Urhobo Historical Society

Reminiscences of
’s ‘Master Print-Maker’


By Bruce Onobrakpeya

Culled from Daily Times of Nigeria, June 27, 2004


No doubt, Printmaking is one of the most difficult aspects of visual art. But come July 1st to 12th,2004,  the Mydrim Art Gallery will play host to about 20 artists who are among the best Print-makers in the country [Nigeria]. To fully celebrate this exhibition, which is coming at a time when the nation is eager to witness a new dawn in the contemporary art Bruce Onobrakpeya, foremost visual artist and one of the pioneers of print making in Nigeria, said that at a closer look print making has come a long way and this is the time to celebrate it.


Silk Cotton Tree and rubber-stamp Engraving


Looking back, I now realize that my first art works were done when I was a pupil of the now defunct Eweka Memorial (High) School near Iyaro, Benin City in early 1940s. During the weekends, the boys retreated to the villages to collect food stuff for the next week. In my ramble in the forest of one Okerevbi valley, I would pick up, among other things, thorns from the silk cotton tree, which I took to school. Then, I would smoothen the surfaces and engrave the mirror image of the letters of my name on them. These were then inked and stamped on my reader’s and notebooks.


I do not know how this stamp making started; it must be one of those things boys learn from one another at school. Certainly, it was not part of the handwork lessons. What is important, however, is that thorn carving, without it then, was my first attempt at printmaking.


I had just passed into standard three when I left Benin City for Sapele (thirty miles away) in 1944. At that time, Sapele was both important as a seaport and industrial town. By the time I resumed in the new school, Zik’s Academy as it was then known, I had greatly improved the skill of my stamp engraving. Instead of thorns, I used discarded black rubber blocks, which had been used for packaging goods from abroad. My class and schoolmates ordered their stamps, which I made for the sum of one and half pennies. The proceeds accumulated to four shillings and six pence, which I used to buy a fountain pen.


A fountain pen of any description was regarded as an expensive commodity in those days of the Second World War. My cousin Joshua Onakufe, who was my guardian then, did not believe my explanation of how I came to own one. He seized it and I never saw it again.


Stamp engraving got me into trouble again at the Secondary School, the Western Boys High School, Benin City. The school’s rubber stamp and the principal's signature were forged to claim a registered packet containing postal orders. The six of us who were known to be stamp makers were rounded up and bundled to the police station. Fortunately, all of us were released after interrogation. Such were the hazards of my early printmaking practice.


Baptism in the Acid Bath


By 1967 I had reached what looked like the peak of block printing (lino and –wood cut) techniques advanced with my innovation of the bronzed lino relief – a type of collage made up of used Iino and wood blocks, fibre and resin. The resin a wood binder, fixes the used or cancelled blocks unto plywood and also forms texture on the uncovered surfaces. The resulting low relief Is given a bronze patina.


At this point, my etching press arrived from Amsterdam. I immediately launched full scale into printmaking with all the pent up ideas, which had accumulated after the two workshops three years earlier. But I ran into some problems, I had forgotten the chemical formulae for etching the different metal plates. The very firs print called Travellers’ which I worked on was ruined because I had used :hydrochloric acid to bite the Image on a zinc plate. Grounds lifted, lines were irregular, unwanted holes and jagged edges were left on the plate. I found out the error and bought nitric acid which is the right chemical for this kind of etching, the travellers’ was ruined beyond repair. In frustration, I put it carelessly away and worked on two other pictures. The first was ‘Eclipse’ followed by’ Beauty in the Wild’. Both subjects had been produced earlier in bronzed Iino relief technique.


In May 1968, I visited the sculptor and painter the late Erhabor Emokpae in his Lawanson Surulere Studio and residence. He was then binding large quantities of coins into a rather tall wooden sculpture of Olokun the goddess of fortune he had carved. These coins symbolise the material wealth - one of the attributes associated with the deity. Casually, he mentioned that the binder which goes under the trade name Araldite could hold things together firmly, particularly mental-to-mental. Returning to my studio, I nursed the idea that I might be able to salvage the ruined Travellers plate by mending the unwanted holes with Araldite. So I bought the two-part glue and, digging up the plate, filled the holes. In the process, some random drips, which I did not bother to clean up, fell on the plate. The glue was allowed to set and cure. Then I used the engraving tools to reduce the patched portions to the level of the zinc plate. When a test proof was taken, the random drips and tooled areas revealed forms, textures and line possibilities.


Working further on this plate, I used more glue to redefine the image, which followed, which were aimed at perfecting this three-dimensional print technique, I discarded the use of acid completely. This is the origin of deep etching technique, which I later named photography. The results were very exciting but I did not even know that I had a breakthrough in a technique, which was later to play a very significant role in the development of printmaking as a major form in the contemporary art of Nigeria. Thus the hydrochloric acid accident, as it is now popularly called, started me on a new phase of printmaking.


