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Profiling Bruce Obomeyoma Onobrakpeya, a Nigerian Printmaker, Painter And Sculptor

Bruce Obomeyoma Onobrakpeya (born 30 August 1932) is a Nigerian printmaker, painter and sculptor. He has exhibited at the Tate Modern in London, the National Museum of African Art of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and the Malmö Konsthall in Malmö, Sweden.[ The National Gallery of Modern Art, Lagos has an exhibit of colourful abstract canvases by Onobrakpeya and his works can be found at the Virtual Museum of Modern Nigerian Art, although no exhitions were showing as of October 2017.

Early years

Bruce Onobrakpeya was born in Agbarha-Otor in Delta State, son of an Urhobo carver. He was raised as a Christian, but also learned the traditional beliefs. His family moved to Benin City, Edo State, when he was a child. He attended Western Boys High School, where he was taught art by Edward Ivehivboje, among other subjects. He also attended drawing classes at the British Council Art Club in Benin City. Onobrakpeya was inspired by the watercolour paintings of Emmanuel Erabor. After leaving high school, Onobrakpeya was hired as an art teacher at the Western Boys High School (1953–56). In 1956 he left for Ondo, where he taught at the Ondo Boys High School for a year.

Formal art education

In October 1957 Onobrakpeya was admitted to the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, now the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.[ Funded by a Federal Government Scholarship, he was trained in the Western tradition of representational art. At the same time, he began to experiment with forms in relation to Nigerian folklore, myths and legends. Much of his work uses stylistic elements and compositions derived from traditional African sculpture and decorative arts.

The Zaria Arts Society, later called the Zaria Rebels, was formed on 9 October 1958 by a group of art students at the college led by Uche Okeke with the aim of “decolonizing” the visual arts as taught by expatriate Europeans. Onobrakpeya has said that the college gave him technical skills but the Zaria Arts Society, a discussion group, shaped his perspectives as a professional artist. The society gave him the confidence to seek a personal expressive idiom. He elongated his figures, ignored perspective and evoked the supernatural through ambiguous decorations.[


  • 1957–62 Diploma in Fine Arts (Dipl. FA), Art Teachers Certificate ATC Nigeria College of Art and Science and Technology, Zaria.
  • 1963 Arts Teacher, St Gregory’s College, Obalende, Lagos, Nigeria
  • 1975 Artist-in- Residence, Haystack Mountain School of Art and Craft, Maine US A.
  • 1979 Associate Professor, Elizabeth City state University, North Carolina US A.
  • 1984 Artist-in- Residence, Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, Nigeria
  • 1989 Artist-in- Residence, Tacoma Public school, Tacoma Washington State USA
  • 1991 Artist-in- Residence, BAT Visual arts Studio, National Gallery of Zimbabwe
  • 1991 Artist-in- Residence, 1991 MOJA, an African American Arts festival, Charleston, South Carolina, USA
  • 1998 Founded the Annual Harmattan Workshop Series in Agbarha-Otor, Delta State, Nigeria

Later career

Onobrakpeya later attended a series of printmaking workshops in Ibadan, Oshogbo, Ife and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Maine, US.[ His first one-man exhibition was held in 1959 in Ughelli in the Niger Delta. Later he exhibited in the US, Italy, Zimbabwe, Germany, Britain, Kenya and elsewhere. Onobrakpeya was an important force in the renaissance in contemporary art in Nigeria. For many years he taught at St. Gregory’s College, Lagos.

Onobrakpeya created the Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation, of which he is President, and which organises the annual Harmattan workshop in his home town of Agbara Otor, Delta State.[ The foundation is an artist-led Non-Governmental Organization formed in 1999. It aims to encourage the growth of art and culture by giving artists opportunities to gain skills, while increasing public awareness of African art and its benefits to society. The foundation organised the Amos Tutuola Show, Lagos (2000). It has participated in many other shows.


