Day One: Thursday
Artist: Bruce Onobrakpeya
Age: 80 years
We didn’t really talk about the artworks I’d come for. We just talked about art. Nothing serious. Just chitchat.
‘It’ll still take a while,’ he said.‘We still need to get to that point where people know they can resell their artworks. People need to look at their artworks as a store of value, as well. That’s when they’ll be encouraged to collect more art. We’re getting there … but we’re not there yet.’
‘It’s not about how good the art is,’ he continued.‘We’ve gone past that stage. Our art is good. In any case, art is really about the culture it’s created in and the people it’s created for. If it’s good for the people in that culture, then it’s good art.’
‘That’s an interesting idea,’ I said, intrigued.
‘It’s not really about being good for everyone all over the world; it’s about being good for the people it’s made for.’
I nodded. I lost the rest of what he was saying. He had started to talk about something else. But what he’d just said stayed with me. It was probably a throwaway comment for him, not the main point; but it was interesting to think of art that way. I’d become accustomed to thinking of art from a global point of view. The art in Nigeria had to be measured by the same parameters as the art in Japan or Finland or anywhere else. It was, after all, the same thing even if it was drawn from a different cultural source.
This seemed a throwback to an older idea of art as tied to a particular culture.
‘So the art here is good,’ He continued. ‘The question for us is can we give them enough financial confidence in our art. Can we make them feel they’re doing the right thing with their money?’
As he talked, his head bobbed a lot. Not gently – somewhat energetically. It seemed he couldn’t sit still. I’d always found that fascinating about him – the energy. I was half his age but I always felt like a lump of jelly around him. ‘I’ve got to get something upstairs,’ he’d say to me and he’d zip up his stairs to the 2nd floor. Each time I had to walk up more than one floor I had to think about it.
His studio was usually cluttered, but it was a lot more cluttered today. There were large totem works everywhere. These works were made from strips of clothing material like lace and adire, wrapped around large plastic poles. They seemed derived from the traditional religious totems found in Nigerian shrines ages ago. He’d done cast versions of these totems over the years. But these were a more recent idea – more experimental, I suppose.
The totems had a haphazard look about them, probably because of the variety of material on each one. They did seem in a strange way like a metaphor for Nigeria: the colour; the energy;and, oh yes, the randomness.
‘They’re just back from an exhibition in Ibadan,’ he said.
‘Nobody looks at these works now,’ he continued with a smile. ‘But that’s what happens. In a few years people will start to look for them. But now … they seem strange.’
His head kept bobbing. His hair was white –off-white, actually. Why do we think of that sort of hair as grey, I wondered? They’re not usually grey, are they?
He started to talk about Agbor-Otor – his Harmattan workshop.
‘Getting funding is always a big headache,’ he said.
‘You have to contribute this time you know.’
I smiled.An evasive smile.
‘For the three sessions we do there we have to spend a whole lot of money,’ he continued. ‘Accommodation, feeding, art material, course coordinators … and all that. Some of it comes from my end, but we always need to get sponsorship. However much we budget, we never seem to have enough.’
‘It must be stressful’, I volunteered.
‘It is, but it’s a good thing and we must keep it going’, he replied. ‘There are all sorts of benefits for artists. For me, it’s a place to learn. I get new ideas. All these new things I do,’ he waved at the totems, ‘come from being part of those workshops, being able to experiment. It’s important.’
I understood what he was saying.
For the artists that attend, it’s probably a chance to learn new things and to experiment. Nobody else puts in what he puts in there — the venue, the money, the logistics, his time, year after year. It’s unlikely any other artist has contributed quite as much to Nigerian art as this man. There was a certain selflessness about him that I’d always found remarkable.
We talked about the new works some more. And, oh, the artworks I’d come for weren’t ready. I had to return in a week. I didn’t mind though. It’d been a good visit.