Thursday, August 23, 2012

Even at 90, I will not be done yet

Even at 90, I will not be done yet On August 30, one of Nigeria’s oldest practising artists, Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya, will turn 80. Expectedly, his birthday is being marked with series of arts events across Nigeria, US and Ireland. In November, the birthday train will berth at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, Oyo State, for an exhibition and a book launch. The founder of Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation (BOF) said that even if he clocks 90, he may still be unable to realise his dream as an artist. Assistant Editor (Arts) OZOLUA UHAKHEME reports. Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya, 80, is a household name in Nigeria’s creative industry. He is one of the most documented and oldest practising Nigerian artists. The renowned printmaker, painter and sculptor has exhibited in leading galleries across the globe, including the famous Tate Modern London, National Museum of African Art of the Smithsonian Institute, in Washington DC and the Malmo Kontshall in Malmo in Sweden. His yearly Harmattan art workshop at Agbarha-Otor, Delta State, has recorded over 3,000 participants from Nigeria, US, France, Belgium, Ghana, Togo and Benin since it was founded 12 years ago. Yet, Onobrakpeya said even if he clocks 90, he would still have much to accomplish as an artist. He said to turn 80 is by the grace of God, but that the strange thing he feels is that there is still much undone as an artist. “If I am given more years, it still may not be okay to accomplish my dream as an artist,” he added. He, however, gave gratitude to God for his sojourn so far on earth, noting that though there is destiny, one great thing that contributes to longevity is physical engagement at all times. He recalled that his late father was 112 before he died. “If you set a target of what to achieve, and you are doing it, then you will be unmindful of time. But when you feel it is over for you, then life tends to stop,” he said. According to him, his 80th birthday has been a one-year-long programme of events, which started with this year’s Harmattan workshop at the Niger Delta Centre for Arts and Culture, Agbarha-Otor in February. There was an exhibition (revisit of the Sunshine Period) which included presentations, interviews on life, art and inspirations for his art. At the Dakar Art Biennale, a group exhibition featuring 19 artists’ works was held at Kajinol Station, Dakar, Senegal, between May 10 and 24 as part of the celebration. The exhibition featured some of the best examples of the experimental works resulting from the Harmattan Workshop, undertaken by a galaxy of artistic stars. Onobrakpeya showed an installation entitled: Igbe Jubilee 2 (Jubilee Dance 2) and several experimental works that have been closely associated with Onobrakpeya’s innovative career spanning over 50 years. There were about 40 works on show at this exhibition. But he regretted that the Harmattan workshop has not been able to hit the mark in its 12 years of existence because he went into the project without ascertaining the financial and structural developmental needs for its sustainability. “If I had been tutored on all this, the workshop would have grown bigger than what it is now. However, the Harmattan is the longest running workshop in South of Sahara,” he said. Onobrapkeya said the Harmattan workshop caters for the lowest to the highest in the art, adding that the academics realise the relevance of the workshop in skill acquisition. He cited the late Twin Seven-Seven as an example of how the informal workshop has contributed to the nation’s artistic growth. He said the late Twin Seven-Seven was the only Nigerian artist listed in a publication, 30,000 Years Of World Art - The Story Of Human Creativity Across Time And Space, published in 2007 by Phaidon, New York. The late artist’s work that was listed is The Lazy hunter and the poisonous wrestler (Lizard ghost and the cobra). He said there was need for more of such informal workshops, adding that government should assist such workshops to get the best. “Also, the corporate bodies and donor agents should come to their aid,” he added. On his dream for the Harmattan workshop, Onobrakpeya said development is on-going at Agbarha-Otor that would see the old structure being turned into a museum. He said: “Ours is a success story. It has helped to develop the local community, the state and the nation. We are creating network for artists to grow. The sky is not the limit for the alumni.” Onobrakpeya’s 80th birthday will be commemorated with a series of art events in Nigeria, the United States and Ireland. Leading the pack of art institutions is National Museum of African Art, Washington D.C. US that will hold a reception for Onobrakpeya after the opening of an exhibition at the Skoto Gallery in New York between October 18 and November 24. In Ireland, Onobrakpeya will be the keynote speaker at the SMA sponsored Rev. Father Kevin Carroll Conference on African Christian Art holding at Dromantine Conference Centre, Northern Ireland, between October 5 and 8. Onobrakpeya, a noted collaborator of Fr. Kevin Carroll, was an early advocate of the use of African art in churches. The conference, which will also be attended by Prof. John Picton of University of London will feature presentation of Onobrakpeya’s illustrations, prints and materials