Lecture Delivered at the Grillo Pavilion, Ikorodu
Saturday, April 3rd, 2010
dele jegede, Ph.D.
Professor and Chair
Department of Art
|Prof. Dele Jegede delivering Lecture: Bruce Onobrakpeya The Legacy|
|Icons of Modern Nigerian Art: Bruce Onobrakpeya, Dele Jegede, Yusuf Grillo at the Grillo Pavillion|
|Visitors at the Lecture Delivered by Dele Jegede at the Grillo Pavillion|
all pictures used are courtesy of Prof. Dele Jegede
Let me start with a caveat: this is not a didactic lecture on Bruce Onobrakpeya. It is neither an exegesis of his creative work nor is it a critique, of his techniques and methodology. I will also try not to give you his life history. It would be a waste of our precious time, Ibelieve, if all I did was rehash threshed and recycled information, which by virtue of Onobrakpeya's status, has been narrated into our common history. Why would I bother re-informing you of the date of his birth, which has not changed since 1932 when he first arrived in Agbara-Otor? Yes, I will dwell on his Urhobo ancestry, but only to the extent that it assists us inperceiving the totality of the enigma. Here is my point: if by any chance there is anyculturally literate Nigerian who, upon hearing Onobrakpeya's name, asks "BruceWho?" please check to see where that person received his education. Or check if,as my danfo brothers would ask, that person is from Yaba apa osi. I will not attempt to analyze every piece of the artist's creative portfolio; that would be an impossible task even if I had a whole day, which I do not intend to do.
Those who are interested in learning more about the prodigiousness of the artist are advised to avail themselves of any of his innumerable publications. My concern, therefore, is to attempt to extrapolate some lessons from Bruce Onobrakpeya's life and work. This lecture is about the legacy of one of Africa's most celebrated artists; an individual who is extremely comfortable in his own skin, and whose sojourn as an artist, humanist, and benefactor deserves to be re-examined and leveraged for the benefit of all. The opportunity to focus on Onobrakpeya allows us to examine issues that are central to his legacy. Among these are, of course, Zaria and the problematics of rebellion. I will look at the extent to which Onobrakpeya is, in his work and practice, Urhobo personified. I will look at the legacy of Onobrakpeya: as a quintessential student in perpetuity; an eclectic, life-long learner; a documentarist; an integrationist; and a benefactor. Did I also mention that he is an artist? I will focus on the implications of the eruption of a new creative force, which his Ibiebe alphabets symbolize and then examine
his ability to conflate creative boundaries with his installations. His Agbara-Otor project will be touched upon as will the implications of his legacy for art education at the tertiary level. Critical to all of this is the matrix without which the arts will flounder. And it is with this that I now begin.
Patronage and the Arts
There is one word that captures the reason why I am here today. It is the same word-or idea-which explains your presence here also. It is patronage. It is what galvanizes artists to attain those heights, which ennoble nations and immortalize their mores and ethos.
Patronage fuels the arts and perpetuates a people's history. It generates and sustainsthe passion without which creativity will wither. Those superb cultural icons which have placed Nigeria on the world cultural map the exquisite sculptures from Nok, Igbo - Ukwu, Ife, and Benin-would not have been possible without sustained patronage. But patronage is vibrant only where there is a coterie of individuals or entities' whose unbridled love for the arts is matched by the will, wherewithal, and determination to exert an affecting presence. Desirable as the institutionalization of political patronage is, it often proves nightmarish essentially because it is perceived as the most vulnerable of portfolios. Officialdom, has become accustomed to treating culture as the most dispensable unit of national attributes. Even in the best of economies, the arts are often erected upon structures that are susceptible to political vicissitudes. A national endowment for the arts should be an integral part of any national agenda not as a perfunctory concession but as an essential aspect of our national identity. There is more to culture and patronage than donning a type of babanriga or spotting politicized caps.
