The 60-year curiosity of Bruce Onobrakpeya
The first retrospective of the legendary Nigerian artist — and the first time his work is shown in San Diego — will be on view at San Diego State University in an exhibition and program with playwright and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka.
Working as a studio artist for over 60 years, Nigerian artist Bruce Onobrakpeya is driven by curiosity.
"Bruce is a trained painter. His formal training is in painting. And somehow he's become an icon of printmaking. And this is largely as the result of the artist's nature, the artist's very curious nature. He's a very experimental artist," said Kennii Ekundayo, an independent curator based in Lagos, Nigeria.
"That's how Bruce is. And I think because of this nature, it really helped to build him to become an artist of reckoning, if you will. And that's what we see through the years. His ability to be fluid about art, about his creative process, has allowed for him to experience different strategies of art, of artistic growth, of artistic development."
Ekundayo is currently in San Diego and has gathered 39 works to serve as the first retrospective of Onobrakpeya's career, which will be on view at the University Art Gallery at San Diego State University (SDSU) beginning Feb. 18 through Mar. 17, 2022.
It's part of a joint program with Onobrakpeya and writer, playwright, collector and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, also based in Nigeria. 'Niyi Coker, director of SDSU's School of Theatre, Television and Film, initiated the connection.
On Mar. 2, both Onobrakpeya and Soyinka will be on campus for a special program with Nigerian music and readings of Soyinka's works, plus a conversation between the two longtime collaborators, both in their late eighties. (Ekundayo jokingly referred to it as a "bromance.")
Six decades of innovation and changing narratives
Ekundayo first began working with Bruce Onobrakpeya when she curated a 2019 exhibition of his work for the Freedom Park creative hub in Nigeria, but she said that she grew up aware of his work.
"Everybody pretty much knew Bruce Onobrakpeya, especially when you're invested in the arts. He's literally a household name," Ekundayo said.
Born in the rural Urhobo village of Agbarha-Otor, after establishing himself as an artist, Onobrakpeya returned home to develop an annual workshop, the Harmattan workshop, which attracts hundreds of emerging artists, established faculty and other leaders in the field — all the while creating jobs and commerce in his native region.
His work is exemplary of the modernist art movement in Nigeria, but also a life spent pushing boundaries and redefining artforms and narratives.
Again, Ekundayo said, it comes back to that curiosity.
On printmaking: "He's not just used that technique as an artist to express himself, he's also innovated within that technique. He has created new styles of printmaking within the technique. We have plastograph, we have additive plastograph, we have ivorex. It's a whole lot. And it's just as a result of his very curious persona. Again, I believe that it's that element of curiosity and the willingness to want to try new things that has really opened him up to these diverse artistic practices," Ekundayo said.
The plastograph and additive plastograph techniques were developed by Onobrakpeya during his studio career and are new forms of etching or engraving images, which he calls plastocasts or plastographs. Ivorex is a practice that achieves the appearance of carvings or engravings on ivory, but uses a polymer material.
Onobrakpeya also pushed boundaries in works of art commissioned by the Christian Church. In one set of Stations of the Cross pieces, Ekundayo said he depicted Christ as Black, setting biblical stories within African culture.
The work was eventually taken down from the church, and destroyed, said Ekundayo.
The works in the exhibition will follow a loose chronology of the stages of Onobrakpeya's artistic career beginning in the late 1950s, and unlike many retrospectives, doesn't pull from private collections, just the works Onobrakpeya has archived himself. The newest work? One more made this year, a testament to his steadfast commitment to art.
"He's going to be 90 this year, and Bruce is still working. Bruce is still working every day. He's at the studio every day," Ekundayo said.
In San Diego, the chance to see works by Onobrakpeya and the collaborative relationship he shares with Wole Soyinka is a first for the region. It's also a chance, said Arzu Ozkal, interim director of SDSU's School of Art and Design, for young people to watch a career unfold.
"I believe it is very important for emerging student-artists to see the many changes and transformations artists go through in their career. They experiment with many materials, techniques, and explore different subject matter," Ozkal said. "This exhibition encompasses Onobrakpeya's work in various mediums and techniques over the past sixty years. Each piece is distinct but at the same time there is a strong sense of belongingness. I hope that seeing Onobrakpeya's work will inspire our students to never stop making, exploring and experimenting."
Ozkal also said that the feat of implementing this exhibition and program with Soyinka was monumental, and is grateful for the foundational work from the Department of Africana Studies and School of Theatre, Television and Film.
"It wasn't all that easy to coordinate the shipping and bringing the work from Nigeria to our University Art Gallery. However, now seeing the work installed makes it all worth it," Ozkal said.
A 'living treasure'
Ekundayo also observes the impact Onobrakpeya's work has on young people, particularly in the way generations of Nigerian artists that have followed in his footsteps are pushing back against Western, colonial influence. "They are breaking boundaries. They are going ahead to portray their environment using their own land," Ekundayo said. "And they've continued to defiantly and proudly express themselves, express Nigerian culture, express their Black identity in their works."
Onobrakpeya is an official "living human treasure" — designated by UNESCO and the government of Nigeria in 2006 — and Ekundayo says this comes down to the amount of sacrifice and work as well as his creativity and ingenuity, something she wants the works in the retrospective to express.
"It took me eight months and some days to get to that selection," Ekundayo said. "And the reason is because it's a retrospective, and I want the soul of the artist to be seen, to be felt and to not be forgotten."
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