Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya, 89 today, is unarguably one of Nigeria’s greatest printmakers, painters and sculptors. At his home, in the Mushin area of Lagos, on Tuesday, January 26, 2021, YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, sat down with the still agile and active Agbarha-Otor, Delta State indigene for over one hour, talking art and other things.
Below are excerpts from that wonderful encounter with the amiable father and grandfather who was educated at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State…
I need you to take us through how your romance with art started…
It’s a long journey, but to cut that long journey short, I want to say that I have a background of artist; artistic environment, and having the opportunity to go to school in Benin, Western Boys High School, and at the same time, the opportunity to move round all other parts of Nigeria. All these come together to give me the inspiration to be who I am today. If you want me to go further, I’ll say that although I have a rich background, the secondary school I attended, indeed, helped. Actually, it discovered my art and helped me nurture it and put me on the direction of being an artist, and I am what I am today because of that very good beginning that I had.
This love for art, what would you say has kept it going? What has sustained it?
It’s a love for my environment, the love for hearing the story of my people, feeling the experiences, sharing the experiences of my people, and the urge to tell our story in our own language and in our own way. That’s the urge that has kept me in the art.
What do you like most about being an artist?
I like telling my story and telling the story of my people; observation of the environment. I see things in the environment, I feel things and love to express them and put them out to let other people see it. These few things have been the inspiration to me.
What don’t you like about being an artist?
That’s a tough one. I like everything about being an artist, but sometimes, like what happened today, you gave me an appointment, and I forgot. I was ready to do some jogging around, and you came in. So, that kind of interference and interruption by the environment is what I don’t like about being an artist. I just like to be quiet and do my own things my own way.
What is the commonest mistake that any artist can make?
I think any artist who puts money or financial rewards first, before creativity; that’s a mistake. What an artist should do is to go first and bring out what is very good, what is interesting. The vision the artist sees that no other person sees. He should struggle very hard to bring this out and when that’s done, perhaps money and wealth will follow.
So, what is the greatest thing that being an artist has done for you?
Being an artist has made me who I am, has made me develop, has made me tell my own story very well. That is to say, show that part of me that would have been difficult for people to see or know, or in fact, for me to learn and know some other things. Not only about me, but about my environment. If I didn’t go into the art, some of those things might be hidden, but going into art, helped me to bring them out and helped me become what I am now.
What would you have wanted art to do for you that is hasn’t done yet?
The art at a particular level becomes a commodity for the people and you can use the art to reach a lot of people. I think the society and the government have to come into it. The people in the society have tried their best, the government has tried their best, but I’m asking that the government should do more for the artist, build more galleries, build more places where the art will be seen by the people and use the art to promote our economy, to foster tourism and bring other people into the country. What the art hasn’t done for me really is to put art works in all the embassies; all the embassies abroad and send me out on an errand to Nigerian embassies and other parts of the world to tell my story, tell the story of Nigeria. That is what I think art hasn’t done fully for me yet. It has done a bit of it, but not fully.
To have a taste of success as an artist, what must one do?
That’s a tough one. But I think to have a taste of success, to work for that success, one must love art, one must love to create, one must persevere, one must listen to inner voices, one must sharpen one’s eyes and one must let others see the kind of thing that they see that is not visible; the very tiny things around us that aren’t seen by everyone. To be an artist, one must be able to see things around and tell people the great things that they see. One must also be a mentor. You need to carry a lot of people around, younger, or probably people who are your age mates or even older than you are, carry the rest of the society with you. To be an artist, one must be very helpful about life, positive, have ideas. To be an artist, one must be able to invent something, bring out something that’s new and let this benefit the generation that you’re in and the generations to come. I mean, remember to go back in time and bring out the good things about you that either had been forgotten or hadn’t been properly presented. To be an artist, you have a lot of things to do. And the environment, the people who are there watching and seeing you will actually be grateful that you’re able to give them this higher perspective of life.
Tell us about your first artwork ever and how much you sold it for…
That is not possible, but I’ll like to take you back to my first exhibition in Ughelli in 1959, more than 60 years ago. I had an exhibition in Ughelli. One of the highest priced artworks was one guinea, which was equivalent of twenty one shilling. That was then.
Can you remember the highest artwork yet that you have sold and what it was sold for?
I don’t want to do that now. I can’t tell you that.
People have heard about a brand of artwork that you pioneered called print making, can you tell us about it?