you will recall that in 16th century Italy, the High Renaissance was as much about the dominant artists of the time-da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bramante, and Raphael-as it was about the patrons, especially the House of Medici, the papacy, and Pope Julius II. In our own clime and time, considerable improvement has occurred since the sixties and early seventies, when Euro-American interests dominated patronage. Of course, the cultural arms of the various embassies have continued to play their roles of using art to promote cultural diplomacy. The difference between now and the early sixties is that theirs is no longer the dominant platform. The quickest way to delude ourselves, however, is to believe that this is the best that we are capable of doing. All that we need do is look to other countries-Senegal and South Africa come to mind-in order to cure our hubris. The creative efflorescence that took roots in defiance of Babangida's Structural Adjustment Program policy has now crystallized into a flourishing enterprise, with galleries that survive as small businesses and, most importantly, auction houses, which bring impressive monetary rewards for a number of artists, many of whom are, happily, alive and with us in this gathering today.
The Euro-American tribe of yore has now happily yielded to a small but growing class of avid patrons, among whom we must count Mr. Sammy Olagbaju, Chief Arthur Mbanefo, and Engineer Yemisi Shyllon. This brings us to the facilitator of today's event, Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, to whom we are indebted for creating a platform that appears to be spurred by a an unstinted desire to endow society and benefit humanity. For when all is said and done, the arts encapsulate the language, thoughts, and attributes of a people. They encode their character and telescope their foibles, aspirations, and identity. The arts, above all, are the visual manifestation of abstract ideals. They reify those intangible and fugitive notions, which define our collective. It takes excellence to recognize today's prophets in their own country and Chief Gbadamosi's munificence deserves our appreciation. The establishment of the Grillo- Pavilion represents a milestone in Nigerian patronage and offers a measure against which we may now compare Nigeria's very humble beginnings. Here, I am thinking of the old but faithful forum on the Marina: the Exhibition Center. Or Gallery LABAC and other early art centers. Gbadamosi's Grillo Pavilion also seems quite keen on establishing a contemplative temple where visual art is at once displayed, critiqued, intellectualized, and spoken. But our focus today will be on the doyen of innovative printmaking in Africa who, in five decades of creative foraging, has become an exemplar for the seminality of
his oeuvre and the infectiousness of his persona: Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya.
Contextualizing Zaria Since I first indicated in 1983 that activities of members of the Zaria Art Society amounted to an act of mild rebellion, so much energy has been invested, and appropriately so, on this phenomenon. If you expect me to run with this thread, which I believe is well worn at this point; you will be right. It is simply irresistible. At the risk of sounding tautological, let me crave your indulgence to briefly revisit the disciplined defiance that the Onobrakpeya group demonstrated during their years in Zaria. It is important to re-examine the key issues that are associated with this epochal manifestation in order to obviate the tendency to reduce it to a fleeting sound bite. I know that some scholars- Adepegba, Oloidi, and Okeke-Agulu, for example-have written on this topic, as have the Nigerian media and many others. What we have not adequately done is to contextualize Zaria. Our shortcomings in this regard- our inability to locate Zaria firmly within the larger firmament of pre-independence Nigeria-will most likely eventuate in puerile academicism, which does nothing but exacerbate the situation at the same time that it trivializes the achievements of members of the Zaria Art Society. The headiness, or deliberativeness, or revolution; or rebellion in Zaria has, alas, been turned into a buzzword-"Zaria Rebels” which, though sexy, probably sacrifices the historic import of this development at the same time that it resuscitates the popular cliché about rebels without a cause. There are two key points that I would like to highlight here.
