‘Western countries should return looted Nigerian artefacts’ – Bruce Onobrakpeya

By Eniola Akinkuotu
Posted on Tuesday, 27 December 2022 16:20, updated on Tuesday, 3 January 2023 11:52

Photo caption: Bruce Onobrakpeya | A Group of four panels (Untitled; The Masquerades, Oremu Vbo Ogbo; Emiovbo Beroma) (Photo copyright: Sothebys)

At 90, Nigerian artist Bruce Onobrakpeya has lived through every momentous period of the country’s chequered history, from colonialism to independence, civil war, military rule, and democracy. He tells The Africa Report that the West should stop delaying the return of stolen artefacts. 

Bruce Onobrakpeya is in an ecstatic mood. He turned 90 this year. President Muhammadu Buhari paid him a glowing tribute, calling his over six-decade long career a remarkable journey of creativity, inspiration and transformation. 

President Buhari also affirmed that Bruce’s creative works — ethereal and sublime — have improved understanding of African arts, and “delivered to the world a new narrative on functionality of arts, especially in capturing cultural identities, history, politics and development.”

A few months prior to his 90th birthday, the San Diego State University in California hosted the Bruce Onobrakpeya exhibition at the University Art Gallery. In commemoration of Black History Month, the university unveiled a collection of his award-winning works that give a précis of the artist’s oeuvre spanning over six decades of uninterrupted studio work.

Although he has reached the pinnacle of success in Nigeria with President Buhari bestowing on him the Nigerian National Order of Merit award – one of the country’s most prestigious awards – Bruce’s rise to the top was not an easy one.

In his home-cum-studio located in Mushin, a bubbling, rowdy district of Lagos, Bruce tells The Africa Report that when he decided to follow his passion, art was not seen as a profession and although his father encouraged him, he was discouraged by family who believed he would not be able to scratch a living from art.

Zaria rebels

“The emphasis at the time I entered into art was [on] other professions like law, engineering, medicine and so on. Art was not even considered as a profession and there were little opportunities to develop your skill,” he recalled.

I didn’t have to leave old traditional art to go to the western art to become a modern artist. It was a seamless transfer from traditional art to modern or post-modern art.

After completing secondary school, there were no institutions of higher learning offering courses in art at the time and so he became a school teacher for a while until the principal assisted him to gain admission into the Nigerian College of Arts and Technology in Zaria (now Ahmadu Bello University) which he attended between the late 1950s and the early 1960s.

It was in this school that young Bruce met other future successful visual artists like the late Yusuf Grillo and they co-founded the Zaria Art Society – better known as the Zaria Rebels – because they had been radicalised by the spirit of nationalism that ousted the British colonial government and ushered in Nigeria’s independence.

“That period from 1959 to 1964 would be my proudest and most fruitful period for me. It was when a strong philosophy was inflamed and has continued to burn bright in me till today,” he says.

Through this new postcolonial Nigerian art, Bruce and his clique embraced Pan-African folklore, motifs, and iconography with which he showcased Nigeria’s rich cultural traditions and challenged the prevailing notion of European supremacy in the arts.

“I didn’t have to leave old traditional art to go to the western art to become a modern artist. It was a seamless transfer from traditional art to modern or post-modern art. Inspiration is life around us. I use our old art as a model and the old art was more advanced than the art of the west. I didn’t have to be western before becoming a Nigerian artist,” Bruce stated.

The big break

After school, many of his contemporaries were offered jobs in western universities and institutes and soon travelled out but Bruce decided to stay back in Nigeria, teaching art and painting but earning a modest salary.

Two American diplomats, Jean and Dick Wolford, had a gallery that opened every Thursday which was known as the Thursday Show in Ikoyi, Lagos. Bruce decided to put up some of his works on display.

“I found out the small artworks I was doing were sold and even at the end of the month, my salary was a tiny fraction of this. It was at this point that I decided that if I went ahead and developed myself as an artist, there was light at the end of the tunnel. And I owe it to Jean and Dick Wolford,” he recalled.

“That was the breakthrough. That Wolford gallery and the reception of my artwork that some expatriates and Nigerians loved, gave me the courage to develop my art and that is what you see today,” Bruce adds.

Stolen artefacts

But this legendary artist, whose works have been exhibited at the Tate Modern in London, the National Museum of African Art of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C; the Malmö Konsthall in Malmö, Sweden and many others, believes western countries must go beyond celebrating African art and repatriate artefacts plundered during colonial times.

For instance, the Benin Bronzes, a group of more than 3,000 brass plaques and sculptures were looted in 1897 by British troops from the ancient Benin Kingdom (southern Nigeria) and later auctioned off to museums and private collectors in Europe and North America.

This year, Nigeria and Germany signed an agreement that would see the repatriation of 1,130 artefacts while both the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford in the UK said they would return 116 and 97 Benin Bronzes respectively. The United States returned 31 artefacts.

We created these works and we created them for a purpose. Why would anyone think that when these works are brought back, we cannot keep them?

But this accounts for less than half of what was plundered.

Occasionally those holding on to the Bronzes ask about the capacity of the Nigerian government to properly harness the potential of these artefacts; some argue that the artefacts should remain in foreign museums while a commission is paid to Nigeria.

But Bruce disagrees. “We created these works and we created them for a purpose. Why would anyone think that when these works are brought back, we cannot keep them? Why must anyone think they should remain in the hands of foreigners before they can be useful to us? Those works belong to us.”

However, these artefacts were not just art works created for aesthetic value. They were totems, religious objects that served a purpose that may no longer fit into modern Nigerian society.

“The artworks taken away should be brought back and we will find a way to keep them and use them. If the role for which those artworks were created at the time they were taken away is not there anymore in our culture, new roles would be found for them in our present life. So, every inch of those things that went out the wrong way should be brought back,” Bruce argues.

Troubled country

Bruce says his biggest inspiration remains Nigeria. He says apart from the struggle for independence, the civil war from 1967 to 1970 as well as prolonged military rule also shaped his perspective of Nigeria which also reflected in his art.

The civil war for instance inspired the painting, ‘Have You Heard’ which depicts three women having a discussion about the end of the civil war.

“At the time the war ended, a few people had become very rich because they were in a position to sell rare commodities like salt which they sold to the Biafra side. They had become rich. So, when the war ended, they couldn’t believe it and they wished the war continued. That inspired my painting titled, ‘Have You Heard’.

The legendary artist also recalled how the prolonged military rule led to the confiscation and desecration of cherished art works by power-drunk decade-long soldiers.

“Soldiers would raid shrines and take masks and other objects that appeared scary, tie them to the front of their jeeps and armoured cars like scarecrows and destroy them in the process. They got kicks out of it,” he recalled.

‘The people merit their government’

With Nigeria just a few weeks away from a major Presidential election, the 90-year-old seems sceptical of doomsday prophesies and predictions.

He, however, says whoever wins the election will be the person who Nigeria rightly deserves.

“Let me also say that a people merit the government that they have. So, it is not a question of blaming the government and exonerating the people or blaming the people and exonerating the government. It is one package,” Bruce adds.

For now, this 90-year-old artist is keeping himself busy by continuing to teach younger artists and hosting workshops in his home town of Agbarha-Otor in Delta State through his foundation.

This, he says, is his biggest achievement and has contributed to his longevity even though he has had to subsidise the cost for indigent but talented students.

“I would say the achievement that is most significant to me is that I have been a teacher all my life. When I look at it, the Harmattan workshop I created in Agbara-Otor which has been on for 25 years would be my biggest achievement,” he adds.

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