By Prisca Sam-Duru
Some years ago, I remember having a chat with Professor Bruce Onabrakpeya during a group exhibition with some other art grand masters. I asked him when he hoped to retire and he said that he wasnt going to retire but will continue as an artist so long as his hands could still move.
Today, Prof Onabrakpeya’s works are showing at the Wheatbaker Hotel and Freedom Park, Lagos which is an eloquent indication that the iconic artist isn’t truly thinking about retiring even at above 80 years.
He is celebrating sixty years of stellar career as one of Nigeria’s most celebrated pioneer contemporary artist.
A total of 36 rare prints are on display in the special commemorative exhibition, titled, “Eni! You Can Always Tell Where the Elephant Has Passed by!”
The exhibition is curated by Sandra Mbanefo Obiago of SMO Contemporary Art and hosted by the Wheatbaker Hotel, Lagos.
The ENI exhibition is supported by Louis Guntrum Wines. It opened on April 27th and runs until the end of July, with a special reception and artist talk held during the month of June.
In addition to ENI and Onobrakpeya’s installations and sculptures currently being exhibited at Freedom Park in Lagos, a third exhibition is planned to take place in Agbhara-Ottor in August, all to commemorate his prolific career.
As noted earlier, Eni! You Can Always Tell Where the Elephant Has Passed by! marks sixty years since Onobrakpeya’s first exhibition in 1959 in Ughelli, while he was a student at the Nigerian College of Arts Science & Technology in Zaria. The rare prints presented in the exhibition present highlights of the artist’s life and works but more importantly, are an important chronicle of Nigeria’s post-independence era.
One of Nigeria’s most important artistic pioneers, Onobrakpeya, born in 1932, grew up in Delta State.
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He obtained a Diploma in Fine Arts and a Teacher’s Certificate from the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (now called Ahmadu Bello University) in Zaria in 1962. Onobrakpeya was a member of the famous Zaria Art Society which was a student group that sought to develop a new aesthetic language deeply rooted in African tradition and philosophy. The group included Uche Okeke, Yusuf Grillo, Demas Nwoko, Oseloka Osadebe and other students who drew strength from the post-colonial independence movement.
These aspiring young artists were later called the “Zaria Rebels” and quickly made their mark internationally with their strong visual philisophy.
In a bid to clear any form of confusion that may arise from trying to understand the nature of the Zaria Rebels, Onobrakpeya who began to experiment with diverse media including painting, sculpture, prints, low relief foils, large scale installations and mixed media works created out of found objects, explained that “We were not rebelling against anything as such but thought that the idea of just using the
western art technique without relating it to our culture wasn’t right, ”
The grand master print maker has received multiple awards and his works have been exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1990, the Tate Modern in London, the National Museum of African Art of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Malmö Konsthall in Malmö, Sweden and the National Gallery of Modern Art, Lagos to name a few. He received the UNESCO Living Human Treasures Award in 2006.
Speaking during a preview of the works, the exhibition curator, Sandra Mbanefo Obiago said,
“We are excited to be exhibiting Okpogho (The Hornbill), a print which dates back to Prof. Onobrakpeya’s first exhibition in Ughelli in 1959, alongside Chibok Girls, a recent print he created in 2017, as an homage to the kidnapped Nigerian school girls, as well as prints from his Niger Delta environmental protest series”
She noted that “Prof Onobrakpeya is not just one of our finest artist’s, his works are also important historical documents which showcase Nigeria’s rich history and culture, alongside socio-political events of the past sixty years.”
Excited for hosting works by the veteran artist, Director of the Wheatbaker, Mosun Ogunbanjo said “We are extremely proud to host this internationally significant exhibition of Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya’s prints”, adding that “It is important to us that both our international and local guests enjoy some of the best art Nigeria has to offer, as we confirm our commitment to using our platform to celebrate the best creativity of our master artists as well as emerging talent.”