First, what is the profile of the Onobrakpeya group in Zaria? With the benefit of hindsight, we can now say without equivocation that many of the members of this group displayed a combination of astuteness and a precious grasp of socio-cultural issues that were in sync with the political environment of pre-independence Nigeria. But these were not your average kids either. By 1959, the average age for four of the key members of the Zaria Art Society-Onobrakpeya, Okeke, Grillo, and Nwdko-was 25.5 years. In today's parlance, they were non-traditional students: adults who were keenly aware of their place in one of the country's highest institutions of learning in pre-colonial Nigeria. These were not your regular undergraduates in that they went to Zaria as mature students who were by no means impervious to the pervasive air of nationalism in which the country was caught on the eve of independence. We must recognize that the gritty determinedness that characterized the behavior of the students and the modulated tempo of their action was caused by nothing more than sheer nationalism, which the presence of European instructors in Zaria and the impending independence helped to accentuate. Recognize that at this time, the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, andTechnology was one of three major institutions of higher learning in Nigeria. Compare that to what prevails today, with twenty federal universities and more than twice that number for state and private universities. Polytechnics number almost as many as all the universities combined. It is important, too, to note that there was no comprehensive policy on art education in colonial Nigeria. Indeed, the colonial establishment was more interested in training the "natives" to be proficient mainly in those areas that benefitted Her Imperial Majesty. More efforts were expended on destroying indigenous art than in establishing paths for teaching art. Add to this environment European operatives, many of whom imbibed the notion, which has since been proven misguided and downright Eurocentric, that they occupied a higher rung on the social evolution ladder, it becomes relatively easy why Onobrakpeya and his colleagues would strive to preserve their own identity. Parenthetically, our educational system in general has not kept up with our ideals and aspirations in terms of curricula quality and its capacity to provide admission for the burgeoning number of students. This year, for example, the information regarding admission into tertiary level is grim: there is provision for only 500,000 out of about 6.4 million candidates.
Compared to what we now experience in Nigeria, the fifties was a time to be proud to be a Nigerian. Much earlier, in the 1930s, national pride had galvanized the Nigerian Youth Movement-and here, let us go ahead and drop some names: Samuel Akinsanya, H. O. Davies, Ernest Ikoli - to protest what they perceived as the junior or inferior status that the colonial administration assigned to Yaba Higher College in 1936. It was this nationalistic ardor that motivated the founding of Zik's West African Pilot, which became a hibernating ground for the first cartoonist in Nigeria: Akinola Lasekan. The small but powerful educated class in Nigeria at that time seemed to delight in making life unbearable for arrogant colonial officers. Students claimed the power to participate actively in etching the outlines of an emergent Nigeria. This was the climate that produced the likes of Onobrakpeya.
Second, the Onobrakpeya group was in Zaria to study art at a time when there was only a handful of artists in the, country. A roll call would produce the familiar class: Chief Aina Onabolu; Akinola Lasekan; and Ben Enwonwu. Add Felix Idubor, Festus Idehen, Afi Ekong, and Lamidi Fakeye and you would have exhausted the list. This was also a time when there were Virtually no Nigerian critics. The dominant critical voices-an Ulli Beier here, a Michael Crowder there-spoke a language that was not totally devoid of individualism, which was wrapped in a triumphalist, almost messianic veil. Of course, they meant well. Indeed, we should erect lofty edifices that commemorate the contributions to Nigerian arts of the Beier Clan: Ulli, Susanne, and Georgina. For regardless of whatever philosophical disagreements that some may have with Ulli Beier, no one can accuse him of not being fervid in believing in the power of the arts; no one can claim that he or she out- maneuvered Ulli Beier in so far as patronage and - advocacy were concerned. At the onset, however, what transpired was a philosophical and doctrinal battle between two groups of Europeans in Nigeria-the instructors in Zaria on the one hand, and the ideologues and advisors on the streets of Ibadan and Osogbo on the other-over the soul of the new Nigerian artists and the direction that the new art should follow. Onobrakpeya belonged in a group that demonstrated fundamental
allergy to neo-imperialism regardless of its ancestry. They were not impressed, for example, with Enwonwu's coziness with colonial officialdom and felt that he was not a strong advocate for indigenizing the arts.
