Onobrakpeya: I feel greatly pleased to be honoured at home
Previously named ‘Living Human Treasure’ by UNESCO, Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya recently received an honourary doctorate degree from Delta State University, Abraka, for his work in the humanity. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU (Assist. Arts Editor) and ENIFOME UKODIE, the famous master printmaker celebrates the significance of the gallery the university named after him and tasks governments to build modern galleries and museums. He says his 20-year old Harmattan Workshop needs assistance to help advance its work in training talents and job-creation in a rural community
We know that you have had a lot of honours and recognitions from many quarters around the world, but this one comes from home. So, how does it feel?
I feel very honoured, and it is a great privilege to be so honoured. I was very pleased with it.
And then a gallery is also named after you. Could you talk about that gallery a bit?
Well sometime ago, Nelson Edewor, head of Fine Arts department approached me, and said that they were proposing to name the gallery after me. I was very pleased; they never reported that something is in place. So with this award, an exhibition was put up there as part of the convocation. I went there and it was opened in the presence of many people, including the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Victor Peretomode. It was a really big honour. I would say that nothing so far had been named after me. This is the first time that something close to an institution is being named after me and I was very pleased.
The gallery shows the faculty’s works and the works of post-graduate and graduate students, but it was very nice. There were very many iconic works there and one of them actually was the portrait of the governor of Delta State, Ifeanyi Okowa. So, it was a thing of joy and I am very happy that it has been named after me.
Going forward, what kind of works will you like to be doing with the gallery that has been named after you in that University? We know what you do at Agbarha-Otor with the Harmattan Workshop and Ovuomaroro studio, but for that gallery to grow, what might you like it to be doing?
Well, what I have done was to make a cash donation to them and I picked on what the Vice Chancellor said, that they were going to expand it, take it to another side and expand it. So, I then said that for the expansion and the continued growth, I made a particular donation today to the university. And also, I pleaded that other people: corporate bodies, individuals, etc, should please donate generously towards the growth of the gallery because an art gallery is a very important department in any school because it has a civilizing effect. It brings the town and the gown together; the terms ‘the town and the gown’ means university people, academic people, and then the people of the town. It brings them together for a dialogue. What happens after that is a kind of civilizing effect it would have on them, so they have a higher feeling towards life.
Regarding the meeting point between town and gown, we all know some of the problems bedeviling the Niger Delta, where the gallery is situated. What kind of dialogue would you like the gallery to be holding from time to time?
There are issues, which the works in the art gallery address. The environment is very important and I will say there has to be a continuous dialogue about the environment. The environment, how it can be made free from disasters, how it can be made very productive and also, the environment will include, training people in the craft so they can be self-employed, so they can be pulled out of the problem of poverty.
So the town and the gown will also use the gallery to develop their identity. Usually when you look at my works you find that they are titled in vernacular. Now those titles in vernacular will always excite discussions because some of them are fundamental and very philosophical. So with discussing the philosophy, discussing the proverbs, discussing the ideas of the wellbeing of the people, the concept they know; and using that to challenge modern themes and also upgrading their thoughts towards modernity and all that, which would help to improve the life of the people in the region where the university is situated.
Now that you’ve mentioned vernacular, I want to believe you meant to say the mother tongue, which is Urhobo, you own language, isn’t it?
When I say vernacular, I don’t mean the mother tongue, which is Urhobo. But I mean something that is bigger than that because Urhobo is one of the ethnic groups in the Niger Delta. So, it is not only the Urhobo, the Ndokwa, the western Igbo, the Isoko, the Itsekiri; they all have different philosophies and different ideas that can be brought forward in the art, which can excite discussion and so increase the knowledge and the translation and the aspiration of the people within the area.
One major vernacular theme that has been consistent in your work over the years is the ibiebe. Could you explain what that concept actually entails?
