Onobrakpeya is probably Nigeria’s most celebrated artist. He has for the past 50 years created artworks that have defined Nigerian and indeed African art.
Onobrakpeya’s father was a carver in Agbara Otor; his mother, a keen collector of local craft and beads. This gave the young Onobrakpeya an early familiarity with art. By his secondary school in Benin City, his ability in art had become apparent and he was urged to remain for a while in the school as an art instructor.
In 1957, Onobrakpeya joined the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, Zaria – today the Ahmadu Bello University – to study art. There, along with several other students like Uche Okeke, Yusuf GrIllo and Simon Okeke, he formed the Zaria Art Society. The Zaria Art Society realised that in art, as probably in other facets of society, Nigerians had to take their destiny in their hands by recognizing the value of the heritage that had been eroded by colonialism. They called for a synthesis of traditional Nigerian ideas and the new ideas from the West; a recognition of the integrity of Nigerian traditions and history while embracing the new European traditions. They would become known as the Zaria Rebels.
By 1963, he had begun to teach art at St. Gregory’s College, Lagos. (He would also contribute his knowledge at the Elizabeth City State University, North Carolina and The Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan). He was also grappling with finding the right channel for his art. His early works were in oil but at the Mbari writers’ and artists’ workshop in 1963, he had discovered printmaking and had embraced it.
By 1967, serendipity would play a role in Onobrakpeya’s progress. While trying to correct an error with a defective plate in his printmaking process, he realised that the improperly corrected plate had an unusual sculptural appearance. He experimented further and eventually settled on a new method – deep etching – that would define his art, would become easily recognizable as an Onobrakpeya trademark and would go on to influence the look and feel of Nigerian contemporary art.
By this time Onobrakpeya had become an artist in the old tradition of master artists, creating as well as tutoring students, many of whom like David Dale would go on to become master artists in their own right. His studio became the cauldron of Urhobo lore and mythology. His themes dug deep into the history of his native Urhobo people – their traditions, festivals and architecture.
On a deeper level though, this was not simply an exploration of a single culture, the Urhobo culture became a metaphor for an African cultural experience to be admired, cherished and enhanced. This exploration became in effect an extension of his Zaria mandate to use the traditions of old as a source of strength for the future.