Review: The Storyteller of Agbarha-Otor, Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Visual Tales
Dozie Igweze’s The Storyteller of Agbarha-Oto: Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Visual Tales is a classic how-to book; it acquaints the uninitiated reader with what he needs to know about the artist’s life and works. The book beautifully expounds on this technique in the thematic segment titled Medium. In an introductory essay of this segment, Igweze leaves no one in doubt that his book, through which he has expanded the scope of documenting the master printmaker’s periods, is ideal for a wider readership that includes even neophytes.
A page-turner, the book is full of refreshing anecdotes, as the author skilfully directs the readers away from the expected turgid mode. Like cinematic POV shots, the following themes guide the readers through different facets of the artist: Meetings and Conferences, Medium, Independence and Before, The Zaria Identity, Urhoboland – Myths and Legends, The Benin Empire, Adire Fantasy, Wood Stories, War and Loss and An African Jesus and Other Epiphanies.
Some may think this is a chronological account but this cannot be any further from the truth, though it gives an account of different times in Onobrakpeya’s life. For instance, the book teleports the reader to sometime in 1942 when the artist was 10-years old and sat spellbound with other children through Aminogbe’s tale about “Eraguamire”.
There are times when Igweze subtly airs his opinions. For example, on page 14 he writes: “The storytellers didn’t just deal with great stories; they dealt in myths. Their stories carried the myths of their tribes and passed them on through generations, reinforcing the ideals of the tribe and indoctrinating the children into the truths of the tribe. These are stories carrying centuries-old wisdom and knowledge, passed off as entertainment.” He goes on further to that: “This was in the time before television. The television is probably a lot more entertaining – more channels, more stories. And that wonderful tool, the remote control, means you don’t have to move a muscle…”
The book beautifully explores Onobrakpeya’s technique in the themed segment titled Medium and gives the reader a delightful feel of the tale Lunar Myths, which was visually documented in 1970 as a plastograph work.
Speaking on his work and technique, the artist explains: “Printmaking is somewhat different from conventional painting,” He continues, “The original idea is created and then transferred unto a surface like wood, zinc or linoleum, either through cutting or etching the image onto that surface. This surface then becomes a mould. The print is made by using a wood press, or other methods, to transfer the image on the mould onto the paper.”
It is important to note that the book only covers a fraction of the 84-year old artist’s broad oeuvre. Quite useful are the historical contexts on which some of the anecdotes are embedded. A less informed reader thus gains more information beyond just learning about the artist’s techniques. The author situates the context of the artist’s outlook against the backdrop of some historical accounts. This approach hits its climax in the segment titled The Zaria Identity, which takes the reader back to the heady Zaria Art Society years. Igweze informs the reader that Onobrakpeya and his fellow Zaria Art Society members “believed that a country emerging from colonialism needed a culture true to its roots, rather than one that was tied to its colonial experience. If the country was going to be truly independent, its art needed to be independent.”
The Zaria Art Society would thus pass on what came to be known as the “Natural Synthesis” concept to the Nigerian art scene. The author further explains to the reader with the following words: “They agreed that the best path to creating art that was relevant to the new Nigerian experience was to take the best in what was Nigerian and add the new, foreign ideas – a synthesis. This idea would guide the development of each member’s art in different ways. For Onobrakpeya, it was a step towards clarifying the basis for his art.”
The reader also understands the artist’s fascination for his Urhobo roots from this context. Indeed, Onobrakpeya’s Christian faith never stood in his way as he explored the dialectical orbit of his people. Igweze explains the scenario thusly: “For the pre-Christian Urhobo, the world was divided into two halves – the physical and the spirit world. Human beings were born, lived and died in the physical world. The spirit world was the home of their ancestors and an assortment of spirits. This was where all the interesting things happened.”
No doubt, the activities of Onobrakpeya and his fellow cohorts of the Zaria Art Society had a huge effect on the Nigerian art scene. Hence, The Storyteller of Agbarha-Otor Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Visual Tales is not just for newbies to the Nigeria visual arts sector, it is also an ideal read for artists, art historians, art writers, journalists, researchers, collectors and students alike.
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