Nearly thirty years ago when I had my first serious professional encounter with Onobrakpeya, I convinced myself that he had attained the height of his professional development. My conviction was influenced by two key intertwined ideas, which spoke
eloquently to my generation and those that have followed: the incredibly nuanced and bejeweled elegance and newness of his work, and his unflinching dedication.
Here is a man with a massively disarming and brutally empathetic disposition. With a charming 'and magnetic aura, Onobrakpeya's life is his art, literally and metaphorically. Perhaps without realizing this, his prints-indeed, his body of-work-are nothing but a visual re-presentation of his aspirations and relationships. In 1982 when I began my first intimate study of this master, I was convinced that he had reached that creative plateau that would allow most artists to put their signature op any item and expect to be rewarded. He had established a brand: the Onobrakpeya brand, and had compelled the world to embrace, respect, and recognize it. He had given a clout, to Nigeria and branding long before Akunyili began her mesmerizing play on the idea.
I believed then that I was right: you didn't have to be a graduate student to be able to acknowledge an unusual combination of virtuosity and simplicity. After all, his prints had been widely sought after by monarchs and commoners, diplomatic emissaries and rustic folks. Was this not the man who showed that you could actually live on your art? This was the art teacher who had the audacity to leave his daytime job in St. Gregory's in order to devote himself full-time to studio art. And he had proved, to be quite successful at that, building a home-studio space in Ajao's wilderness at a time that Oloje, the street which Onobrakpeya enlivened, was only a suggested path. His Oloje residence gave him the latitude to commit to a ceaseless cycle of prodigious creative activity. His work had made the cover of African Arts, the premier journal in our field, and he had been the object of several local studies and major international exhibitions. For me at that time, Onobrakpeya was the epitome of the modern day spectacle: a contemporary artist who had shown how profitable it was to dispense with narcissism and intensify his focus on cultural reinvigoration instead. You would see him in his home or studio-there were hardly any boundaries-shirtless and shoeless, dashing from one floor to another with visitors, artists, and students milling around him. His commitment to art and the profession bespeaks an unfettered drive that became obsessive. As a young student in Zaria he majored in painting and, out of his love for teaching, obtained the Art Teachers' Certificate. This is a trait that has now crystallized into a hallmark of the Onobarkpeya mystique. Let us make the claim here then: one of Bruce Onobrakpeya's legacies is anchored on the principle of life-long learning in art and an unwavering commitment to a progressive, inclusive, and often non-traditional pedagogy. A brief expatiation
is in order here.
Going by the early review of his work in the sixties, Onobrakpeya was not a dazzling painter. He was not supposed to emerge as Nigeria's version of Paul Gauguin or, in fact, of any such artist of Western manufacture. At this time, he neither had the technical wherewithal nor the desire to be anybody but himself: B. P. O. Onobrakpeya. At any rate, whatever he lacked in epic landscapes or penetrating portraits he certainly compensated for with his penchant for eclecticism, which is one of the artist's most compelling attributes. His work, no less than his approach and education, is integrationist. Onobrakpeya has developed an astounding capacity to meld a catholicity of cultural practices and educational systems into a cohesive claim, one that is unmistakably Onobrakpeyaesque. Take a look at his titles, as an example. They are almost always drenched in fascinating Urhobo: Emudia Kugbe (Standing Together); Esirogbo; Agbogidi; Izobo; Omo Voni (Mother and Child); Onoriode (Who Knows Tomorrow); and, my favorite title, Ivwrite R'Egbo
Titles, as you may have surmised by now, are just that:, indicators. Literal interpretation is sometimes an invitation to anguish. What matters is that Bruce Onobrakpeya has narrated Urhobo into our consciousness, in his approach to art and in his propagation of the core ideals of the Urhobo. What matters with regard to titles is that they are largely
