Sunday, February 3, 2013

My Artistic Odyssey By Bruce Onobrakpeya

Bruce Onobrakpeya with some students from Western Boys High School, Benin City where he attended as a boy

Excerpts from Lecture Given at University of Benin, Edo State 1st Feb. 2013
Great people of Uniben, it is indeed a great honour and privilege to be in your midst and share experiences with you in an aspect of art that has given me fame and honour, not only in Nigeria, but beyond the shores of this country everywhere art is discussed. I thank the Vice Chancellor, Professor Osayuki Oshodin for accepting that I come to showcase my artworks and present a talk in this great Institution of renown. I am also grateful to Professor O.A. Ofuani, staff and students of the Faculty of Arts who initiated this programme as part of activities lined up to mark my 80th birthday.  I feel nostalgic because being here is a home coming to me.  I spent part of my childhood and adolescence in Benin City but then Benin was mainly farmlands and thick forests interspersed with rustic villages. I remember roaming the bushes trying to catch birds.  After this university was established, I had opportunity to visit a number of times. The then Vice Chancellor and his deputy, Professor Adamu Baikie and Professor Solomon Wangboje were my colleagues at the Nigerian College of Science and Technology, now Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.  I have also met, through their attending the Harmattan Workshop which I organize, several lecturers and students of this Fine Arts Dept.

 Artistic Odyssey 
The theme for this talk “Artistic Odyssey:  Printmaking as an Expression of Life’s Adventures” is a window to share with you some of my experiences as a Printmaker beginning from a playful hobby to a point where it grew to an important contemporary art medium which also inspired the creating of the Harmattan Workshop, an informal educational forum where artists meet to hone their skills and share ideas.  This is an opportunity to tell some of the stories of my life as an artist.

What is Printmaking?
I watched traditional priests and native beauticians thumbprint white chalk and cam wood red on the foreheads and bodies of people seeking for blessing or as cosmetic to beautify.  The natural shape of the thumb is repeated to create a pattern.  Each mark is literarily a Print.  Another example of Print is the office stamp.  Names and motifs are engraved on rubber or any other surface and inked on an ink pad before it is transferred onto a document.  Printmaking follows the same process.  The artist creates a design on a plate, and then it is inked and transferred onto a paper with the aid of a press or any other pressure tool.  This could be repeated to create multiple pictures.  Printmaking involves artistic and technical abilities.  Its advantage is that instead of one picture, the plate can cast several identical images each of which can be owned by a person and enjoyed as original art.  The other advantage is that the picture is much more affordable, nothing comparable to the price paid for one - of – a - kind picture.  This is also why Printmaking is considered a democratic medium of art. Although Prints as artworks enjoy some popularity, they are however not well known still. There is confusion in distinguishing print as an original art and reproductions as copies of an original art.  A print is an original idea or design engraved or prepared by an artist. Proofs can be drawn out by another person.  On the other hand a photograph of an original art work is called a reproduction.  In this age of computer, a photograph of an object can be manipulated through the computer to produce what is termed as a CAD (computer aided design) print.

Playful Beginning with Stamp Engraving
My Urhobo parents settled in one of the villages along the Okeruvbi valley not far away from here.  Father enrolled me in several of the one teacher schools which existed in those days. These schools shut down as frequently as the itinerant founders departed or found something more lucrative to do. Leaving the rural schools, I gained admission into the now defunct Eweka Memorial School at Iyaro near the Benin moat.  While there, precisely in standards one and two, I carved stamps as handwork from conical thorns I extracted from silk cotton trees in the forest a little beyond this campus. Little did I know I had launched myself into a fulfilling lifetime career in Printmaking.

The Re-appearance of the Scary Leopard
·         The second phase of my Printmaking development came at the Art School in Zaria when under the general art lecturer, Mr. Todd, I learnt the techniques of lino cut, wood cut and silkscreen.  Again another playful act taught me how to use the technique to translate experience into tangible visual art.  This was how it happened.  Long ago as a child I had accompanied my mother to Idinogbo village up hill at the Okeruvbi valley.  A red painting of an animal at the entrance of a shrine there scared me and I tugged at my mother’s legs for protection.  The incident was in my mind for several years.  While fiddling with discarded textile blocks for possible new designs in my studio, the form of that animal popped up from my subconscious, bold and still very scary.  I developed the motif into silk screen which was further worked on to produce the picture I called Leopard in the Cornfield.  It was first made as an oil painting on board and later made into silkscreen print series which have now entered the third edition.

Printmaking in Nigerian Folklore and Early Classics
Apart from the Leopard in the Cornfield picture, I used these basic print techniques to create pictures of tortoise and other folktale characters I learnt from my mother and story tellers when growing up.  I also used them to make pictures of life in the north around Zaria, particularly those of the herdsmen, their cows and the pictures of dye pits which I titled the Zaria Indigo series.  The bulk of art works which I showed during the Nigerian Independence Exhibition in 1960 were from this period.  The other fallouts of these early printmaking techniques were the illustrations for three books –Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, An African Night’s Entertainment by Cyprian Ekwensi and A Forest of A Thousand Demons by D. O. Fagunwa and Wole Soyinka. My first international recognition came when a print from this period was acquired by the Duke of Edinburgh in a Commonwealth Art Exhibition in Cardiff, Wales in 1966. 

