Nigeria’s art icon and UNESCO’s Living Human Treasure, Bruce Onobrakpeya, chalks up another fascinating book on his artistic trajectory thanks to the effort of the Hourglass Gallery’s director, Dozie Igweze. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes

REVIEW

dozie-igwezeJust about midway into his 80s, the venerable artist Bruce Onobrakpeya’s limelight moments are yet to fade away. This favoured figure of Nigeria’s art cognoscenti holds the record as one of the continent’s most written-about art personalities.

Amidst the glut of reference materials churned out so far on this surviving member of the defunct Zaria Art Society, Dozie Igweze’s The Storyteller of Agbarha-Otor (Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Visual Tales) offers a less pedantic complement. Like a classic how-to book, it acquaints the uninitiated reader with what he needs to know about the artist’s life and works.

With refreshing anecdotes, Igweze deftly steers the book’s content away from the expected turgid mode. Like cinematic POV shots, the following themes guide the readers through different routes to the artist: Meetings and Conferences, Medium, Independence and Before, The Zaria Identity, Urhoboland – Myths and Legends, The Benin Empire, Adire Fantasy, Wood Stories, War and Loss and An African Jesus and Other Epiphanies.

No, The Storyteller of Agbarha-Otor is not a chronological account. This is even when in the beginning it teleports the reader to sometime in 1942 when the artist, as a 10-year-old, sat spell-bound with other children through Aminogbe’s tale about “Eraguamire”. The breezy feel the reader gets as he flips through the pages of the well-produced coffee-table book is a nod to its unapologetic conciseness.

Yet, there are times when the author slips into an opinionated mode. And sometimes waxes hyperbolical. He writes in page 14, for instance: “The storytellers didn’t just deal in great stories; they dealt in myths. Their stories carried the myths of their tribes and passed them on through generations, reinforcing the ideals of the tribe and indoctrinating the children into the truths of the tribe. These are stories carrying centuries-old wisdom and knowledge, passed off as entertainment.
“This was in the time before television. The television is probably a lot more entertaining – more channels, more stories. And that wonderful tool, the remote control, means you don’t have to move a muscle…”

Nonetheless, the reader can’t help but savour the entertaining feel of the ensuing tale of “Lunar Myths”, which became visually documented in 1970 as a plastograph work.
And talking about plastograph, the book beautifully expounds on this technique (among others used by the artist) in the thematic segment titled Medium. In an introductory essay of this segment, the author leaves no one in doubt that his book embraces a wider readership that includes even neophytes.

“Printmaking is somewhat different from conventional painting,” he explains. “The original idea is created and then transferred unto a surface like wood, zinc or linoleum, either through cutting or etching the image onto that surface. This surface then becomes a mould. The print is made by using a wood press, or other methods, to transfer the image on the mould onto the paper.”

The complexities of this medium are made more intelligible to the uninitiated. Thus, the latter understands how works like “Cow”, “Three Fishes”, “Good Governance”, “Edjo Aton” and “Gate to the Cattle Ranch” were produced.

So, The Storyteller of Agbarha-Otor is all basically about demystifying the apparent complexity of the world of Onobrakpeya’s creations. Of course, this is not without intermittent enlightening infusions of the artist’s life account. The reader is permitted a literal reading of the title, which states that the artist tells his stories in pictures.

And to think that Onobrakpeya at 84 would have spent over three scores of his earth-life documenting events around him in pictures, it is not hard to imagine that the works referenced in the book only represent a small fraction of his conceptions.

Quite useful are the historical context on which some of the anecdotes are embedded. A less informed reader thus gains more information beyond just learning about the works of Onobrakpeya. The author situates the context of the artist’s outlook against the backdrop of some historical accounts. This approach hits its climax in the segment titled The Zaria Identity, which takes the reader back to the heady Zaria Art Society years. The author informs the reader that Onobrakpeya and his fellow Zaria Art Society members “believed that a country emerging from colonialism needed a culture true to its roots, rather than one that was tied to its colonial experience. If the country was going to be truly independent, its art needed to be independent.”

The Zaria Art Society members (called “Zaria Rebels” by a Ghanaian critic) would thus bequeath what came to be known as the “Natural Synthesis” concept to the contemporary Nigerian art scene. Igweze breaks it down for the reader with the following words: “They agreed that the best path to creating art that was relevant to the new Nigerian experience was to take the best in what was Nigerian and add the new, foreign ideas – a synthesis. This idea would guide the development of each member’s art in different ways. For Onobrakpeya, it was a step towards clarifying the basis for his art.”

It is therefore within this context that Onobrakpeya’s creations can be viewed. This explains all that he stands for as an artist. His creative fantasies, like those of his co-“rebels”, have since then operated unimpeded by the guidelines of the Western academic art.

The reader also understands the artist’s fascination for his Urhobo roots from this context. Indeed, Onobrakpeya’s Christian faith has never stood in his way as he explored the dialectical orbit of his people. Igweze explains the scenario thusly: “For the pre-Christian Urhobo, the world was divided into two halves – the physical and the spirit world. Human beings were born, lived and died in the physical world. The spirit world was the home of their ancestors and an assortment of spirits. This was where all the interesting things happened.”
The artist’s creative credo also explains his domestication of biblical themes with works like “Ore Ri Canaan”, “Stations of the Cross” and “St. Paul”, among others.

No doubt, the activities of Onobrakpeya and his fellow trail-blazers of the Zaria Art Society had the effect of leaven on the contemporary Nigerian art scene. Hence The Storyteller of Agbarha-Otor is an invaluable asset not just for artists, art historians, art writers, journalists, researchers, collectors and students, but also for newcomers to the visual arts sector. The 228-page hardback is a publication of Hourglass Books.
pix: Onobrakpeya.jpg, Dozie Igweze.jpg and storyteller.jpg