“Bruce Onobrakpeya is amongst the most successful artists to have emerged in West Africa during the 20th century, with continuing and commanding influence on the generation of artists in Nigeria, who have come to maturity in the post colonial period.”[12]

  • Honorary D. Litt. from the University of Ibadan in 1989.[
  • Honourable mention at the Venice Biennale.
  • Fellowship of the Society of Nigerian Artists on 6 June 2000.
  • Pope John Paul II award for painting the life of Saint Paul,
  • Fellowship of Asele Institute award,
  • Sadam Hussein award,
  • Solidra Circle award, and Fulbright Exchange Scholar award.[
  • Onobrakpeya is the recipient of the Living Human Treasure Award (2006) given by UNESCO,
  • Second winner of Nigeria’s prestigious Nigerian Creativity Award by the Federal Government of Nigeria on 14 September 2010. Its first winner was Chinua Achebe.
  • Honourary Degree of Doctor of Arts (Hon. D. A) from the Delta State University, 2017
  • Recepiant of highest Nigerian Academic Honour (NNOM) Nigerian National Order of Merit, 2017

Onobrakpeya’s work

Art periods

A definitive work on the art of Bruce Onobrakpeya would have to be an intense exercise. Each of these segments represents specific periods in the artist’s studio practice, which spans a period of over 50 years.

The first segment is the Mythical Realism (1957–62), which represents paintings, and lino cut prints that depict folklore themes, and Northern landscapes (Zaria). This is the period of his early development as an’ artist, which coincided with Nigeria’s Independence. The idea of projecting the African personality was of major importance to the artists of this period. It was also at this time that the Zaria Arts Society, the forerunner of the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA), was formed and accompanied by the propagation of the concept of “natural synthesis”. Works in this category include the paintings: Awhaire & the Bird, Hunters Secret, and A Tree in Northern Landscape, and the Lino Cut Prints Zaria Indigo, Two Faces, Boli Woman and Awakening (Negritude)

The second segment focuses on the artist’s workshop experiments and his Bronzed lino relief series otherwise known as the Sunshine Period (1962–1967). This is the period when he started to attend various workshops. Some of the popular works of this period include Leopard in a Cornfield (Iino print), Scarecrow (silkscreen) and Man & Two Wives (silkscreen)


The Mask and the Cross (1967–78) series represents the period when the artist executed several Christian themes commissioned by the Church such as Nativity II (Iino engraving), The Last Days of Christ (plastocast), Obara Ishoshi (bronzed Iino relief) and Pope John Paul (metal foil), as well as the Plastography Period, a time when the artist developed a lot of ideas he started in Zaria in the late 1950s and early 1960s such as Travellers II, Songs of Life, and Rain & Cry at Otorogba.

The fourth segment represents the historical vignettes. These are pictures known as the Symbols of Ancestral Groves (1978–84) They depict historical figures, mostly royalty from the Benin Kingdom such as Oba Aka. Other works in this period include Eghrighri and Ibiebe.

The Sahelian Masquerades (1984–88) were pieces created to highlight the destruction of the environment These works focused on the cultures of the Sahelian regions Works in this period are also loaded with a lot of political undertones such as Horns Of Freedom, and Edjo Aton (principles of good governance), which draws a lot of attention to role of government in relation to the issues of desertification.

The Mask Series (1990–1995) represent the development of images, which inspired depictions of masks treated in different print media that bring out the philosophies of the people. They also address’ the subject of change. Images I and /I as well as A Panel of 15 represent this period.

Social Unrest (1995–99) is the period of strife within the society. This is represented by large paintings, which are prayers for divine help against military dictatorship and political instability. Here we have drawings and pictures, which focus on the murder of Ken Saro Wiwa. On the front burner. are the ecological and socio-economic problems. In this segment you have works such as Ekugbe (Unity)Nude & Protest and Smoke from the Broken Pipe.

Finally we enter the Installations Period (1995 – Date), which is the period the artist embarked on installations as an art form. These works are characterised by the arrangement of different discarded materials to create works of art. These installations were essentially to draw attention to importance of protecting our environment. Works in this category include Animals of Eve, Adjene, New City III and Voices of silenced Voices.


