‘Ominira’: Onobrakpeya’s Art in the heady years of Nigeria’s Independence

I have been reading about the art scene in the heady years of Nigeria’s independence—the art exhibitions, the new art galleries, the appearance of experimental workshops, participation in the First World Festival of Negro Arts at Dakar, Senagal. It was a time of high expectations and renewed zeal to give expression to indigenous art and depict what lies ahead for the new nation. No art tells it like the artworks of Bruce Onobrakpeya, the storyteller himself. Here’s an excerpt from my favorite book on Onobrakpeya, The Storyteller of Agbarha- Otor: Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Visual Tales.

Culled from The Storyteller of Agbarha-Otor: Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Visual Tales by Dozie Igweze.

Like all good storytellers, Onobrakpeya has many influences. There are many stories that have shaped his own story, and understanding these stories makes it easier to understand his own tales. A good place to start would be one of the most important events that shaped his adult life – Independence.

On October 1, 1960, Nigeria became an independent country. Many Nigerians felt a sense of pride and achievement and probably dreamt of the great possibilities ahead. A few, though, appreciated the great difficulty ahead and understood that the country would, for a while, be walking the tightrope separating dream from nightmare.

Ominira (Independence)
Ominira (Independence), Deep Etching, 1991

In his artwork ‘Ominira’, Onobrakpeya deals with independence and growth. The piece is a series of vignettes about nation-building. The main image is of a group of climbers ascending a mountain, tied together by a rope. This is probably the central message of the artwork, the notion of a shared destiny – success through united effort or joint failure. Various other stories in the piece explore the same idea – people in a boat rowing in unison, with one man at the head; ants carrying a much bigger caterpillar through shared exertion; and a mythical tree with seven heads being cut down through shared effort and bravery. There’s also an image of the joyous dance of freedom. This is Onobrakpeya telling various short stories to illustrate the significant wisdom that nationbuilding requires shared commitment, hard work and sacrifice.

Studies of Nigerian Musical Instruments, Deep Etching, 1975

In some of his other artworks before and after ‘Ominira’, he had explored this idea of shared histories, shared effort and an intertwined destiny – sometimes directly and at other times obliquely. In ‘Studies of Nigerian Musical Instruments’, he looks at a variety of musical instruments used by different tribes in Nigeria. The artwork itself is treated like an easy sketch of some of these instruments and some musicians playing them. On one level, it’s a simple exploration of musical items and the people that use them. On another level, though, it’s a contemplation of the different histories and cultures we have and how, somehow, these histories provide a greater whole when brought together – a sort of cultural ensemble that exceeds its distinct parts.

Ekuoregbe (Unity in Diversity), Deep Etching, 1975

Ekuoregbe takes a more direct route by showing the varied attires of the different tribes of Nigeria. It’s not representative of our tribal diversity – not by a long shot. But it would take a pretty large canvas to capture the impressive diversity of tribes and cultures in Nigeria. He instead opts for a few representative attires. The idea is as pertinent with a few as with many. There is diversity. The diversity is useful and, if properly melded, can bring rich rewards. The artwork ‘Ominira’ was originally developed as a design for a postage stamp years after independence, to commemorate the rebirth of the country at the end of the civil war. Its central theme holds true both for peace after war and freedom after domination: building a nation requires work and unity. Waving the flag and proclaiming independence in 1960 was the easy part; building an independent country from the colonial amalgamation would be hard work.


Images: courtesy of Hourglass Gallery, Lagos.