The Zaria Rebels: Bruce Onobrakpeya

Published 20 June 2024 in The Legacy

Uche Okeke Legacy Editorial

Bruce Onobrakpeya is one of Nigeria's most distinguished artists, celebrated particularly for his pioneering work in printmaking. A key member of the Zaria Art Society, Onobrakpeya has played one of the most historically significant roles in Nigerian art. 

His works often depict themes from Urhobo folklore, reflecting his deep connection to his cultural heritage and his innovative artistic vision.

Printmaking Innovations

Bruce Onobrakpeya is renowned for his mastery and innovation in printmaking. Over his career, he has developed several unique techniques, including plastograph, bronzed lino, and metal foil deep etching, allowing him to create richly textured and visually striking prints that stand out for their complexity and depth.

To accurately understand his innovations in printmaking, we must view them from within the broader context of Nigerian art history and the socio-political climate of the mid-20th century. Nigeria, having gained independence from British colonial rule in 1960, was in a period of intense cultural renaissance. Artists were seeking ways to express their new-found national identity and cultural heritage, and Bruce Onobrakpeya and the Zaria Art Society, of which he was a key member, played a crucial role in this movement. Founded at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (now Ahmadu Bello University) in Zaria, the society advocated for the incorporation of traditional African art forms into contemporary practice, they developed the Natural Synthesis movement, aimed to merging indigenous Nigerian art traditions with modern techniques.

The period following Nigeria's independence was characterized by a desire to break free from colonial influences and establish a distinct national identity, and the Zaria Art Society emerged as a response to this need, promoting a synthesis of traditional African art forms with contemporary practices. This post-independence era was a time of artistic experimentation and innovation. Nigerian artists were exploring new mediums and techniques, pushing the boundaries of traditional art forms. This approach resonated with Onobrakpeya, who, like the rest of the Zaria Art Society, sought to create art that reflected his cultural heritage while also embracing modernity.

His work during this period was influenced by this spirit of experimentation, leading him to develop unique printmaking techniques that combined traditional motifs with contemporary methods.

The Influence of the Zaria Rebels

Onobrakpeya’s journey into printmaking began in the 1960s, when he was exploring various artistic mediums. Initially trained as a painter, he found printmaking to be a versatile medium that allowed for greater experimentation and innovation. 

His early works in printmaking were influenced by his experiences at the Zaria Art Society, whose emphasis on Natural Synthesis played a significant role in Onobrakpeya’s artistic development. The society’s philosophy encouraged artists to draw inspiration from their cultural heritage while embracing modern techniques, and this resonated with Onobrakpeya as he sought to create art that reflected his Urhobo heritage and Nigerian identity. He was encouraged to explore and innovate freely, which gave him the freedom to develop techniques that were uniquely his own and spurred a transition from painting to printmaking, marking a significant turning point in his career. 

Onobrakpeya’s early experiments in printmaking involved exploring various materials and methods and he used a range of techniques, such as lino-cut and etching, to develop a unique artistic voice. This period of experimentation was crucial in shaping his approach to art and lead to the development of innovative techniques that would define his career.

The Plastograph Technique

One of Onobrakpeya’s most notable contributions to printmaking is the plastograph technique, which was developed in the early 1960s and was a breakthrough in the art world, particularly in Nigeria.

The development of the plastograph technique represented a significant departure from traditional printmaking methods, such as woodcut and etching, and demonstrated Onobrakpeya’s ability to push the boundaries of the medium. The technique, which involves engraving a design onto a plastic sheet, which is then used to create a print, was not only praised for its innovation but its practicality, allowing for the creation of multiple prints from a single engraved sheet. This was particularly important in the context of Nigeria, where access to art materials and resources was often limited.The process allows for intricate details and textures, giving his works a distinctive and tactile quality. The depth and detail achieved through this technique have set a high standard in printmaking, and the technique has been widely adopted by artists in Nigeria on a global stage. 

Onobrakpeya has and continues to conduct numerous workshops and training sessions, sharing this technique with emerging artists.

Bronzed Lino and Metal Foil Deep Etching

The development of the bronzed lino technique marked another significant milestone in Onobrakpeya’s career. By incorporating metallic elements into his prints, he was able to create works that were not only visually stunning but also symbolically rich with an added a layer of sophistication and complexity to his prints, setting them apart from traditional printmaking methods.

The bronzed lino technique involves carving a design into a linoleum block, inking the block, and then applying a metallic bronze finish to the print. The result is a relief print with a rich three-dimensional effect and a metallic sheen that enhances the prints’ depth and visual interest. This method reflects Onobrakpeya’s fascination with texture and his desire to create works that are both visually and tactilely engaging, and further showcase his ability to innovate and push the boundaries of traditional printmaking. 

Bruce Onobrakpeya’s bronzed lino technique has been widely recognized and celebrated in the art world, has inspired artists to experiment with methods such as this in their work. His works have been featured in numerous exhibitions and collections worldwide and continue to bring international attention to Nigerian art and printmaking innovations.

