The Spirit in Ascent is a documentation of paintings and engravings made over a period of eleven years. 1967 to1978 by Bruce Onobrakpeya. The artworks cover a wide range of subjects, people, folklore, religion, philosophy, myths, legends, landscape, architecture, adventure, etc. almost all the subjects are drawn from our physical and cultural environment. Inspired by the awareness generated by the post-independence search for African personality, they all have a central theme of looking inward for relevance and fulfilment in a changing world. That stand point admits fertilizing influences and checks uncritical assimilation of foreign ideas and materials which may not be necessarily superior.
The title of the book was adapted from an essay by Wendy Lawrence, a Canadian writer who believes the works have helped to shape the African legacy by transforming it through the power of the imagination. She described this development as the ascendancy of the African Spirit.
Put simply, the collection of works in The Spirit In Ascent contributes to our growing awakening, and like the masquerade, helps to celebrate the rebirth of our time – tested values and continuing rise of our spirit to a higher plane.
The 279 page book has 110 full colour and 186 black and white reproductions, an abridged resume and an index. It is an exhibition package and all the works documented in it are grouped into chapters according to the time and environment which inspired them. Each of the chapters is introduced with an essay followed by the reproductions placed side by side with commentaries on them.
The first chapter, Decade of Festivals, sums up the contribution which the art works made towards the development of our society. The idiom of festival is used to underscore the multi-media context of the visual and verbal arts in Africa. The next two chapters – Twilight of the Sunshine Period and Baptism in Acid Bath, traced the printmaking experiments which led to the innovation of plastography, a technique later to take a central place in the process of drawing out ideas. In particular, the new technique hastened the creation of the next group of pictures called The Zaria Indigo Series inspired by Northern people, landscape, architecture, art, plants and animals which had been stored away in the artist’s sketch books five years earlier during his student days at Zaria. The chapter called Pastoral Nostalgia ties together pictures inspired by Urhobo and Benin physical and cultural environments – work culture, worldview, religion, folktale, philosophy, cosmology, etc., as he remembered them from his formative years.
Four books – A Forest of A Thousand Daemons by Soyinka and Fagunwa, My Life In The Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola, Sugar Girl and The Magic Land of the Shadows both by Kola Onadipe, all drew images from Yoruba folklore. These images provided materials for a series of engravings which are put together in a chapter called Hunters in the Forest of Spirits. These four Yoruba authors led one in adventures into worlds of dangerous spirits, daemons and wild games. Still working with inspirations from Yoruba culture, the pictures classified under Blue Motifs were drawn from life in metropolitan Lagos and other Yoruba cities. The printmaking technique of these and other artworks in the book is heavily influenced by indigo blue cloth designs called adire made by Yoruba women.
New Mask and the Cross assembled paintings and engraving which were inspired by the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. The pictures engendered criticisms which went beyond the artworks to other changes which were then on in the Church – depiction of Christian images and the introduction of traditional ideas and motifs into the liturgy. Next to this chapter, a group of art works are put together under the title Have you heard? These pictures are memories of the 1967 – 70 Nigerian civil war and the reconstruction efforts which followed at the end of it.
The last two chapters of the book Mamiwata of Echo Lake and Mamiwata Jebba Bridge Myth conclude the presentation of art works. The name mamiwata given to one of the many water spirits, entered our folklore probably during the early colonial times as it may have derived from mermaid, the half woman half fish creature in European mythology. These series of pictures based on the water goddess started after the artist had seen a blurred image of someone swimming in the warm waters of Echo Lake in the Bar Harbour holiday area of Maine, United States of America.
The Spirit In Ascent introduced by the art historian, Dr. Dele Jegede, with a message from Dr. P.B. Watts, Chairman/Managing Director of the sponsoring company, The Shell Petroleum Development Company Limited. Professor J. P. Clark-Bekederemo wrote the foreword and also gave some editorial advice.
Additional information was added towards the end of the book by Professor F. I. Okogun of the University of Ibadan and Professor B.I.C. Ijomah of Bendel State University (now Edo State University). Safy Quel and Dr. G.G. Darah were consulting editors while Ovuomaroro Gallery, the publisher of the book, designed the layout. Indeed the production of The Spirit In Ascent enjoyed the services of a formidable team of corporate bodies, scholars and technical experts.
Bruce Onobrakpeya is an experimental artist who has been working for over three decades. Six earlier monographs, The Master Printmaker 1979, Sabbatical Experiments 1983, Twenty-five Years of Creative Search 1984, Symbols of Ancestral Groves 1985, The Sahelian Masquerades 1988 and Poems and Lithographs 1989 have packaged shows which have toured Nigeria and abroad, providing also visual materials for his many lectures and workshops. He is a founding member of the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) who collaborated with the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA) and Committee of friends to honour him with 60th anniversary celebrations for which the book “The Spirt In Ascent” is a special item.