 Journey to New Delhi, India with Neo Classical Plaques
The Lino blocks which I had used to create prints accumulated and I was reluctant to trash them as print rule says because I was fascinated by the sculptural effects created on them with gorges during engraving.  I arranged them into montage, glued them onto ply-wood and patinated them. This is the origin of the medium I call bronzed lino relief. Later the Bronze lino relief technique was further developed into low relief art called Plastocast.  All these I group under the name Neo Classical Bronze plaques, a name inspired by the timeless Benin bronze plaques.  One such assemblage called The Last Supper which was entered in 5th Indian Triennale, won a prize for which I travelled to New Delhi to receive in 1982.

During the occasion I was presented to Mrs. Indira Ghandi the then Indian Prime Minister and on my return back  to Nigeria I also met President Shehu Shagari. 

The Hydrochloric Accident and the Birth of Plastography
The third phase in my development as a printmaker came when I participated in the 1964 printmaking workshop organized by Ulli Beier at Oshogbo.  It was conducted by Ru Van Rossen (mentioned earlier) under whom I learnt Etching and Copper engraving.  After the workshop I ordered a press and other materials from Amsterdam to augment the ones donated to me by Ulli.  On arrival of the materials three years later, I set up a Printmaking studio, but I soon ran into problems with the very first print called Travelers.  Instead of biting the plate with Nitric acid, I used Hydrochloric acid. Frustrated I put the damaged plate away. But after visiting Chief Erhabor Emokpae now of blessed memory, who introduced me to the Araldite glue, I returned to the discarded plate, filled the unwanted holes with the stuff. Not bordering to clean off random drips which fell on it, I proofed plate.  It turned out to be a very interesting picture with exciting lines, textures and relief effects on the paper. This led me on to a printmaking innovation which I called Plastography. 

Printmaking Facilitates Experimentation
What is clear about this breakthrough is that printmaking process has a scientific side to it and benefits from accidental results.  And I have taken advantage of its dynamic nature to manipulate some motifs or ideas through experimentation to achieve different design effects which have gone beyond borders of known printmaking techniques.  Other inventions like bronzed lino relief which came earlier, the Ivorex, Plastocast, Diptilinen and Triptilinen painting on canvas have transformed my prints to three dimensional sculptures as well as large paintings on canvas

 Sahelian Masquerades and Totems of the Delta
The various Printmaking innovations mentioned above have made it possible for me to address issues which relate to the Nigerian environment in two series.  The first is the Sahelian Masquerades which are pictures which draw attention to the beauty of the different cultures in the northern part of our country, but also express environmental concerns to man, flora and fauna as a result of desertification.  Similarly, another series by name Totems of the Delta call for man and divine intervention to stop the adverse effects of mineral exploration and extraction. Both basically address environmental issues.

The Printmaker as a global Scholar, Teacher and Showman
My passion for Printmaking and my relative success as a Printmaker has led to my being invited to practically all the continents for residency programmes in which I doubled sometimes as a student and a teacher. Similarly, it has gotten me invited to numerous group and one man shows which have taken me to cities like the London in the United Kingdom, and New York, Takoma, Elizabeth City, Los Angeles, Deer Isle and Plymouth in the United States, New Delhi in India, Toronto in Canada (mentioned earlier) Darkar in Senegal, Abidjan in Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Harare in Zimbabwe.  Each of these places led me to different adventures which helped to expand my experience and advance my printmaking technically and professionally.  For example my attendance as Artist – In - Residence at the Haystack Mountain school of Arts and Craft in Deer Isle in 1975 was one of the inspirations towards my setting up the Harmattan Workshop 24 years later.

Education, Wealth, Friendship and Peace
Ladies and gentlemen, it is not possible to narrate all my Printmaking experiences in this presentation but before I draw the curtain, I’d like to mention that the Niger Delta Art and Cultural Centre which I established at Agbarha – Otor in Delta state was inspired by the need to impart Printmaking skills to others, the way I benefitted.  When my studio in Lagos could not accommodate all the interns, industrial attachees, artists – in – residence and research scholars engaged in producing dissertation for various degrees.  I set up an informal art education centre called the Harmattan Workshop which has been running for 14 years.  The workshop has served as a forum for artists of different backgrounds from Nigeria, West Africa, Europe and America.  It has also served as a retreat for art critics cultural engineers and has hosted dignitaries including governors and ambassadors.  It has art galleries open all year round, and students in particularly have benefitted.  As an informal education centre it has cooperated with higher institutions and universities like College of Education, Warri, the University of Benin, Benin, the Ambrose Ali University, Ekpoma, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile – Ife, Adeyemi College of Education, Federal College of Education, Umunze, Anambra State and the Delta State University, Abraka.  The location of the centre in Agbarha-Otor is a source of pride to the communities and around it.  The Harmattan Workshop employs workers from the community in which it is based while those who acquired skills at the workshop earn an income through skills they acquired thereby alleviating poverty.  The alumni of the Harmatan Workshop have advanced our art professionally, educationally and economically.  Besides these gains the Harmattan Workshops help forge networking, national and international friendships and peace. We owe all these to Printmaking – a continuing artistic odyssey open to many more adventures.   
Thank you.
Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya, MFR.

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