Print making is a democratic method; one has an idea and one has a way of multiplying that idea so that it can reach a lot of people, so that instead of creating one art piece, that art piece can reach a lot of people, to see it, enjoy it and have that art piece in their different homes, offices or different altars. So, that’s print making. You can also use mechanical method; many ways to multiply the idea. Instead of just creating one, we can make several of that one to reach a lot of people.
What’s the difference between Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya and other artists? What distinguishes you from other people that are doing what you do?
I don’t think I’m the best to tell that, but I know that I relate with other artists well and I learn from them and they also learn from me. So, I think that there’s no differentiation, just equilibrium. We relate to one another and I think I’ll want to leave it at that point.
When did you come to the realization of the fact that you could depend on art works to feed your family, to take care of their needs and all of that?
It wasn’t something that came suddenly, it was gradual. First, as a teacher, I won an American family award. They opened a show place in Ikoyi, they called it Thursday Show, it was only for two hours. They would always take works of artists from Osogbo and including mine, because I also have a connection with Osogbo. That was when some of my early prints sold, and I realized that if the art is developed, it can lead one very far. So, I knew that from the beginning and up till today, I’m still connected to them. They are still promoting my artworks. So, that was it. I realized that and that’s what is keeping me up till today.
How lucrative is what you do?
Lucrative in the sense that I have up to about 40 people that I employ to keep working. And this has been so for many years. That’s how lucrative it is; that I’m able to do great works that can give me something to eat, give my family something to eat and also help me employ about 40 people working from day to day. That’s how lucrative the business is.
As at the time you started, who gave you the greatest encouragement?
I won’t like to mention any particular person, but I’ll like to say that the secondary school I attended showed the way and put me on the path of being an artist. After that, I owe my progress to a lot of people. If I begin to mention names now, I think I’ll be offending a lot of people. But I had mentioned that the school pushed me forward and that the Rufus Giwa family helped me. But I must also mention the person of Professor Ulli Beier, who introduced me to print making. He’s very important in my life. There are many other important people. But these people I’ve mentioned fit in. I don’t want to mention any more names.
At the end of your earthly journey, what would you like to be remembered for?
I want to be remembered as a teacher, I want to be remembered as a mentor, I want to be remembered as one who not only tells the print story, but one who also tells the Nigerian story. I want to be remembered as a black man who will want to come to the world again as a black man. I want to come back to the world as a Nigerian and as an Urhobo man.
The Lord has been so kind to you, what more do you want from Him?
I want the fulfillment of what God has ordained for me when He put me on the journey to come to the world. There are a lot of things that are certain for me that I don’t even know, but I’m praying for the fulfillment, and that’s my prayer everyday. For God to let me fulfill what He has ordained for me; whatever mission He has sent me for, I pray He helps me fulfill it.
How does it feel to be among the most renowned and respected in your field?
I feel very happy, I feel very humble. Sometimes I feel I don’t deserve it, but it keeps coming and I am really very proud and I feel very fulfilled.
Is any of your children planning on sustaining this tradition?
Yes. All of them, they are all interested. Different degrees, different angles. Most are creative, some are teachers. Some of them are creative with the materials, some of them are creative with talking about what we produce, some of them are creative with marketing the works, some of them are creative with producing the works. So, all of them are very much part of the art that I create.
Wow! Let us even meet your family…
Well, my wife, Victoria Elohor Onobrakpeya has been a backbone to me. She worked in the Nigerian Art Council…There’s Ejiro, Mudiare, Epare, Ufuoma and Oghara.
What are the things that keep you busy, especially when you aren’t painting, sculpting? What other things do you do to keep yourself busy and engaged?
I read and then I listen to the news and I attend to visitors who visit and I attend shows and exhibitions. I travel, I teach art, I talk to people, I counsel people and because I have the Harmattan Workshop, I always teach because people consult me, either by talking to me or inviting me to come and give talk or give demonstrations. So, when I’m not creating my own art, my hands are full with other things also connected to the art.
Some people collect your artworks, who are those you collect artworks from?
I collect from fellow artists. I collect crafts from the market, I collect works of young people, then I encourage my own students who paint works; I collect and put in my own collection. I have in my collection works of younger people.
What are the qualities of a good artwork?
That’s a tall one, but it must appeal to you. When you look at it, the artwork must say something to you. If it doesn’t say something to you, if it doesn’t excite your imagination, if it doesn’t tell you some of the things you knew before, if it doesn’t tell you more about your environment, if it doesn’t tell you about ideas, then it’s not a good artwork. The artwork will tell you something that will make you feel a little different from how you felt before you came face to face with the artwork.