connected with Fr. Kevin Carroll’s pioneering work on Christian art. On the home front, there will be a summer retreat between August 5 and 18 at Niger Delta Arts and Culture Centre, Agbarha-Otor, Delta State. The retreat, which is being organised by The Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation, will centre on Bruce Onobrakpeya and the environment and will feature mature artists who want to escape the distractions of the city and enjoy the serene and rustic Agbarha-Otor. A retrospective exhibition, 50 years of Bruce Onobrakpeya: Window Into his Art, of selected works from various periods of Onobrakpeya’s artistic career from 1957 till date will hold at the Nike Gallery of Art, Lekki, Lagos from August 25 to 30. The first segment of the exhibition is the Mythical Realism (1957–1962), which represents paintings, and lino-cut prints that depict folklore themes, and Northern landscapes (Zaria). The second segment focuses on the artist’s workshop experiments and his bronzed lino relief series otherwise known as the Sunshine Period (1962–1967) while the third is The Mask and the Cross (1967–1978). The fourth segment represents the historical vignettes. These are pictures known as the Symbols of Royalty (1978–1984) which depict historical figures, mostly royalty from the Benin Kingdom and Niger Delta. Also on display is The Sahelian Masquerades (1984–1988), which draws a lot of attention to the 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. Social Unrest (1995–1999) is the period of strife within the society. His installation periods from 1995 till date will also be featured. This show will be jointly curated by Nike Okundaye, Sam Ovraiti and Bode Olaniran. From Nike Gallery the train moves to All Saint Church Yaba, Lagos where a thanksgiving service will hold on September 1 by 10 am. This will provide opportunity for well wishers and the art community to worship, celebrate and give thanks with Onobrakpeya and his family. Reception follows at the V. Ginis Centre, Opposite WAEC, Yaba, Lagos A retrospective show of selected works from various periods of Onobrakpeya’s artistic career will hold at the Institute of African Studies, Univeristy of Ibadan in November. It will be accompanied by the launch of a book: Mask of Flaming Arrows edited by Dele Jegede, a 446-page of essays by leading scholars on Onobrakpeya from 1967 to date with over 100 colour illustrations. Onobrakpeya is also noted for the illustrations of some classic novels of many Nigerian writers such as Chinua Achebe’s No Longer At Ease, Heinemann, London, Adeboye Babalola’s Iwe Ede Yoruba, Apa Kini, Longmans of Nigeria, 1961,Cyprain Ekwensi’s An African Night’s Entertainment, AUP Lagos, 1962, Cyprain Ekwensi’s, Juju Rock, AUP Lagos, Nigerian Episcopal Conference, May Your Kingdom Come, Geoffery Chamman, London, 1969, Nkem Nwankwo’s Tales Out of School, (Cover illustration), AUP, Ibadan, Kola Onadipe’s Sugar Girl, AUP, 1964, Rosemary Uwemedimo’s Akpan and the Smugglers, AUP, Ibadan, 1965, T.N.O. Quacoopne’s West African Religion, AUP,Ibadan, 1969, Oladele Taiwo’s The Hunter And The Hen, AUP, Ibadan, 1969, Barbara Haeger’s Africa: On Her Schedule is Written A Change, AUP, Ibadan, 1981, , Kola Onadipe’s Magic Land of the Shadows, AUP, Lagos, 1970, Soyinka and Fagunwa’s A Forest of a Thousand Demons, Nelson, London, Clementine Deliss’ Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa, White Chapel Art Gallery, London, 1985, and Onuora Nzekwu and Michael Crowder’s Eze Goes to school. ‘How I cheated death’ Renowned Afro-jazz musician and founder, Peter King College of Music, Lagos, Mr Peter King, 74, is bed-ridden, following a stroke. After seven months at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Idi-Araba, he is back at his Ilogbo, off Badagry Expressway, Lagos home battling the sickness that has paralysed his left hand and leg. He speaks with Assistant Editor (Arts) OZOLUA UHAKHEME on his narrow escape from death, his dream for his 30-year-old school, his relationship with his former students, such as Lagbaja and ASA, among others. But for his steady voice and perhaps the unkempt grey bears, Peter King’s identity has been ‘altered’. He appeared weak and tired, and a shadow of himself. However, he still has his memory intact. He took time to answer questions. At intervals, he battled to sit upright or massage his left fingers, demonstrating a strong will to live and to overcome his health challenge. The Trinity College, United Kingdom-trained musician described the seven months he spent at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Idi-Araba as a narrow escape from death. According to him, to have left the hospital alive was a miracle because its state of facilities “is a national embarrassment”. “Most teaching hospitals are highly rated all over the world. To find facilities, such as water and light at LUTH in that state, beats my imagination. I was even lucky to come out of the hospital alive because many people died while I was on admission there. Some of the medical workers did not even bother about me. It was all about what they can get. Everybody, from the nurses to the doctors, was very cunning,” he said. King blamed his illness on prolonged hours of work without break. He said he worked very hard at his school to ensure standard and quality. “At times, I teach in class and even overdo it to the extent that my wife would be complaining. Sometimes, she has to practically drag