Rich Cultural Influences

Bruce Onobrakpeya's art is deeply rooted in the rich cultural heritage of the Urhobo people, and his works are imbued with the essence of their folklore, capturing the myths, legends, and cultural practices that define his community. 

The Urhobo people, an ethnic group from the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, have a rich cultural heritage replete with captivating myths and legends that explain natural phenomena, teach moral lessons, and recount the deeds of gods and heroes. There are various traditional practices and rituals that play a significant role in the Urhobo cultural identity, with importance placed on ceremonies related to birth, marriage, and death, as well as festivals that celebrate agricultural cycles and honour deities. 

Onobrakpeya captures these practices in his art, using his unique techniques to depict the vibrancy and significance of these moments. Urhobo motifs of animals, mythical beings and symbolic patterns frequent his works, with each having a significant meaning attached - animals representing various traits, deities, or natural forces, mythical beings representing the underlying forces of the world around us, and the symbols and motifs being the thread used by the Urhobo to convey this deeper meaning.

With his piece Oghene’s Genesis, Onobrakpeya uses his plastograph technique to depict the moment of creation. The artwork features a central figure representing Oghene, surrounded by swirling patterns and intricate details that symbolize the emergence of life from the void. The use of flowing 

Noticeable Contributions 

The Harmattan Workshop

The Harmattan Workshop, founded by Bruce Onobrakpeya in 1998, is an annual art workshop that takes place in Agbarha-Otor, Delta State, Nigeria. 

Named after the dry, dusty wind that blows from the Sahara during the winter months, the workshop was conceived as a platform for artists to come together, exchange ideas, and develop their skills in a collaborative environment. Onobrakpeya’s vision was to create a space where traditional and contemporary art practices could intersect and foster creativity and innovation. Onobrakpeya established the Harmattan Workshop with the belief that art is a powerful tool for cultural expression and preservation and his goal was to create an environment that encouraged experimentation, learning, and the sharing of knowledge among artists of all levels in the way the Zaria Art Society had done for him. 

The workshop’s emphasis on collaboration and community reflects Onobrakpeya’s commitment to nurturing the next generation of artists and ensuring the continuity of Nigerian art traditions, and offers a diverse range of sessions, each focusing on different art forms and techniques. These sessions are led by renowned artists and experts, providing participants with valuable insights and guidance. Activities include printmaking, sculpture, ceramics, painting and collaborative projects, where participants are encouraged to work together, share ideas, and create joint artworks. The Harmattan Workshop has had a profound impact on the Nigerian art scene, contributing to the development and preservation of traditional art forms while also continuing to promote and increase accessibility of contemporary practices. 

Over the years, the workshop has become a crucial platform for artistic exchange and innovation, attracting participants from across Nigeria and beyond.

Notable Works

The Spirit of Niger

This print captures the mystical essence of the Niger River, a vital and sacred entity in many Nigerian cultures, including the Urhobo. The use of swirling patterns and aquatic motifs reflects the river’s life-giving and spiritual importance. The artwork not only portrays the physical beauty of the Niger but also its spiritual significance, highlighting its role as a source of life and a symbol of continuity in Nigerian culture.

The Hunters of Urhobo

Depicting traditional Urhobo hunters, this piece showcases the bravery and skill of these figures. The detailed patterns and earthy tones highlight the connection between the hunters and their natural environment. The print celebrates the courage and resourcefulness of Urhobo hunters, emphasizing their deep connection to the land and their role in the community. Through this work, Onobrakpeya honours the traditional livelihoods and the symbiotic relationship between humans and nature in Urhobo culture.

The Fisherman's Dream

This work portrays a fisherman engaged in a mystical dream, blending reality with elements of folklore. The intricate details and use of symbolic motifs convey the dream’s otherworldly nature and the cultural significance of fishing in Urhobo society. The print captures the spiritual and mystical dimensions of fishing, a vital activity in the Niger Delta region. It reflects the dreams and aspirations of the fisherman, as well as the broader cultural significance of fishing in Urhobo life.

The Masked Dancers

Inspired by Urhobo masquerade traditions, this print captures the vibrant energy and spiritual significance of masked dancers. The dynamic composition and bold colours reflect the celebratory and ritualistic aspects of these performances. Onobrakpeya’s depiction of masked dancers highlights the importance of masquerade in Urhobo culture, both as a form of entertainment and as a spiritual practice. The print captures the movement and vibrancy of the dancers, as well as the cultural meanings embedded in the masquerade tradition.

Bruce Onobrakpeya’s mastery of printmaking techniques and his deep engagement with Urhobo folklore have resulted in a body of work that is both technically impressive and culturally significant. Through his art, Onobrakpeya not only preserves and celebrates tradition but contributes to the broader narrative of modern Nigerian art. 

His legacy as an artist and educator inspire and shape the future of Nigerian art and ensure that the rich traditions of the past remain alive and relevant in contemporary practice. 

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