Bruce Onobrakpeya, one of Africa’s art renaissance masters, was born this day, 30th August 1932. To commemorate this birthday, I look at six of his works and their interesting backstories from my favorite Onobrakpeya book, The Storyteller of Agbarha-Otor: Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Visual Tales by Dozie Igweze.
Veronica’s Veil, Lino Engraving, 1969
In 1966 Onobrakpeya was invited to create fourteen panels to illustrate the Stations of the Cross for St. Paul’s Church, Ebute Metta. The priest of the parish, Father Kevin Carroll, had already begun a process of using Nigerian artists and themes for the art and decoration in the church. A year later, Onobrakpeya, amidst some controversy, presented the panels to the church. He said his main focus in creating the panels was to show the triumph of Christ’s journey, as well as to bring the story home by indigenizing its content. ‘The third fall’, like many of the other panels, was distinctly African. There was a significant use of adire to create patterns that were beautiful, African and spiritually uplifting. The characters and locations were also African.
Obioma and Reconstruction, (Blue Base), Plastograph, 1973
The artwork ‘Obioma’ deals with the civil war story in an upbeat way. It is about the zeal of the young Ibo men who moved to Lagos just after the war. The itinerant tailor (Obioma) was a common sight in Lagos in the seventies. They’d walk the streets of Lagos, Singer-brand sewing machine on their shoulders, scissors in their hands, looking for anyone who had any item of clothing to darn.
These young men may have been soldiers during the war or refugees. They would have lost everything. But the war was over, and they, like many from the South, were ready to get back into the economic battlefield in any way they could. The artwork is sunny and alive, conveying the hopefulness of these young men about the future, and their determination and endeavour as they walked the streets looking for custom.
Oba Aka II, Plastograph, 1980
Onobrakpeya’s artworks on Benin pay homage to the culture and history of the city and its people. His exploration of Benin is part artistic curiosity, part homage and part metaphorical expression of the greatness of its culture. In the artwork ‘Oba Aka’, he pays homage to the greatness of the empire. The title of the artwork is derived from an Urhobo reference to the Oba as Oba Aka. The Urhobos in Benin lived in an area called Aka. (The name was said to have been derived from ‘Agbalaka Street’.) Thus, for the Urhobos, the Oba became Oba Aka.
‘Oba Aka’ deals mainly with the history and significance of the monarchy. The work is a montage of Benin history and its most prominent historical figures. Its main image is the Oba climbing a tree. While not the most stately of royal portrayals, it captures an essential part of the Benin adage that ‘suffering comes before pleasure’ – even the most noble of kings in the most noble of kingdoms must work before pleasure. The other parts of the artwork deal with a variety of myths associated with Benin history. On one side of the artwork is Emotan. The story of Emotan goes back to the reign of Oba Ewuare. It is said that before he took over the throne from his brother, Ewuare was hunted by the council of chiefs, who were intent on killing him. The market woman Emotan informed him of the danger and hid him from the chiefs. When he eventually took over, he repaid the favour. Upon her death, he immortalized her by burying her at the Oba’s market and planting a tree at her grave to honour her.
The work also shows the giant Aruaran and his brothers wrestling with Oba Ozolua. The last story in the artwork is a retelling of the tale of Okpamwe, Oba Ewuare’s son, who angered the Benin people by killing his brother and was banished by the chiefs. When an heir couldn’t be found, the chiefs sent word for him to return as Oba. Unsurprisingly, he refused the offer. Eventually, the chiefs sent a box with a house mouse and a bush mouse. When he opened the box, the house mouse stayed in the house while the bush mouse scurried off into the bush. He understood the message. Even animals understood their roles and were guided by their instincts. He understood his role and duty. He packed his servants and returned to Benin to become Oba Ozolua.
‘Oba Aka’ is a reminder of the greatness of a kingdom that may at its height have been one of the most culturally significant kingdoms in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is also an acknowledgement of the great role this kingdom played in the development of the cultural idiom of today’s Nigeria. For Onobrakpeya, these stories were designed to act as a compass to guide us from a great history to a great future.
Ominira (Independence), Deep Etching, 1991
In his artwork ‘Ominira’, Onobrakpeya deals with independence and growth. The piece is a series of vignettes about nationbuilding. The main image is of a group of climbers ascending a mountain, tied together by a rope. This is probably the central message of the artwork, the notion of a shared destiny – success through united effort or joint failure. Various other stories in the piece explore the same idea – people in a boat rowing in unison, with one man at the head; ants carrying a much bigger caterpillar through shared exertion; and a mythical tree with seven heads being cut down through shared effort and bravery.
There’s also an image of the joyous dance of freedom. This is Onobrakpeya telling various short stories to illustrate the significant wisdom that nation building requires shared commitment, hard work and sacrifice.
Blue Motifs II, Plastograph, 2003
The artwork ‘Blue Motifs’ might well be the most complete expression of his fascination with the indigo adire material. The piece is a conversation between two women – probably on the surface one of his simpler works. But it is really an adire fantasy; a retelling of the adire story and a tribute to the women at the heart of it.
Unlike many centres of fabric production in West Africa, adire production in western Nigeria was a mostly female preserve, passed on from mother to daughter over generations. The dresses of the women in ‘Blue Motifs’ become a template for exploring some of the adire patterns, like the standard geometric pattern and the more playful fish pattern. The women in conversation become a metaphor for the cultural connection generated by these fabrics. The women who created the adire material didn’t just produce clothing; they expressed themselves and entered a conversation with their fabrics and with the people who used these fabrics—a conversation that spread from Abeokuta and Ibadan to other cities in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Edjokpa, Metal Foil, 2011
‘Edjokpa’ explores the relationship of the Urhobos with the palm tree in a different way. Because the palm tree was so central to Urhobo life, it was inevitable that a spirit would be attached to it. Edjokpa was the Urhobo palm tree spirit and was prayed to by the villagers to encourage a good harvest.
The artwork ‘Edjokpa’ borrows from this idea of the veneration of the palm tree spirit to create a modern day veneration of honest labour. ‘Edjokpa’ represents the idea of industry and reward. For Onobrakpeya, it’s a tribute to honest, hardworking farmers, among whom was his mother. The artwork focuses on the farming couple—the man carries a harvesting knife and some of the palm fruits balanced on his shoulder. The woman carries some more of the fruits in a basket on her head. The way the palm fruit was carried by each gender was based more on tradition than convenience. Men always carried the fruit with the stick on their shoulder. Women always carried theirs on their head.
The palm tree above the couple plays a dominant role in the picture. In this artwork, man, woman and tree are almost fused to symbolize the interconnectedness of their relationship. The farmer tends to the tree; the tree in return provides for the farmer.
Read more interesting stories about Onobrakpeya’s artworks from The Storyteller of Agbarha-Otor: Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Visual Tales. Available Here
Featured Image: Ufuoma, Omakpokpo, Otovwe, Idolo (Peace, Good health, Long life, Wealth), Additive Plastograph, 2002.