Since 1966, as an experimental artist, Onobrakpeya has discovered, innovated and perfected several techniques both in printmaking and relief sculpture that are uniquely Nigerian. Generally, printmaking is a fine art process of producing pictures from a plate which the artist has previously created. Having conceived the idea, the artist then creates an image or images on a plate through any of the printmaking techniques. The images are then transferred onto a paper or any other surface by printing or embossing method. The advantage is that the artist can use one of such plates to produce as many copies of the artwork as required, sometimes giving them various colours. Onobrakpeya has increased the techniques tremendously.

Bronzed lino Relief is a collage of used lino blocks with bronze colour patina. Onobrakpeya developed this relief technique in 1966 as a way of preserving used blocks which in themselves possess sculptural qualities.

Plastocast Relief is a painted low-relief design that was cast with resin. The idea started as an extension of the bronzed lino relief. The used plastograph plates (like used lino blocks) have sculptural low relief effects which make them unique as art works. An attempt to retain the original used plates, and at the same time give collectors a chance to possesses and share the beauty of the original, led Onobrakpeya to develop a method of creating other original plates from existing used plates through the use of plaster of Paris. Sometimes, small plates with the same or similar themes are arranged together and cast to form a larger picture. A further development in plastocast relief is carving directly on abandoned or congealed plaster of Paris then applying resin on the cast and pulling out a positive. However for a deep engraving on plaster of Paris to produce bold relief, depends on the nature of the plaster of Paris. This is known as plastocast plate. It is painted or tinted plastocast plate that becomes a plastocast relief.

Plastograph is a term given by Onobrakpeya to describe his deep etching technique that he innovated in 1967 through what he referred to as the Hydrochloric Acid Accident. It is an engraving on a low relief surface made of zinc or similar surface material and printed in the intaglio style.

Additive Plastograph is another technique that involves making of print images on a sheet of sand paper, using glue as a drawing medium. This is glued to the sand paper using intensive solar heat. Ink is then applied to the resultant images by the intaglio inking process. any link in excess is wiped off with a dry cloth. This is later taken to the press to register the relief already created by the glue on a soaked and semi-dried cartridge printing paper. Finally, the registered impressions are painted, using pastel oil to achieve the desired forms by the artist.

Metal Foil Deep Etching is a plastograph print in which aluminium foil is used to draw the engraved images. The thin foil is cut and placed on an engraved plate and then the embossed sheet is removed, turned over and filled with resin to stabilise the relief. The resin filled foil is then laminated on plywood or no any other surface. Onobrakpeya first started experimenting with foils and from the experiments transformed the foils into a print medium in the 1980s. He used already printed plates to try out the technique.

Metal Foil Relief Print is a three-dimensional metal foil print drawn on a plastocast plate. A fairly thick foil is cut and placed over a plate and hand pressed to transfer the shape of the picture on the plate. The foil is then removed and filled from behind. It is then laminated onto a plywood and coloured in the same way as the metal foil deep etching print process already discussed above. Note that while the metal foil deep etching print is drawn from plastograph plates, the metal foil relief print is hand embossed on a plastograph plate.

Ivorex is a new technique recently developed by Onobrakpeya which simulates optical effect of old ivory engraving on bone or elephant tusk. The material used, however, is polymer.

Ibiebe alphabets and ideograms

Ibiebe is a writing style developed by Onobrakpeya. It features his invented script of ideographic geometric and curvilinear glyphs. The designs reflect the artist’s knowledge of his Urhobo heritage, rich in symbols and the proverbs they elicit, as well as his appreciation of Chinese, Japanese, Ghanaian and Nigerian calligraphy. Onobrakpeya invented and refined this script called Ibiebe from 1978 to 1986, when he revisited in his art, ideas linked with traditional religion, customs and history. Ibiebe glyphs aim at encapsulating universal concepts of timeless values. The artist clearly delights in the script’s forms and visual qualities as well as its power to communicate. These ibiebe ideograms which are often abstract, also lend themselves to calligraphic, painterly and sculptural presentation.


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