Metal Foil Deep Etching


This Is a plastograph print in which aluminum foil is used to draw out the engraved Images. The thin foil is cut and placed on an engraved plate and then embossed in a press. The embossed sheet is removed, turned over and filled with resin to stabilise the relief. The resin-filled-foil is then laminated on plywood -- or on any other surface.

I developed this technique in 1979 after I came across some metal foil sheets in Okoya Art shop then in Campbell Street, Lagos. The sheets tinted with copper or gold bronze were introduced into the shop by Mr. Paul Obiora Okafor of Onitsha who studied Business Administration in Toronto Ontario and in Buffalo, New York, USA. He had watched a drawing demonstration of the foil in an art exhibition trade fair in Vancouver. The soft malleable nature of the foil suggested the material could easily fold over a low relief surface. I bought a few sheets and after some experiments transformed the foils into print medium. Printing Alai which were made before 1979 were used used to try out the new technique (hit, and such metal foil prints bear the date when the plates were first released so there should be no confusion between the actual date of development of the metal foil print method and the actual date on the metal foil prints themselves.


Signing Prints


I take advantage of the reproduction of six of my original prirmes it the Joachim Kahls’ collection to compile “Print Notes and Comments No. 8”’.Tr~e prints in their original form have been exhibited extensively and have found other homes both in private and public collections. These reproductions even exposed them to a wider public when they were used for the 1981 Alumaco Calendar. Before commenting on them, I will use the pictures to illustrate some important points to watch for in signing prints, a universal practice which helps collectors to determine both originality and value of this type of art which is roc, justa major one but also regarded as representing the true spirit of the jet age.


Artists originate plates or blocks which surface impressions are transferred unto paper or other materials to produce preconceived or accidents’ images. The process of multiplying an image through the repeated use of the plate is called printmaking. Although these pictures came from one block, or set of blocks, each possesses a subtle difference, that notwithstanding, modern convention stipulates that each print must carry enough information to distinguish it from a similar copy. This is where the signing of prints comes in. A signed print should show the number (in the series), a title, the medium, name of the artist, place and date of production. Signed original prints should not be confused with productions. The pictures in this reproduction are signed original prints.

The first mark on a print will be like 2/8 (as in Ada Erinvbin), 3!50 (as in Qgban Igosimisi) or 4/8 (Artist Proof) as in ‘Calf for Prayer’. Test or experimental proofs are usually made from a new plate to help determine the success of the plate. These test proofs have the sign before them. If there were 8 of such proofs, the first will be noted as 1/8. If after some test proofs have been pulled, the plate is altered, the next group of experimental proofs will constitute a second state. This can go on to the 3rd, 4th, or 5th state until the artist is satisfied with the picture. Because the experimental proofs or states are few in number or because the plate may loose some good qualities during subsequent alterations, these first proofs are regarded as rare items and therefore more valuable than the series, which they have helped to determine.


After an experimental state, the artist decides the number of prints that should form the series. If he intends to pull 30, then the first one becomes 1/30 and the last one 30130.There is no hard and fast rule about fixing the number in the series, what to bear in mind is that the greater the number of the prints from block, the cheaper the prints, and also that some countries tax a series that is beyond 75 in number: Some plates like dry point wear out very fast, so the number of such prints must be kept low.


At the termination of a series, an artist is allowed to mace a few extra prints of records or exhibitions. These are called artist proofs. They should be few and must be numbered. An example is 4/8 (Artist Proof) “Call for Prayer”. Should the artist decide to run a second writs from the same plate. He must change the colour scheme and differentiate it from the first one by merely attaching the colour base to the title like “Call for- Prayer (Red base)” an artist may want to develop another plate bearing the same title or content as one already produced. He should place II (Roman figure) next to the title to indicate that the plat is a second one in a series.


The next most important mark written at the middle bottom line of a finished print is the medium or technique used. Terms like Deep Etching, Wood or Lino Engraving, Metal Foil print, Collagraph, Mixed Media, etc, are used to describe the prints. Next to this, the artist writes his name, signature, or special mark, immediately followed by the name of the place, town, city or studio where the work was produced. Finally, the date the print was released is indicated. All these information are written on the print in pencil, regardless of the fact that the artist may have already engraved his name on the printing plat.


It is important that an artist keeps a register where he makes notes about his prints. The notes should show date of release, number c’ experimental proofs, number anti colour of series, if possible, he should make coloured diagrams to help hint remember the colour schemes in cases where prints are pulled over. long period. Collectors should be free to aspect this beck in the artist’s studio When at artist has completely drawn out the drawn out the optimum number of prints from a plate, it is cancelled by defacing it. There are several approaches to this, but the most, popular is to engrave lines and word “cancelled” on the plate. Cancelled plates should not be thrown away. They are themselves rare art works which are in great demand by museums and other art collectors.

In conclusion, I will like to add that a truly great contemporary print should not only be aesthetically appealing and technically perfect, it must also be properly documented. The information given above provides the basis for such documentation.