto Aghahowa and Alix du Serech, owners of Skoto Gallery, celebrated the gallery’s 20th anniversary earlier this year, marking an extensive commitment to exposing the New York audience to a vast catalogue of African contemporary art. Such a proposition can present a challenging curatorial project, especially with an artist like Onobrakpeya, who is incredibly prolific and highly respected. “The accomplished artist, just like any other professional outside their homeland will face certain challenges,” remarked Aghahowa, and in the case of the artist, the work “must strive to reach a sense of universality” providing space for connection for those not familiar with its visual or cultural context.
With this understanding on the part of the gallery and the strength of Onobrakpeya’s work, Jewels of Nomadic Images creates an alluring and bold statement. The idea of the traveller extends through all of the pieces in the show, which includes a group of twelve serigraph prints from Onobrakpeya’s Sunshine Period in the early 1960’s that have been re-imagined, resized, and repositioned in a fresh light. In Jewel I – IV, large scale totem hangings exalt the conversation between time, space and memory, presenting collages of beads and recycled remains of computer parts, at one time imported to Nigeria, and now exported, leaving meaning transformed through the context of commemorative plates that specify specific eras of Nigerian history.
Most striking is the interplay between large scale works, The Last Supper, a plastocast triptych in a muted taupe and ]Aro Oguan III, a contemporary interpretation of an Urhobo shrine. Combining a monotone pallet with incredible sculptural detail, The Last Supper underscores the drama and emotion of the final days in the life of Christ, including the Stations of the Cross, while transcending the story by creating unique pictorial movement through emphasis on pattern and texture. In Aro Oguan III, tall plastic piping covered in multi-coloured, multi-patterned, and multi-textured fabrics provides verticality and a framing to the shrine, which offers a fringed plastocast hanging above translucent, figurative staffs all resting on top of a moulded plate. The installation highlights the form and power of Ibiebe, the visual alphabet of Urhobo culture created by Onobrakpeya. As the disparate pieces face each other across the space of Skoto Gallery, they achieve a respectful and harmonious co-existence rather than the antagonism that one might expect. Again, a sense of the nomadic in its fluidity is achieved across the context of history; specifically as the alternative possibility of interchange is proposed where what often exists is a chasm of binary and opposition in religious thought.
Like the best of contemporary art, Bruce Onobrakpeya’s work persists with rich meaning embracing a multiplicity in time and space. For those who do know Onobrakpeya as a print maker, many were surprised to learn of his multimedia and installation pieces and also impressed by the continued development in his work at such a mature stage in his career. As such, Skoto Gallery has produced a successful show that not only displays the diversity of Onobrakpeya’s contribution, but also opens new windows for American viewers into the richness of African contemporary art.
Jewels of Nomadic Images is on view now through December 1 at WSkoto Gallery, 529 W 20th Street, New York. www.skotogallery.com
• Amber Croyle Ekong writes from New York.