|Picture Courtesy Novo Isioro|
Onobrakpeya wins Nigeria’s Ultimate Medal
The Nigerian National
Order of Merit (NNOM) was instituted in 1979 to reward cerebral achievement. It
was at inception known as the Nigerian National Merit Award (NNMA). Although
the nomenclature has changed, the significance and prestige of the award
remains unassailable. The biodata on the back cover of Chinua Achebe’s The Trouble with Nigeria describes the
award as Nigeria’s “highest accolade for intellectual achievement”. The prize
has remained so. Achebe was the first winner in 1979 and many other
distinguished Nigerian intellectuals had gone on to win it. A roll call of the
winners whether they are from the Humanities or the Sciences points to the
reality that it is actually bestowed on Nigeria’s best. And it must be admitted
that Nigeria’s best is the world’s best irrespective of the cog in the wheel of
our national development and by extension our hobbled education system. Thus
the NNMA, even though it is a national award, could be compared to the Nobel
Prize superintended by the Swedish academy.
Some Nigerians are as
title crazy as Governor Okorocha of Imo State is driven crazy by his vision!
There are many contrived awards in Nigeria! From the one bestowed by the
president on himself and friends in the name of national honours to the ones
thrown around by tertiary institutions and shadowy organizations to whoever
could pay, Nigeria brims with awards. Yet, I dare say that the only one with unimpeachable
integrity is the NNOM! It is awarded annually and this year’s winner is the
master artist Bruce Obomeyoma Onobrakpeya! All the winners from Achebe to
Onobrakpeya will top any master class of their discipline anywhere in the
world! In truth, whatever modicum of respect Nigeria has earned in the world
came through the remarkable achievements of her intellectuals. If the world
concedes some measure of respectability to Nigeria, it is because Achebe, Wole
Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, J.P. Clark,
Bruce Onobrakpeya and their ilk in other fields of knowledge are
When words filtered in
that Onobrakpeya won this year’s NNOM many concluded that it was long overdue.
The Delta State University, Abraka, under the vice chancellorship of Professor
Victor Peretomode bestowed its highly regarded honourary doctorate on
Onobrakpeya in July this year. Instead of casting the doctorate at the highest
bidder, the university chose three worthy Nigerians, the Ohworode of Olomu, the
Asagba of Asaba and Onobrakpeya.. The DELSU honour and the NNOM reinforce and
justify each other. As university orator, the lot fell on me to do Onobrakpeya’s
citation. Part of it reads:
Onobrakpeya is a living art avatar who shares the same hallowed platform with
Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci and Michael Angelo in the universal configuration of
artistic influence! He was in the vanguard of the “Zaria rebels” led by Uche
Okeke that championed the decolonisation of African visual arts by privileging
traditional influences in their practice. Much of the motif of Onobrakpeya’s
art is rooted in his Urhobo tradition as he gives visual representation to
ethno-philosophy, folklore, politics, environment, religion, modernity... While
Urhobo tradition provides his collage, the world remains his canvas.
a master artist in a class of his own, it didn’t take long for Onobrakpeya’s
skilful hands to attract global attention. He became an Artist-in-Residence at
Haystack Mountain of Art and Craft in Maine in the United States of America in
1975. He has, since then, held some of the most prestigious Art Residencies and
professorships around the world, seven of which were in the United States. He
also enjoyed the same rare privilege at the Institute of African Studies,
University of Ibadan, and the National Gallery of Zimbabwe which is one of the
world’s most notable arts galleries.
the course of his enchanting career as an artist, Onobrakpeya has held more
than one hundred art exhibitions. The first of which took place in Ughelli in
1959. Since then his art works have been standing taller than any other at
exhibitions in Lagos, New York, London, Berlin, Moscow, Warsaw, Washington,
Bologna, Nairobi, Illinois, Toronto, Bradford, Holland, Zurich, Bonn, Zimbabwe,
Abidjan, Dakar, Dubai, etc. I must not forget the one at the Vatican Museum in
Rome in 1977. I am sure Pope Paul VI must have told God about the marvel of
recognition of his sublime art, he has received over fifty awards, honours and
prizes from all over the world. He is a winner of the Pope Paul VI Gold Medal.
In 1989, the University of Ibadan, awarded him an honorary doctor of letters.
He was the second person after Chinua Achebe to win the Nigeria Creativity
Award in 2010. Many other prizes came from across the seas; USA, Britain,
France, Iraq, Czechoslovakia, etc. The Federal Government of Nigeria conferred
the Member of the Order of the Federal Republic (MFR) on him in 2002. Very
significantly, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural
Organisation (UNESCO) canonised him as a Living Human Treasure in 2006! Art
connoisseurs have long reached a consensus that had there been a Nobel Prize
for Visual Arts, Onobrakpeya would have long won it!
Onobrakpeya’s art works can be found in all the continents of the world.
Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings, Nobles, Commoners, all stand before his
works in adoration! Onobrakpeya’s astonishing portfolio of achievements is
reinforced by ibiebe an Urhobo alphabetic system he invented, fourteen
published monographs and fourteen illustrated books. The number of theses
written on his works by art cognoscenti is in the realm of the uncountable!
us, today, is one of the most significant artists of global resonance for all
times. At eighty-five, Onobrakpeya is the youngest among today’s honourees, but
he is the oldest known practising artist in Africa now. Whatever he touches
becomes art. Art works immortalise the artist. So let it be with Owena Bruce
literature at the Delta State University, Abraka.