causative; they command our attention and guide our gaze to their presence. Titles of artworks are one of Onobrakpeya's several ploys to accentuate his surreptitious attempt to underscore the preeminence of, cultural pluralism. Hear him: "I only want to regard
myself as a child of my society-as one born into a very rich heritage of the Urhobos and the other Edo-speaking culture; the heritage of lbo, Yoruba and NOk:; of the linear art of the Muslim north, or Yoruba adire motifs…”
But, as often happens with most visionaries and artists, Onobrakpeya's work was occasionally misread and condemned. One example pertains to the murals for the fourteen Stations of the Cross at St. Paul's Church, Ebute Metta, which he executed at the instance of Reverend Father Kevin Carroll The experiment of commissioning Nigerian artists to interpret biblical subjects in styles that localize Christian contexts had gained strong traction in Oye-Ekiti decades earlier. But some vocal members of the Ebute Metta parish considered Onobrakpeya's interpretation of the bible as contemptuous in its characterization. The subjects looked so Yoruba to the one writer, Father M. O. Sanusi perhaps a Yoruba man himself, that he felt that it represented a distortion of history. After 'all, there were no Yoruba men or women in Jerusalem at the time of the Romans. He concluded: "Any school boy or girl who has read ancient history of the Romans or the Jews would neither be impressed nor moved to pray by looking at this so called 'African Art' which some Europeans are trying by hook or crook, to force into the liturgy of the Church in Africa." Yet another member of the parish went as far as warning that Onobrakpeya's rendition of sacred biblical subject in familiar veins amounted to idol worshipping .
The Leopard in Ibadan
Ibadan marked a significant milestone in the trajectory of Qnobrakpeya's professional development. It is one of the few milestones, which would be matched twenty-one years later by yet another epoch that took place again at Ibadan: his visitorship at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. This would initiate yet another phase of the artist's growth. I said a few minutes ago that I thought that by 1982, he had reached his zenith. I must confess that I have been proven wrong in my assessment. Of course, Onobrakpeya's prowess remains unassailable. In the quarter-century since his Ibadan visitorship, he has, by sheer volume, range, diversity, and quality of work, and by the institutionalization of initiatives that will undoubtedly immortalize his attainments, shown that he is endowed with a deep and seemingly fathomless well of mesmerizing inventiveness. If any proof is needed, all that we need to do is take a cursory look at his body of work over time.
And this is a task that the artist has made effectively easy for anybody. Among contemporary Nigerian artists, no one-and this is not an exaggeration-no one has devoted as much clinical attention arid as much personal resources to documenting his or her own work as Onobrakpeya has. Most practicing artists know the significance of documenting their works. But how many actually devote the necessary attention, resources, and energy, as Onobrakpeya does, to archiving their work? In his own case, it is not enough to provide the titles, dimensions and year of manufacture. Be documents the unique story behind each work. He narrates the essence of each work and delves into the meanings behind every piece. He provides the rationale for the multiplicity of a single image in assorted shapes and formats. He explains the motivation for his thematized exhibitions. He offers the secrets of his trade: the experiments that turned ugly but eventually produced spectacular outcomes. The integrationist in him brings people together - experts and accomplices-to ponder his work, I offer their opinion, and commit their thoughts to paper. There is hardly a small Onobrakpeya exhibition catalog. What passes as exhibition catalog for many contemporary Nigerian artists will hardly qualify as a chapter in any of Onobrakpeya's exhibition catalogs- monographs that have themselves become collectors' items. Consider, for a moment, the entailments of producing a 200-page monograph with hundreds of color reproductions: from photography to text, throughediting and on to final product. Onobrakpeya does not only regularly produce new body of work, he also provides posterity with all the tools that are necessary to ensure that future generations are aware of the thought processes that led to the creation of his works.
