A series of events heralding the iconic Bruce Onobrakpeya’s 80th birthday will enliven the art scene. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
“Sir, do you feel 70?” The question was hurled at the grey-haired elderly artist by one of the art journalists sitting in the room. Adorning this room, which might as well have been a hall, was a hodgepodge of paintings, etchings and 3D pieces.
But the gaggle of journalists, converged here, paid scant attention to these potential masterpiece offerings. Their eyes were instead riveted on the master artist, who sat at one end of the room: the venerable Bruce Onobrakpeya. The former “Zaria Rebel” was about to attain the biblical landmark age of three scores and ten years.
The question expectedly elicited a murmur of hilarity, which rippled through the gaggle of art journalists. Onobrakpeya rose to his feet to answer the question. No, he had replied. He did not feel any different. Nor would his creative fount dry up on that account.
This was about a decade ago. Meanwhile, the iconic artist plods on towards his 80th year. A firm believer in the Supreme Being, he acknowledges that it is by His grace that he would be attaining this landmark age on Thursday (August 30). Granted many more years, he still believed that his artistic mission would be far from being accomplished. Indeed, his creative mills wouldn’t grind to a halt on that account. In any case, he had never been known to have slowed down at any point in his entire artistic career.
Déjà vu? That is the vintage Onobrakpeya! Few of his devotees would be surprised if he stomps his way past the 90s on the way to his 100th year. There are good reasons to be that optimistic. He had so far aged gracefully and seems to grow more and more passionate about his artistic vocation. While he lived through his 70’s, he was just as gung-ho about the appropriation of discarded compact discs and electronic parts (among other found objects) as any globalist-minded artist. His paintings, etchings, prints and installations have since continued to draw from unconventional new vocabularies and evolve into more engaging forms.
Then, there was his annual Harmattan Workshop retreat in the Delta State town of Agbarha-Otor. Created more than a decade ago, it has remained one of the most enduring visual arts events in the sub-Saharan Africa. It has so far drawn over 3000 participants from not just all over Nigeria but also from the US, France, Belgium, Ghana, Togo and Benin.
Onobrakpeya is arguably the most documented artist in the contemporary Nigerian art scene, who has held exhibitions several prestigious galleries across the globe. His works have remained must-haves for collectors both within and outside Nigeria. His illustrations in several Nigeria’s novels and novellas have helped to engrave his art in the consciousness of many Nigerians.
Among these literary works are Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, Cyprian Ekwensi’s An African Night’s Entertainment and Juju Rock, Nkem Nwankwo’s Tales out of School, Kola Onadipe’s Sugar Girl and Magic Land of the Shadows, Rosemary Uwemedimo’s Akpan and the Smugglers, Oladele Taiwo’s The Hunter and the Hen, Barbara Haeger’s Africa: On Her Schedule is Written a Change, Wole Soyinka’s and D. O. Fagunwa’s A Forest of a Thousand Demons, Clementine Deliss’s Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa and Onuora Nzekwu’s and Michael Crowder’s Eze Goes to School.
He has executed several commissioned works for not only renowned collectors but also for ex-presidents like the late Saddam Hussein of Iraq.
A series of events have so far heralded his birthday this year. The first was this year’s edition of the Harmattan Workshop in Agbarha-Otor held in February. Then, there was a group exhibition in Dakar (Senegal) from May 10 to 24, as part of the Dakar Biennale offs. Also, another retreat organised by the Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation (BOF) held from August 5 to 18 in Agbarha-Otor.
For the actual celebrations, a series of events have been scheduled to hold from late August to late November in different locations both within and outside Nigeria. The festivities flagged off yesterday with a retrospective art exhibition (jointly curated by Nike Okundaye, Sam Ovraiti and Bode Olaniran) at the Nike Art Gallery along the Lekki Expressway in Lagos. The retrospective, titled Fifty Years of Bruce Onobrakpeya: Window into His Art, is on until Thursday, August 30 and features the artist’s selected works from 1957 till date. It is also segmented into periods of his career like Mythical Realism (1957 – 1962), Sunshine Period (1962 -1967), The Mask and the Cross (1967 -1978), Symbols of Royalty (1978 -1984), The Sahelian Masquerades (1984 -1988), The Mask Series (1990 -1995), Social Unrest (1995 – 1999) and his installations (dated from 1999 till date).
An art “stampede” – holding today – as well as a lecture and a seminar on Tuesday, August 28 will precede a thanksgiving service at the All Saints’ Church in Yaba, Lagos on September from 10 am. The worship session will be followed by a reception at the V. Ginis Centre, Opposite the WAEC Building in Yaba.
Move over to Northern Ireland. Onobrakpeya will deliver the keynote address at the SMA-sponsored Rev. Father Kevin Caroll Conference of African Christian Art at the Dromantine Conference Centre from October 5 to 8, which will have the likes of John Picton of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies in attendance. This is in recognition of the artist’s advocacy for the use of African art in churches. Perhaps, as a tribute to the late Irish priest, after whom the conference centre was named, there will be a presentation of Onobrakpeya’s illustrations, prints and materials which are connected with the former’s pioneering work on Christian art.
In the US, another exhibition holds at the New York-based Skoto Gallery from October 18 to November 24. It will feature serigraphs from the Onobrakpeya’s “Sunshine Period”. After the exhibition’s opening, the Washington DC-based National Museum of African Art will hold a reception in the artist’s honour.
Back to Nigeria, there will be another retrospective at the University of Ibadan’s Institute of African Studies in November. This exhibition will be complemented by the launch of the book, Mask of Flaming Arrows (edited by Dele Jegede) which is a well-illustrated 446-page collection of scholarly essays on the artist from 1967 till date.
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WHISPERS FROM THE SAHARA @ DIDI
Didi Museum will on Wednesday August 29 hold a special auction of 15 photographs of the Sahara Desert taken by the ace photographer Kelechi Amadi-Obi. The event, which takes place at its premises along Akin Adesola Street, Victoria Island, Lagos, starts by 6 pm.
The 15 photographs to be auctioned were carefully selected from over 5,000 shots by Amadi-Obi during the third expedition across the Sahara by Dr. Newton Jibunoh, who led a new team of Desert Warriors.
The photographs had been on a month-long exhibition at Didi Museum, and the auction marks the clincher to an epoch-making event. The pictures capture the ravaging sweep of the Sahara as historical evidence of the lost land, the disappearing grazing fields, the depleting underground water resources and the general woes of desertification.
The auction is aimed at sensitising the public to the clear and present danger that the forest that occupied about 50 percent of the land space in Africa south of the Sahara in the 1960s has been reduced to less than five percent today. Through the auction, Didi Museum welcomes all to be a part of history, made in Nigeria by Nigerians for the world.