In a fortnight, the Harmattan Workshop inspired by you will open in far away Agbarha-Otor in Delta State, what are your expectations this year and what should people expect?
We are introducing a lot of new things, we are bringing in people who will teach some of the dying crafts in Delta State like mat weaving; it’s an art which was very well treasured and recognized by the Urhobo people, but it’s dying. So, we are trying to get somebody to re-introduce it, to re-teach it, so that it can once again be popular and then we are bringing in facilitators who will be introducing new ideas to the workshop, new ideas of engraving, using the hot iron rather than the chisel to burn the woods, to create something that has very beautiful patterns, that is local. We are also using this workshop to teach some of my techniques like painting on a canvas, developing different kinds of painting and so on. That is something we expect will happen during that Harmattan Workshop. Also, we have just had our first residing artist completing three weeks here, so we want to show his works. Yes, it involves ceramics. He has created a lot of them and we, the Harmattan Workshop, want to show his works. Also, in the Harmattan Workshop, we want to focus on my colleague who is the architect, who actually constructed the main building of the Agbarha-Otor set-up. We will see his film and we will look at the house and the development of the facades that have now been put around the world and then also we will travel to U.S and others. We’ll be able to ask questions and let him talk to us. During the Harmattan Workshop, we want to bring in some other people. Like always, they come to talk to us about some areas of the art, something that even the artists who are professionals should know about and the people who are interns and their students; what they should know about art, bring them in and also while doing this with us, we want to observe the covid-19 regulations by using the mask and so on. There are other faculties, but those are just the key points I want you to know about the Harmattan Workshop.
You have made tremendous impact on Nigeria’s art, what message do you have for the up and coming artists?
As I always say, the up and coming artists should work together as a group and exhibit together. I want them to see and follow the example of the Zaria Society when they work together. Each time they mentioned the success of one of the artists, all the others in the group will be mentioned. Also, like I mentioned earlier, they should not think first of the money that comes from the selling of artworks, but they should think first about good artworks, something that comes from the soul; they should think about it, spend some time doing something that is good and the money will take care of itself. I always tell them too that whenever they are fortunate, they need to stay with the picture because that will make them grow; because no artist can survive without good patronage. It is the key word.
What is the future of art in an age of science and technology?
It has a very, very big future. There is so much science in the arts and science experiments and so with art. We expect that the best thing that can ever happen to the people in the world will happen to us through the effective applications of the art.
You’re one of the Zaria rebels, and no one should ideally meet you without a word on this group of young Nigerians who changed the face of arts in this country. What’s special about the Zaria rebels?
I don’t think that there’s anything really special, but that as colonized people, we are meant to think more about things coming from outside than things that come from within us. The Zaria Society asks us to look back in time to some of the good things we have, bring them out, develop them and let us enjoy them. While doing this, we should also be open to some of the good things that are produced outside so that we can bring them to marry some of the good things we have for a creative and productive future. That’s the agenda of our society.
Despite you phenomenal achievements as a scholar, printmaker, sculptor, and so on, do you have any regrets?
I want to tell you that I don’t have regrets, because what I have come to see sometimes as a regret becomes something that God has put in my way for certain reasons. So, that way, I should say that I don’t have regrets.
Other than the Harmattan Workshop, do you have any other succession plan or plans? Are there other things that you’ll like to leave behind at the end of your earthly journey so that people will continue to remember you for that?
The Harmattan Workshop, which is part of the Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation, is actually a kind of university without being named a university. My idea is that it will develop in such a way to develop the artist, to develop the environment of Agbarha-Otor and to develop Nigeria. So, if the Harmattan Workshop succeeds or I succeed, I am sure to live in the minds of the people forever.
At over eighty years, you’re still up and working. I mean, the last time I interviewed you was over 20 years ago as the editor of Encomium, and when I came in again I met you looking younger, agile and happy, what’s the secret?
We should ask God what the secret is. I think we should ask Him. He’s the creator, He’s the one who gives long life, so He’s the one. But having said that, I think that if one’s creative, one has something to think about, one has something that engages the mind in a positive way, I think one will be willing to be given that young life that is necessary to complete all those ideas that are coming from the mind and complete the assignment that God has given to one. As I mentioned earlier, no one comes to this world without first of all being given an assignment God gives one that assignment and surely, He will keep one alive and active until that assignment is fulfilled. So, the prayer is that we should ask God all the time to allow us to fulfill the assignment that He has sent us to perform in the world.