On Saturday, October 16th, 2016, Professor Bruce Onobrakpeya called for a minute of silence to pay respect to his close friend and artistic contemporary, Uche Okeke, who passed away on the 5th of January, 2016. It was a sombre start to Temple Muse’s first event of the year where Onobrakpeya presented a talk on his new Aba Na Nya series.
The event was a fascinating expose about the Best Of Bruce’s Exhibition (being showcased at Temple Muse from December 12th to January 30th, 2016), as well as a celebration of the life of Uche Okeke and the artistic legacy that he and his contemporaries created. Uche Okeke was a member of the Zaria Art Rebels, a collective of young artists that met at Zaria University in the 1950’s and began a movement that would shape the future of Nigerian art. The group included: Professor Uche Okeke, Yusuf Grillo, Professor Bruce Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwoko and other students. Professor Onobrakpeya shared many fond memories of time spent with Uche Okeke at Zaria University and the impact that the Zaria Rebels have had on Nigerian art. In many ways Bruce Onobrakpeya’s new series reaffirms his dedication to experimentation and the founding ethos of the Zaria Rebels.
The Aba Na Nya series, is named after the fabrics that have been used as a textile canvas for his work. Individual mask like faces created from engravings and multi-media collages with pieces of cloth have been photographed using a new xerograph technique. Aba Na Nya is an Okpe (Urhobo) word which became well known as an expression of disapproval of inferior fabrics introduced into Nigerian markets. Aba Na Nya therefore is a metaphor for change. The pictures made partly from the collage of fabric left over by his wife’s dress maker, are not graphic illustrations of stories of change, rather they are an inspiration and invitation for us to tell our own stories of change.
The technique itself is very experimental and the work that has been created is bold, fresh and relevant to the digital age. However, the ethos behind the new collection is characteristic of Professor Onobrakpeya’s artistic vision throughout his career. Experimentation has always played a part in his art and over the decades he has worked in painting, print, engraving and etching, to name a few.
As one of the masters of the Zaria Rebels artistic movement, experimentation played a necessary part in his school of art. In Professor Onobrakpeya’s own words “we weren’t rebelling against anything as such but… we asked our people to go back in time and relive our timeless values which will be fertilised by exposure to equally good values beyond our borders for a meaningful present and a hopeful future.” This idea in itself necessitated experimentation to explore the creation of an authentic Nigerian artistic dialogue; Professor Onobrakpeya’s latest series proves that this dialogue is continuing.
The series depicts various stages of change in Nigerian society that are of interest to the artist. The image of Eloho represents a prosperous farmer who became a moneylender. Eloho could neither read nor write, so he depended on other people, particularly David the itinerant teacher for his correspondence and records. The times changed, and teacher David became an illiterate in a new age now described as the computer age, depending on his grandchild to send out his letters through email. The Professor explained that this is a story that he can relate to his own relationship with some of the young artists working in his workshop.
The series, which will consist of a major installation of fifty faces, proves that artistic interpretations of Nigerian culture and society still leave room for many forms of complex and subtle negotiation. The talk, led by Professor Onobrakpeya and exhibition curator, Sandra Mbanefo Obiago, threw light on his new collection and life’s work. He explained that when he started thinking about the series he realised that while the message of the pieces are not prescriptive the series is in fact very political in its subject matter. The Professor was asked for his views on the role of the artist in Nigerian society. He answered, “the artist sensitizes the environment,” so that “people now see clearer.” In his view this non-prescriptive but political aspect of his work and the works of others are vital in opening up the political and cultural space in Nigeria.
The Professor also spoke about his work as an art teacher and his enthusiasm for young Nigerian artists. His Harmattan Workshop is a space where artists can come together and collaborate to learn techniques under an old master and exchange ideas. Professor Onbrakpeya asserted that the work of these young artists often inspires his own art. He spoke about the importance of promoting dying art forms such as pottery and blacksmithery and named young Nigerian artists who are producing good work using such techniques. He also spoke about the work produced at the Harmattan Workshop artist’s retreat, which he hosts in Delta State each year.
The talk, which was attended by collectors, artists and the press, ended on a deeply uplifting note as the Professor reminded the audience of the importance of protecting our own cultural and philosophical language through literature, art, and symbolism. We were moved and entertained by an old folk tale about the appearance of the Mami Water Spirit in colonial times and its symbolic relevance to the ascension of the black race.