Indigenous Tendencies: An Interpretation and Classification of Some of the Works of Bruce Onobrakpeya.

Author:Odokuma, Ese
Position:Critical essay


The name "Bruce Onobrakpeya" is not new in scholastic studies in Nigeria and the world in general. In fact, scholars have continued to write about his relentless efforts at forging the synthesis between his tradition, personal experiences and modern experiments. These mixtures have resulted in a cross fertilization of forms which portray a variety of unique styles. Despite his creative ingenuity, not much in terms of developing the indigenous interpretation of the content of his works has been fully conducted. Thus, it must be noted that some of his works are not simply aesthetic decorations or indigenous combinations; they are visual codes which many artists and art lovers may find difficult to comprehend. It is this historical lacuna that motivated this researcher to embark on an interpretational analysis of some of Onobrakpeya's works. This work also attempts to dispute the view of Willett (1971) that although Onobrakpeya's work is often African in subject, it is not African in style.

It must be noted that Onobrakpeya transcends the usual, as an artist of intense significance who fuses indigenous elements into his works over time. Besides these indigenous properties, elements of his biography as well as taste form an important part of his work. Thus, the methods used to interpret his works are iconographic and psychoanalytical in nature and other interpretational approaches are also systematically fused into this study.

Iconography involves an understanding and interpretation of the subject matter (Arnold, 2004). Arnold (2004) describes iconography as an important method of understanding the meaning of art. It emphasizes content over form (Adams, 2001). Adams (1996) sees iconography as a way of how an artist writes the image and the way the image writes itself. It encompasses the study and interpretation of figural representations which could either be individual, symbolic, religious or secular (Arnold, 2004).

Psychoanalysis on the other hand, is a method that separates the art from the maker (Arnold, 2004). One significant element of psychoanalysis is that it attempts to construct social and sexual identities visually; second, it attempts to reconstruct the past and interprets the relevance of the past to the presence, and third, it signifies the transformation of work and talent through instinctual energies into aesthetic form (Adams, 2001).

Bruce Onobrakpeya

Bruce Obomeyoma Onobrakpeya (b. 1932) hails from Agbarah-otor in Ughelli North Local Government Area of Delta state of Nigeria (Agbarah-otor, 2002). He is described as a teacher, scholar, book illustrator, author, innovator, printer, and most of all, the pride of Nigeria (Agbarah-otor, 2002). He did his primary and secondary education in Benin and Sapele in the former Bendel state, now Edo and Delta states in Nigeria. In 1961, he obtained a Diploma in fine art from Nigerian college of Arts, Science and Technology Zaria now Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) (Agbarah-otor, 2002). Dale (1998) opines that in the following year, Onobrapkeya passed the post graduate teachers certificate examination.

He taught in Western Boys High School, Benin Ondo Boys High School Ondo and in 1963 at St. Gregory's College Lagos (Agbarah-otor, 2001 Dale 1998). He had also been artist in residence in Hay-stack Mountain School of Art and craft in the state of Maine in the U.S.A (1975), Elizabeth city State University in North Carolina (1979) and at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ibadan in 1984 (Dale, 1998:184).

He is a recipient of several international and national awards such as: the British Council Award (1969), Pope Paul VI Gold medal (1977), Fulbright-Hays Award (1979), Honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Ibadan (1989), the Bendel Merit Award (1990), and the Delta State Merit Award for excellence in Arts (1995) just to mention a few.

In his home town, he gathered all his creative abilities and established what has become a Mecca for artist and art lovers across the globe. This international art centre is located at Agbarah-otor and is the venue for a series of Harmattan workshops that has awoken the artistic sensibilities and thought patterns of many participants over the years.

In 1994 during an interview, he claimed that the synthesis of the past and present should be a spring board for contemporary creations (Odokuma, 1994). This seems to be based on his style that is a conglomeration of the extracts of the past, and present art influences, as well as his experiences, a style that derives from continuous practice and experimentalism. But the question then arises? Do people really comprehend the realities of his works? What is the meaning of his works? Are they just the aesthetic-creations of the artist garnished with Urhobo and other cultural influences? Thus, this study attempts to go deep into deciphering from these indigenous forms and their intrinsic interpretations.

In this light, it is important to note that the published works of quite a number of scholars on Onobrapkeya has increased our knowledge about him. For example, Willett (1971) Adepegba (1984, 1995, 1998), Lawal (1985), Odokuma (1994), Okeke (1995), Akatakpo (1998), Dale (1998), Singletary (2002), Audu (2002), Ademuleya (2003), Odokuma (2009), Picton (2004); Layiwola (2009), Jari (1998), Oloidi (1998); Onobrakpeya(2004) Egonwa (2011). And in this, Willett (1971) is of the view that Onobrakpeya's work though often African in subject is not particularly African in style as Adepegba (1984) refers to him as the untiring experimentalist in Nigeria and abroad. And Adepegba (1995) adds that both traditional sculptural forms and craft motifs appeal to Onobrakpeya and stress that the motifs of craft such as ties and dye textiles and calabash decorative elements of his prints are often employed as backgrounds (Adepegba, 1995:102), suggesting that Onobrakpeya's technique of plastocast appears as single activities like masquerades surrounded by an aura of the supernatural.

Also, Lawal (1985) opines that Onobrakpeya is indisputably Nigeria's artist of the moment, while Odokuma (1994) describes Onobrapkeya as one of the most dedicated contemporary Nigerian artist, and speaking about his style Okeke (1995) mentions that he drew inspiration from Edo-Urhobo, Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa-fulani and even Akan sources. Akatakpo (1998) however, acknowledges that Onobrakpeya is the most prolific artist and perhaps the most celebrated and publicized contemporary artist and printmaker in Africa today. Dale (1998) describes him as one of Nigeria's greatest printmakers the best lino printer and the most sought after book...

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