Bruce Onobrakpeya's Exhibition at Art 21, Facade, is like walking into Wonderland
Updated: Feb 24
There’s a Nigerian artist so great, so good, so masterful, so… so many so-s, that it is a sin - an absolute travesty, that he is not more well known. Bruce Onobrakpeya is celebrated and he is renowned, but not enough. He is to African art what Wole Soyinka is to African Literature.
I remember studying his work at school. Looking at his innovative printmaking technique with awe, his skilled etching in metal with absolute bewilderment, and the studied reinterpretation of African folklore and traditional imagery with appreciation. Just looking at Mr. Onobrakpeya’s art is enough to receive an education. It isn’t one of words, or essays, or lectures, but of feelings. To own a piece of his, is to look at it daily and see something new every time.
When I heard that there was an exhibition of Bruce Onobrakpeya’s work at Art 21, a prominent art gallery in Victoria Island. I had to go. There was no question about it. The cultured do not stay cultured by sitting at home and fighting people on twitter. They must maintain the habit by doing cultured things, which are very often pretentious and unreasonable, but this doesn’t matter one bit. People must be people, and all passions in the eyes of someone else are pretentious, unreasonable, and quite frankly insane. The only thing that matters, is that you pursue the things you say matter to you; that you do what you want… As long as you’re not killing, or stealing, or arsoning, or raping, or pillaging, you’ll be fine, the world’s a very accommodating place. If it made space for Hitler, it can certainly stretch itself to accommodate you.
Facade: An Exhibition of Paintings by Bruce Onobrakpeya, features pieces that span 59 years, from 1961 to 2020 (which is when the exhibition began). I walked into the space like I would walk into a church, with humility, head bowing and much shuffling of feet. My first thought?
“You probably won’t be able to buy any of this at any time in your life.”
I cancelled that thought immediately. Loving yourself means policing your negativity, lest your negative thoughts take root, grow and consume you from the inside out.
“I’m a Chairman, a prince, basically a king. I am the righteousness of God in Christ. An Onobrakpeya cannot be beyond me.”
With that I raised my head to see, experience and enjoy. It is important to witness excellence, so that we too may be inspired to be excellent.
In Facade you see Mr. Onobrakpeya’s techniques as they exist in his head, and perhaps his heart. A painting is not just a painting. It is not just brushstrokes and oil or acrylic and canvas. A sculpture isn’t just a carving or the pretty assembly of unconventional things. There are no limits to the stories he tells, so his work follows suit. A painting doesn’t just have paint, and a sculpture is more than metal. This has something to do with his conceptualisation of African art.
"African art goes beyond designs made on typical surfaces such as canvas fabric or paper; we paint on the walls, masks, even on our bodies - the choice of base is limitless and so, three dimensional works of art that imbue colours including sculptures have been selected into this show in order to justify the variations of painting that exist within African art. These variations which cannot be stifled by the globalised precept of the art concept.” That’s a quote from the gallery’s summary of Facade.
It is mythical realism at its best.
The exhibition was put together by Kennii Ekundayo, a Curator of modern and contemporary African art. She first encountered the artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya, in a professional curatorial capacity in 2019, when she was invited by Freedom Park Lagos to curate an exhibition with the artist. The exhibition was called Beauty and the Machine. It was the first in a planned series of commemorative shows.
"I sought for more mediums to celebrate this incredible feat of Papa Bruce as I fondly call him hence creating a partnership with a Californian university to curate a retrospective exhibition on him that has sadly been postponed due to the effects of the pandemic. However, I did not want to delay the rhythm but to continue the string of shows now in tandem with the soon-coming retrospective which led to an exhibition proposal to the management of the esteemed art space, Art Twenty One who graciously accepted to collaborate with me in realising the exhibition now known to all as Façade." Kennii Ekundayo said to me via email.
One thing about Mr. Onobrakpeya’s work is that however mythical his pieces are, they all appear to have life. They look like they come alive when you go to sleep. As a result, I found some of them - like the one above, frightening. It is called an Encounter with Eru and it was painted the year I was born, 1990. If it was in my house I do not think I’d dream very good dreams.
This: Ekphen gha mue Ewe Vbudezi, is my favourite. It is whimsy and fantasy. It is everything I love in a painting. And it is my boyhood. It made me think of The Bottled Leopard a novel by Chukwuemeka Ike, The Famished Road a novel by Ben Okri and Alice in Wonderland.
I think that’s what the exhibition was for me, a tiny piece of wonderland.
It’s on at Art 21, in Eko Hotel, on Ademola Adetokunbo, a street in Victoria Island. It is on until the 10th of April.
This piece was edited on Wednesday the 24th of February 2021 to include comments from the exhibition's curator Kennii Ekundayo. It is all the better for it.