This is yet another dimension of the artist; it is a dimension that we have not paid sufficient attention to.As archivist and self-documenter, he leaves no doubt regarding the raison d'etre for his numerous pieces. I suspect that deep within his depository, he must have full details concerning every sale, who purchased what, and for how much. Good as the practice of self- documentation is, it probably is dangerous for art historians like me because it turns us into a self- indulgent and lazy class. What then are we supposed to do after he has done our research for us? He has figured out our stock-in-trade and proceeded to provide nearly all the details that we need. He. appears to have anticipated the questions that art historians might ask and has given all the testimonials, which are supported by pictorial evidence. Now, doesn't the beauty of research lie in digging out information about extant work, figuring out why they were done, inputting meanings to them even where none existed, hypothesizing and indulging in our pastime, which includes the intellectualization and the narrativization of works that artists are so lazy to document or so careless to provide any hints about? Somebody should ask Bruce Onobrakpeya to please leave something for art historians to do.
New Creative Paradigms
The outcome of his University of Ibadan residency is a new body of work, something akin to a creative eruption. It becomes a coda for the doodles and motifs that he had indulged in over several years: Ibiebe alphabets. It does appear that we are yet to appreciate the transformative power of Onobrakpeya's seminal achievements in this direction. Certainly, he has produced outstanding pieces into which aspects of the Ibiebe ideograms are incorporated. That is not the central issue. We should be concerned about the concept itself: the originality of the thought and the outstanding newness of the product. In a short introduction to the ideograms, Pat Oyelola draws our attention, quite appropriately, to some of the continent's ideographic and pictographic traditions: in Egypt; among the Akan in Ghana; and, here at home, the Igbo uli and the nsibidi of the Ekpe Society. What Onobrakpeya has done with his Ibiebe ideograms is fundamental, cerebral, and creative. The field of contemporary art is often plagued by the notion of newness: creating an amalgam of work that may use appropriation or hybridity in advancing a new pictoriality. We are accustomed to the production or exhibition of controversial works: artworks that assail our moral, cultural, racial, or puritanical sensibilities. Onobrakpeya's Ibiebe ideograms does not exist on those platforms. His quest for a new graphic characters to symbolize Urhobo ontology is profound in ways that we have yet to acknowledge. This may be because we are too close in time to the artist to appreciate the uniqueness of his innovation. This new creative explosiveness strikes at the core of the Urhobo society; it empowers them to keep their own language alive by speaking it and by developing it. Language, as you may agree, is central to the way that we organize our thoughts and communicate our ideas. Onobrakpeya's ibiebe alphabets and ideograms locate him on the same high stratum as Frantz Fanon and Ngugi WaThiong'o. Onobrakpeya's work straddles the intersection between art and language. It is, in that regard, comparable to the way that art has always elucidated thoughts and ideas. We see that in our traditional religious practices across the African continent, where specific iconography signifies certain .. spiritual essences.
To have a command of language is to be able to influence A people's thought process in a significant way. The missionaries did that successfully when they reduced our languages into writing. Language was one important weapon in the arsenal of European imperialists, and they used it quite effectively in their colonization project. It continues to generate multiplier effects in a variety of ways, including the way that we remain mentally subjected to the colonizing culture. In all probability, we may not be able to measure Ibiebe's catalytic power in our lifetime; it will take future generations to fully appreciate the import of Onobrakpeya's work. Art becomes a handmaiden of ideas and an effective handle in the way that we, and more directly, the Urhobo, expand our vocabulary.
From his exploration of the two-dimensional surface, Onobrakpeya moved to the next phase: installation and three-dimensionality. This, it seems, was his professorial admonition to those who had worked themselves into a frenzy on whether or not installation was new to Nigeria. Previously, his plastocasts reveled in invigorating surfaces. Their beauty is accentuated by the secondary activities that the surfaces are engaged in. What you often see are kinetic and agitated fields of high relief, which are mediated by distinctive color fields that emphasize ongoing dialog. Whereas many of the plastocasts remain framed by their grounds, the new installations are independent and yet connected. It is this dichotomy-of interdependence and interconnectedness that empower Onobrakpeya's installation. This is the core of his contemporariness: the ability to push the boundaries in response to the dictates of his creative muse. When artists become enamored of their own particular style, stultification is most likely the eventual outcome; they are more likely to become stylistically ossified.
