Art from the Book of Ghosts: Visual Interpretations by Bruce Onobrakpeya

Bruce Onobrakpeya’s etching, Dance to Enchanting Songs (2017), one of the works that will go on the block at the upcoming Lagos Art Auction 2018 by TKMG Auction House, reminds me of how compelling his visual interpretations of literary texts can be. Reminiscent of Gala Day under the River (2000), Dance of the Red Shadows and Dancers in the Bush of Ghosts, it portrays dancing otherworldly figures in a patterned background. It has to be another of the artworks inspired by Amos Tutuola’s book, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Onobrakpeya has several works adapted from literary sources. Apart from Tutuola, he’s drawn from several other African writers including D. O. Fagunwa, Wole Soyinka, Kola Onadipe, Tanure Ojaide and Cyprian Ekwensi.

A leading figure of Nigerian art renaissance who is renowned for his innovative printmaking techniques, the now-86-year-old Bruce Onobrakpeya is also known for his dedication to representing African folktales, myths and legends in his works. In the late 1950s, he was a member of the Zaria Arts Society (later referred to as the Zaria Rebels), students of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, who strived to decolonize Nigerian Visual arts from Western influences. The artist’s illustrated book, Bruce Onobrakpeya Portfolio of Art and Literature, published in 2003, pairs literary excerpts by Nigerian and other African writers with 27 original prints by Onobrakpeya. Looking up Onobrakpeya’s series of works inspired by Tutuola, I was captivated by his rendering of In the Spider’s Web Bush (1970), another adaptation of a story from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Dozie Igweze in his book, The Storyteller of Agbarha- Otor: Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Visual Tales, writes about Gala Day under the River and In the Spider’s Web Bush.

Excerpt from The Storyteller of Agbarha- Otor: Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Visual Tales

Gala Day under the River is another etching derived from the book, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. In one of the stories in the book, the boy is captured by some spirits and brought to a river where he is made to sing for these spirits. The spirits, enraptured by his singing, dance to his songs. There are two versions of the artwork. The earlier one is a direct exploration of the story. The second version is inspired by the story but expands beyond its scope. It starts from the idea of the spirits dancing to the boy’s song but seems to expand beyond that to a more general idea about dance, the allure of music and harmony. Harmony, especially. In the figures, one finds a distillation of the idea of people connecting and functioning in tandem. It’s still a story about a boy and dancing spirits but so much more.

In the Spider’s Web Bush, Deep Etching, 1970

In the Spider’s Web Bush, another artwork from the Tutuola book, explores some more of the boy’s adventure. In this part of the story, the boy is caught in a trap set by some spider eating ghosts. One ghost assumes that the boy is a reincarnation of his father who died years ago hunting spiders and proceeds to bury the boy who, fortunately, is then stolen by another ghost. In this artwork, Onobrakpeya uses some of the adire motifs that would become a regular part of his style.



This excerpt is from The Storyteller of Agbarha-Otor: Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Visual Tales by Dozie Igweze. Igweze owns The Hourglass Gallery, Plot 979 Saka Jojo Street, Victoria Island, Lagos.

Adekemi is a lawyer and writer with a passion for the arts, particularly African art history. She is dedicated to discovering and documenting the most excellent artworks of our time. Follow her on Twitter at adekemitweets.
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