Ibiebe is the development of ideas in sign writing, but what I did was to actually design it in such a way that they can be used as alphabets. So you can independently use those letters and put them together and they then become readable in poetry, readable in literature and readable in recording history. That is what the ibiebe is. And the concept is really also something that comes out of our earlier philosophy about reaching out in time to bring our time-valued ideas and develop them in such a way that they can help us in the present time and also help us in the future. The ibiebe is what I may call those sign writings, the glyphs that we’ve always had with us.
In Urhobo we call them ibrebu and you find that these ibrebu can be seen on the faces and the bodies, the arms and the legs of people. Also beyond the body, they are also used for writing on walls and so on. The ibiebe that I developed borrowed from that rich, although ancient or distant background.
Which is similar perhaps to nsibidi and uli in the Igbo area…
Yes, but it isn’t quite as developed as the nsibidi, but the uli and ubi in Urhobo… In Igbo it is called uli, in Urhobo it is called ubi. The Hausas also have a word for the drawings on the hand and the body. All those ones are the background for this ibiebe signs and symbols that I developed.
Is there a book where you probably explained ibiebe, where a modern person, who might not be Urhobo or Isoko can possibly read the ibiebe that you developed and derive meaning?
Yes, I wrote a book on it, Ibiebe: Alphabet and Idiogram. It has something to do with the symbols, idioms and the alphabets.
Of course, there is the phenomenal Harmattan Workshop, which has gone on for so many years now. Are you comfortable with the level it is? What is next for the workshop?
I am not comfortable with it. You know, the Harmattan Workshop is an informal education setup; it is alternative to the present formal educational setup. The usefulness of the Harmattan Workshop is that it covers many grounds. One, it touches the rural population who have no opportunity of attending universities and so on and so forth; they gain from the Harmattan Workshop because we are there in the rural area and we draw them, we bring them in and they benefit heavily. The second thing is that the workshop is a forum whereby the people in academic institutions can come and also learn new techniques, which they can either practice by themselves or take back to the universities to also teach other people and also learn from people in the rural area. The third arm of what we are doing in the workshop is to use it as a fulfillment of one of Federal Government’s requirements for education.
In other words, the people in other areas, students of schools of a particular area must visit museums or craft situations and so on to learn and see how these things are done. We do that very copiously. People from the Niger Delta, even people from as far as Ife, Benin, Asaba, Ogwashi-Ukwu, Warri, Ugheli, they all come there. The students come in droves; they come in coaster buses. Sometimes on a day, we can receive more than 400 students coming to see the art works that we have in the gallery and also to be spoken to and have chance to talk one on one with artists from all over the country and some from the West African region that is: Benin Republic, Togo, Ghana; also people from the United states, Canada, France and Belgium; these people come.
But to answer your question: what we are doing is very big, much bigger than we can handle and so in order to touch these areas that we have talked about now, we need help from individuals, corporations and the government. Right now the government does not have the informal education sector in its system; so, they never assist. But we are hoping that things like this interview and interaction with government people and so on, that the case for assisting workshop such as the Harmattan Workshop should be brought forward and the government should please do something because what we are doing is educational.
But it is also something that opens up the area and, in another way, it prevents the exodus of people of a particular area, where workshops are situated, from going to the towns (rural-urban migration) because first, they feel very proud of that place. Two, there are job opportunities for them. The Harmattan Workshop, for instance, is an employer of labour. People from the local area all come to work there and earn their livelihood. So the workshop goes beyond being just an educational workshop to being an employer of labour, and removing people from the streets. To answer your question, we need help to develop those laudable ideas that are there as the aim of the Hamattan Workshop!
So, not even in the 20 years that it has existed has even Delta State government come to your aid in some way or the other?
Well, I would say that yes they have come to our aid. They have used us; they have asked us to come to Asaba for an exhibition that promotes us, that gives us personality and so on. During the James Ibori-led administration, we were given some fund but that was a one-off fund; the government of Delta State did that. But what we are asking for is the fund that would be made available for us to go from month to month and year to year. Now you find that the space in the Harmattan Workshop is under-utilised. So, if we have enough money from the government or from corporations, then we can run the workshops for eight to nine months in a year, with different people coming and different people going…
So, it becomes like a residency?
