Urhobo Historical Society

The Master Print Maker

Bruce Onobrakpeya who will be sixty eight years old this month, was born on 30 August 1932 in Agbarha-Otor, Delta State. Both of his parents were Urhobo. His father was a carver, and true to local custom,. Onobrakpcya took up his fathers craft. Although he was raised a Christian, traditional beliefs were still passed on to him orally, through myths and legends. His childhood days were spent in Ughelli, Sapele and Benin City, where cultural values are still strongly upheld till today. These memories and images were to become a major source of his artistic inspiration, especially, the festivals, dances and masquerading traditions and other interesting Nigerian indigenous customs.

Renowned worldwide for his unique creative ability, his primary concern has been to project the African identity. Onobrakpeya's career dates back to 1959 when he had his first one-man exhibition in Ughelli, Delta State. At this time, he was a student of the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, Zaria, where he majored in painting.

A multi-media artist and an ardent researcher into the problems and limitless possibilities of materials production techniques, forms and de-mystification of all rigid conceptions about pictorial space, Bruce and ten of his colleagues actually charted a new course for modem Nigerian art. In doing so, all forms of European artistic knowledge that were imparted to them as students were outrightly rejected. They constituted themselves into a group which was named 'The Zaria Art Society, while members were referred to as the 'Zaria Rebels'.

Onobrakpeya's artistic breakthrough can be traced to 1963 when he had opportunity to take part in a print workshop sponsored by the University of lwan and the Mbari Club, under the aegis of a Dutch Professor, Ru Van Russem. As fate would have it, the hydrochloric acid accident which destroyed one of the plates he was preparing, opened up new avenues for this highly versatile artist. He simply re- paired the plate by filling it in with araidite. On producing a print from it, he noticed that the work had an exceptional and interesting sculptural quality, giving birth to what Bruce describes as deep etching or intaglio prints. These unique araidite etchings have three depths which can be inked differently and printed at once, producing low reliefs with subtle. or brilliant colours, making them comparable with painting or sculptures.

Not satisfied with this innovation, he started working on the preparation of plastocasts from used plates. Through relentless hardwork, Onobrakpeya broke new grounds in print-making which undoubtedly makes him Nigeria's master print maker, and one of the best in the world, to which his numerous awards, medals and exhibitions bear witness. Some of these include travel grants by the United States of America, the British Council, Fulibright-Hays Award by America CIES (Council for International Ex- change of Scholars), United States Information Service Travel Award, the President Saddam Hussein Travel Award, all of which have given him the opportunity to visit different parts of the world and have enabled him to keep abreast of new development in those places. An award winner from his student days, Bruce has, in two decades of active practice accumulated a number of laurels due to his creative excellence. Some of these awards are: Pope Paul VI Gold Medal (1977); Fifth Triennial-India Award of Silver Medal and Twenty Thousand Rupees (I982); Certificate of Honour in recognition of distinguished services contributed to the development of Nigerian art by the Council and Management of Asele Institute, Nimo, Anambra State, Nigeria (I 985); Solidra Circle of Lagos Award for having excelled in print-making and deep etching, Lagos (1985); Society of Nigerian Artists' Award in recognition of his contribution (1989); Honorary Degree, Doctor of Letters by the University of Ibadan, Nigeria (I989); Bendel State Merit Award which includes a certificate of Merit and Gold Medal for his outstanding contribution to the development of the state and humanity in arts and culture (I 990). These are just to name a few.

His creative works adom many homes and public places within and outside Nigeria such as: The Natural Museum of African Arts, Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C.; Museum of African and African-American Art and Antiquities, New York; the Vatican Museum, Rome; Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos; the universities of lfe, Lagos and Nsukka; and his works make up part of the collections of the Queen of England; the Duke of Edinburgh and many others.

Apart from being highly publicized through his monographs, Onobrakpeya has continually featured in books on Nigerian and African arts. With over sixty exhibitions to his credit, Bruce still sets aside some time for philanthropic and scholarly activities. Such activities include providing information to both local and foreign researchers. His Ovuomaroro studio at Papa Ajao in Lagos and Agbarha-Otor, Delta State have provided facilities, inspiration, and a meeting place for quite a number of young artists who are currently studying under this master print-maker.

It is obvious that his contribution to African art is apparent. It also confirms that Bruce is in the forefront of those who are consciously defining new roles for artists in Africa, especially in his home base Nigeria. He is married with five children.

We wish him many happy returns

Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation
August 4, 2000