Nomadic masquerade series testifies to the artist's capacity for boundless inventiveness. Old forms are reincarnated and rehabilitated with new objects to create a new family of design featuring industrial detritus and an agglomeration of seemingly incompatible objects. It is perhaps the integrationist touch of Onobrakpeya that could fuse spark plugs with beads and other found objects in a bricolage of disparate elements and still attain a compelling composition. The work of Onobrakpeya of the last two decades calls our attention to one fundamental question: what is art? It is a question that admits of no easy answer. For Onobrakpeya, art is contemporaneity; it is currency; it is claiming and proclaiming; it is appropriating and re- categorizing. With his use of discarded computer parts, the incorporation of chronometric bits, the recycling of previous ideas from low relief and metal foil to three- dimensional accruals, new forms emerge from the embers of the past. It does not matter that a computer motherboard has been transformed into an aerial equivalent of Onobrakpeya's bejeweled compositions. It is art simply because Onobrakpeya has said so. That is the power of his creative legislation. But more important for us is the implication of the liberties that he has taken, and why he has been as successful as he is. After all; there is probably only one Onobrakpeya to perhaps everyone hundred professional artists in Nigeria. What is his legacy? Why is he as successful as he is, and what can we learn from his approach?
The first crucial element is Onobrakpeya's mindset is education. And I use education in its broadest sense here. As the first of twelve children-six from each of his father's two wives-Onobrakpeya grew up within a setting that socialized him into the Urhobo culture and gave him his early education, which was an immersion in Urhobo culture. He grew up in colonial Nigeria and honed his integrationist skills. In Zaria, it was easy to subscribe to synthesis as a doctrine. While his education in Zaria gave him an exposure to European perspectives, he eclectic impulse would take him to informal settings where he enriched his educational outlook. Now, the sage is back straight to the beginning: Agbara-Otor. There, he laid the foundation that will concretize his legacy: he founded the Niger Delta Art and Culture Center and began what has now become annualized: the Harmattan Workshop, which has just successfully concluded its twelve edition a week or so ago. The Agbara-Otor Workshop is a summative experiment that integrates the artist's several years experience as a student, participant, and conductor at various international sessions, including those at Ibadan; Osogbo; He-Ife; Deer Isle in Maine; Elizabeth City in North Carolina; and Harare in Zimbabwe.
Agbara-Otor should not be seen as a mere workshop. It is an edifice that testifies to Onobrakpeya's philosophy of inclusiveness and integration; of synthesis and indigenity; and a pragmatic tensility that recognizes that a single pedagogic dictum does a lot to circumscribe learning in the arts. Agbara-Otor reifies Onobrakpeya's doctrine of life-long learning and generous sharing . Agbara-Otor is a testimony to the power of imagination and the clarity of vision. Onobrakpeya could have chosen to invest his resources in pursuits that benefit him and members of his immediate family. He could exercise the option, following the lead of the political class, of building mansions in Lagos, Abuja, or anywhere else with complementary bullet proof hummer and a f1eet of luxury cars. Rather than indulge in vainglorious exhibitionism, Onobrakpeya directs, through his action, our attention to issues in the education of artists in Nigeria with particular reference to the ongoing rush by studio artists to obtain doctorate 'degrees in order to be
fully compliant with NUC directives for those who desire to advance in the academe.