Yes, a residency and a kind of workshop… We have been partners to SHELL (SPDC) in the past. You know, they bring their people, they pay for their feeding and pay for some of the materials that they use, and then we put them through a period of workshop. They were more than 60 people at the same time, from six or more zones where they operate. So, we want things like that to go on; there is nothing preventing them from saying, “okay, these talents or the people in this field like craft, portrait and so on, go there and do this workshop; then the people in wielding, go there and do this workshop; the people in printmaking, go there and do this workshop; they can do all that. Then the area of schools, everyone would benefit from it.
Right now we are handicapped; we don’t have enough funds to do it all the year round. The best we can do is just maybe take two or three sessions in a year. But with government’s help, we can now continue for about three to four months and do several sessions, eight, nine, twelve sessions within a year. This is the message I would be pleased if you can help me pass on!
In our earlier conversation, you said government is not listening to issues in the sector. What should government actually do to help the industry?
What I want to say is that this question has given me room to talk about NGA (National Gallery or Arts), that is an arm of the government that has got, as one of the mandates, to assist artists. They have conducted exhibitions for the artists, both in the country and outside the country; they have published books about the artists, of many volumes, about artists who are pioneers, artists who are beginners. The government has done that for them very well. The NCAC (Nigerian Council of Arts and Culture) has also done things like that; but what is missing is that we do not have a place, which is called a National Gallery, where we can display our works in the standard that is worldwide accepted. We don’t have that.
We used to have a place in Lagos here, at the National Theatre, but it closed down a long time ago and both the artists and the other cultural engineers have been praying the government to give us structures that will help us show our works in such a way as to win respect from other parts of the world, in such a way that can also attract artists from other parts of the world. When strangers come to your own territory, they bring new things, new ideas; it is not only us because most times we strive to go outside. But if we create nice infrastructure, so instead of going outside, we will see those nice works here and learn from them within and so many artists will benefit that way. But only a few artists can get out and learn and see what other people are doing outside.
We want contemporary art galleries and contemporary museums built, not only in Abuja, but also in all the state’ capitals. This has many advantages; apart form actually uplifting the artist, if that is done, it will be a copious instrument for earning money from tourism because people will come and see them (our works), and people will come in droves. The government, through the National Gallery, has helped, but we want a few things, including galleries and museums, to be built for contemporary arts.
And also, there is another thing lacking, which is our cultural policies that is yet to be rectified by the government. Cultural policy has items in it that, if propagated and carried out, will profit the artist and take care of the artist. For instance, if those things are propagated, one, it will help provide for the health of the artist, provide for the ability for the artist to be able to buy materials to do his work. They will also help the artist to benefit from the work they have done. An example is that in other places, you have the artists benefiting from the sale of an artwork that has already left their hands. If I create a work and I sell that particular work to somebody and that work is put to an auction, or sold to bring in a lot of money, the artist should be made to have a percentage of it. If he is alive, fine; if he is not alive, his estate should benefit from it. Those are the kind of things that cultural policies can do for us, but we have been waiting for those things to be done. They are not done yet and I think that these things are overdue and they should be done to help the artist.
With the situation we are going through in the country, that is, depression, if the art sector has been fully developed, it can really take care of tourism and bring in money that will help to somehow run this country. I want to refer you to countries like Spain, France, England, Germany; all these places don’t have oil wealth, but they rely on their arts to do a lot of things. And so they build up-to-date galleries, up-to-date art institutions that attract people, attract wealth; they put their best works there and people go there to see them. But here, because those things are not there, our best works, very often, filter out of the country and after a time we begin to plead that our artworks should be brought back to us, but we opened our eyes to allow people to take over them.