Urhobo Historical Society


By Dr. Pat Oyelola

A paper introducing an exhibition "Totems of the Delta" by Bruce Onobrakpeya in Lagos, Nigeria, on August 3, 2003.



Paper by Dr. Pat Oyelola introducing exhibition "Totems of the Delta" by Bruce Onobrakpeya on 3rd Aug 2003


Sun, 10 Aug 2003 12:40:45 +0200


Bruce Onobrakpeya <onobrak@hyperia.com>


Very distinguished ladies and gentlemen, we are here today to contemplate the latest offerings from Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya, acknowledged throughout the world as Nigeria’s Master Printmaker. The print defined by William Ivins as an “exactly repeatable pictorial image involving the transfer of an image from one surface to another by means of duplicating tools” is a democratic medium since it enables the artist to reach a larger number of people than the easel painter or sculptor whose prices are often astronomical. Although Bruce says that his conversion to printmaking as a means of artistic expression came about as a result of his encounter with Ru Van Rossem at the Mbari Workshop of the 1960’s, his preference for a medium which puts art within many people’s means is in harmony with his personal philosophy. He wants to share with others his delight with the world around him, his observations and comments on the human condition. Taking his inspiration from the everyday activities of the farmer, herdsman, fisherman and craftsperson, and employing motifs from the repertoire of the metal-caster, calabash-carver, textile designer and embroiderer, Bruce creates an artistic universe redolent of Nigerian culture and stamped with his personal style. Myths (referred to by Wole Soyinka as “ our wise co-habitants”) also find visual expression in the hands of Bruce who harvests them from the fleeting word and makes them accessible to a wider audience, opening the viewers’ minds to worlds beyond their own.

However his work is not always a calm reflection of the activities of a rural, Utopian world. “Nudes and Protest” pays tribute to the courage of women who took mass action to combat injustice as at the time of the Aba Tax Riots. Deliberate public exposure of the female body is a gesture of extreme gravity described by Soyinka as “eloquent abomination in the timeless rites of wrongs” (Samarkand”: 2002). Prints in the “Broken Pipe Series” employ vivid images evoking the hangman’s noose which recall a painful episode in Nigeria’s history. “ Totems of the Delta” reveals the despair of the people deprived of their livelihood which depended on the benign natural resources of land and water. “Rape of the Land” shows the reason for this despair-land rendered barren by a menacing wave of fossil fuel. The installation “Environmental Trap” is dominated by a limb of dead wood, bereft of leaf and fruit, deserted by bird and beast, which points a warning finger, dwarfing the detritus of technology which clings to its base. Installations such as this take art off the wall, bringing it back to the arena of human activity and placing it in a space enlivened by human movement. Bruce’s concern for justice and freedom of expression extends beyond the boundaries of his own country, as can be seen in the work dedicated to Ngugi Wa Thiongo of Kenya which shows a head with clamped lips and a minstrel behind bars.

But Bruce is the eternal optimist and his work is dominated by an upward reaching rhythm expressed by the forms of the column and staff. The columnar form is the symbol of Oghene, the supreme intelligence, and its vertical orientation suggests hope and aspiration, as do soaring arches of the Gothic cathedrals of Europe. The Christian works of Bruce on display today are inspired by the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, the ultimate assertion of victory after suffering.

Innovation is the spice of art and though Bruce has attained the status of “grey eminence” in the Nigerian art world, he is still experimenting with form, technique and medium. His Harmattan workshops at Agbarha-Otor are encouraging a new generation of artists to experiment in a variety of media through technical instruction and intellectual stimulation. Today is the first time in Nigeria when artist prints combined with text are being presented in portfolio format. Bruce’s marrying of image and text shows how the arts can be mutually enriching and illuminating. Writers and artists are often moved by the same phenomena. The cityscape of Ibadan immortalized in J. P. Clark’s perceptive words as a “running splash of rust and gold” is now presented to us by Bruce as a conglomeration of dwellings unified by the colour of the earth from which they were built in response to the forces of kinship  which owe nothing to modern town planning. The forest, source of food and healing, but also a place of mysterious presences, occurs in several works in the portfolio (Eru, Olorunsogo, Ralia and the Bird, Kurmin Rukiki) linked to the writings of Nigerian authors.

Bruce himself is both artist and poet, as are others such as Uche Okeke and Obiora Udechukwu. His poetry arises from his concern for the land and people of the Delta. Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, J.P. Clark and Wole Soyinka (Nigeria’s 1986 Nobel Laureate) are now icons of African literature whose work, though closely connected to Nigerian tradition, has touched the sensibilities of people all over the world.

In this portfolio Bruce is communicating with the viewer through images, words and graphic symbols. The continent of Africa is rich in symbols, sometimes pictographic, sometimes ideographic. They may convey references to people, animals and events, practical advice, proverbs and prohibitions, magical spells and blessings. Egyptian hieroglyphs were formulated in 3,100 B.C. and may have drawn on an even older tradition of graphic symbolism. The graphic symbols of the Akan of Ghana are found on gold weights and adinkra cloth, representing complete proverbs or emphasising  the power of God. The uli symbols of the Igbo, abstracted from the plants, animals and objects in the man made world, were painted on walls and the human body or carved on doors and panels. The nsibidi pictographs of the Ekpe Society of the Cross Riverwere carved on calabashes and painted on walls, printed on cloth, tattooed or painted on the human body and conveyed messages known only to initiates. Both uli and nsibidi symbols have been used by modern artists in Nigeria such as El Anatsui, Uche Okeke, Obiora Udechukwu and Victor Ekpuk. Whole scripts were invented in the 19th and 20th centuries by Africans in the Cameroons, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Mali as well as people of African descent in Surinam.

Bruce started experimenting with graphic symbols in 1983/84 when he was artist in residence at the University of Ibadan. He formulated a complete system of rendering in graphic form the sounds of Urhobo language. He also evolved ideograms for the desiderata of the Urhobo culture: Ufuoma (peace), Idolo (wealth), Otovwe (longevity) and Omakpokpo (health), all intimately linked. It is these ideograms that appear on the cover of the portfolio as well as on a print where they assume almost sculptural qualities. Each viewer will bring her own imagination to bear on the interpretation of these symbols, but certain features elucidate their meaning. Ufuoma (peace) suggests opposing weapons which have been rendered harmless by a mediator coming between them. Idolo has horn-like features recalling the Ikenga figures of the Igbo which convey the message that achievement resides in the strength of the hand. Otovwe  (longevity) resembles a stylised figure raising vigorous arms towards the creator. Omakpokpo (health) shows plant like forms projecting from a container used to brew remedies from healing herbs. The theme of peace is taken up by another work in the portfolio entitled Evwe (kolanut) shown as a dominant, four-lobed red form. The kola nut is of important symbolic value in Nigerian culture, being offered to visitors as a sign of peace and goodwill upon which all else depends.

Finally, let the words of Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, repeat and reinforce the message of Bruce Onobrakpeya’s art:
………….. Let a hundred thousand
Flowers diffuse exotic incense and a million
Stars perfume the sky, till the infant cry of Truth
Resound in the market of the heart,
And warring faiths
Reconcile in one immensity of Being.
(Samarkand: 2002)