It is important to make it abundantly clear that no one is opposed to, or afraid of, doctorates in art. The question that remains unanswered is: in what particular area of art is the NUC mandating the acquisition of doctorate degrees? If, as it seems, the directive gives a broad cover, which will then require that those who are in studio art must obtain Ph.D. degrees, perhaps this is the point at which we should throw up our arms and call for help. I see the relevance of advanced degrees in areas of critical theory, for example. Doctorates in art education, art criticism, and art history are normative, Just as are those that focus on other theoretical, methodological, curatorial, or interdisciplinary approaches. It remains to be seen, for example, how a Ph.D. in studio practice will trump the M.F.A, which is the internationally recognized terminal degree. How does the acquisition of a doctorate degree produce a more profound printmaker than Onobrakpeya? Or a more elegant painter than Grillo? How does a Ph.D. in architecture surpass the living structures designed and built by Demas Nwoko? Uche Okeke's drawings and paintings did not attain their profundity because he became professor and dean at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. When we add to that list other major artists including Lamidi Fakeye, Erhabor Emokpae, Kolade Oshinowo, David Dale, Obiora Udechukwu, and Bisi Fakeye, we come to the conclusion that the skills needed to teach excellence in studio practice in our tertiary institutions are met in the terminal M.F.A. degree.
What we should be concerned with is the appropriateness of discipline-based terminality, and not the salutation that comes with the Ph.D. prefix. Art is nothing but the ability to master the skills that are necessary to re-channel our intuitive capacity. Art is at once a process and a product, which has the capacity to provoke sometimes deep or visceral reaction in the viewer. You learn it by doing it: by engaging with the process and the media. Your formal education endows you with 'the capacity to indulge in self-evaluation, which further provokes the meditative process. The education that we give our students in the visual arts- and, indeed, in all other spheres of learning-should be centered on a dialogic process that is facilitated by assessment. Unless our formal art institutions have a system that allows our art teachers to assess what we teach and why we teach it, our doctoral programs will be ineffectual. For our terminal (M.F .A.) degrees to serve local and national needs, it must be grounded firmly in progressive curricula, which allow students to take ownership of their own education. This, we must recognize, is the legacy of Bruce Onobrakpeya; it is a legacy that he acquired as a member of the Zaria Art Society, which practiced critical thinking even at a time that such a phrase was unknown or unused. It does appear that the insistence by the NUC that the acquisition of Ph.D rather than the terminal M.F.A degree is mandated for advancement in our universities was an answer searching for a question. In the rush to meet these requirements, the probability exists that the quality of instruction will suffer. This directive has the possibility of anaesthetizing the academe: through the production of half-baked "doctors" who cannot cure colors, curate exhibitions, or articulate thoughts that cohere with clarity.
The Leopard at Large
Onobrakpeya is the sum-total of his work. His dominance in the contemporary arena-his ability to explore and inhabit a dualistic space-owes a lot his authorial tensility. He refers to this as synthesis but I call it creative tensility. For synthesis is a function of intellectual tensility; without one, the effectiveness of the other is compromised. He was the curious wanderer, the quiet but discerning inquirer who participated in Ru Van Rossem's printmaking workshop in Ibadan in 1963 and latched upon a medium that suited his spirit. He has never been the same since Ibadan. And the man who was not expected to be a Gauguin turned out not to be one after all; he became an Onobrakpeya!
Onobrakpeya is a wanderer; the ubiquitous but lonely soul that ferrets cultural landscapes, verdant or arid, and brings to our attention the preciousness of nondescript items or the hidden treasures of things inestimable. Onobrakpeya is the Sahelian masquerade and guardian of our deserts of culture: deserts that are constantly threatened, plundered, and desecrated by elected or appointed political or bureaucratic philistines. He is the nomad; the irredeemable voyager; and the perennial visual and spiritual pilgrim whose main goal is to collect, extrapolate, and meld ideas and thoughts into an aesthetic presence that is both transient and graspable. His foresight which we refer to as ingenuity is an ability to powerfully inhabit that space between today and tomorrow: that interstice between discernment and circumspection, intellect and, virtuosity; liminality and luminousness. He elucidates art as in idea that transcends visuality; as something that fuses tradition with modernity. Onobrakpeya is the leopard in the cornfield who ruptures constructed boundaries and empowers us to visualize a world in which our inhibitions are causative to our freedom to create our own worlds.