me out of class. I believe I overstressed myself because I was in a hurry to bring the school up to standard,” he said. King, who returned home shortly after performing along with his band, The African Messenger of Sango as a member of the British contingent at the Second World Black and African Festival of Art and Culture (FESTAC 77) said he never experienced any symptom of hypertension. He said he couldn’t remember if he ever took ill and, as such, felt his health was okay. For now, his school is being managed by his Jamaican wife. because of his inability to move around and use his hands effectively. Asked if he would consider allowing the school to go public, he said: “Yes, that’s what I will do in the future. Till date, I have worked so hard to sustain the school and it has been a one-man-show. At inception, I designed the structure myself to my taste. I then gave it to the construction company to execute. At the moment, we have started building a studio for recording. It is a storey building.” He added: “Unlike other subjects, the teaching of music demands a lot of sacrifice. I teach most of the students because I play almost all the instruments ranging from drums to string and wind. That is what helped me to sustain the school; if not, Nigerians can disappoint you. So, I was able to run it alone for almost three years before I started bringing in the old students to teach new intakes.” On the relationship between him and his former students, King said some of them like Bayo and Jerry still get in touch with him. He said though many are outside the country, they still write him about their career growth. “ASA always comes to see me, but she travels a lot and now she has settled a bit. When she doesn’t come herself, she sends somebody,” he said. For Lagbaja, he said the masked musician used to come, but he hasn’t seen him lately. There are many foreign cultural agencies in Lagos that will be interested in the school. Have you received any assistance from such agencies? he was asked. He said some foreign agencies that assisted the Peter King College of Music were the French Embassy and Canadian Embassy in Lagos. The embassies, he said, contributed immensely to the growth of the school, adding that they financed the construction of most of the halls. He recalled that the first five years of the school were hectic for him because he worked so hard so that it woould not fail. “When I came here, I bought four acres. One plot of land then costs about N500, and if you multiply it by six, that gives you N3,000 or N4,000 per acre at most. So, we started building the side we are sitting now first. I built a small house for the school, which served as a quarter where the school started. “Within the first four years, it was the Canadians who first came to my aid. They sent us instruments. A Canadian musician, Mr Oliver Jones, came to Nigeria. He used to come here from the Federal Palace Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos. He was in the country courtesy of the Canadian government. Then, we were already developing the school, but he saw the potential and the direction we were going. So, they did a lot,” he said. While King was studying in England, he had a band and was still practising.When he returned home, he thought about how to set up a music school. Before then, he was encouraged by a friend, Mr Abayomi Barbers, to join the University of Lagos. “But when I got there, they started the same old story that I should only teach maybe voice, singing, and all that trash. I did not want to do that. That was in 1987 or 1988. Fortunately, I brought my band, The African Messenger of Sango to Nigeria. I was at the FESTAC 77as a member of the British contingent. And that really encouraged me,” he said. Undaunted by his experience at the university, he opted to establish a music college. Location was a concern, as he was fed up with his Maza-Maza, adjacent FESTAC Town apartment, which he described as a ‘noisy zone’. He sought a virgin land in Ilogbo. “I was really fed up with Lagos because after all the hard work during the week days, you still cannot have some quiet moments because of weekend celebrations on the streets. I mean the Owambe party that disturbs creativity. It was a big challenge for me teaching and rehearsing with my band under such conditions. In fact, I was doing so much at a time because I resolved never to return to the United Kingdom (UK) because I brought my wife and child. Asked what kept him back in after FESTAC 77, he said he saw so many possibilities in the country, adding that Nigeria did wonders during the festival. “I have attended festivals across the world from Japan, to Switzerland, Italy for jazz concerts but FESTAC 77 was properly organised. I was surprised. In fact, they blew my mind. Imagine building a town for the festival and the town was booming with surplus good food and everything working fine. So, after the festival, I saw that with lots of dedication, you can do a lot rather than going to England or America,” King, who has 12 albums to his credit, said. His Jamaican wife is managing the college with the assistance of some old students. “I gave her all the rights to run the school and if she needs advice, she comes to me,” he said. He is not disturbed by the non-accreditation status of the college’s programmes, saying his primary aim is to make a student a musician as quickly as possible by training his ears for good music. He cautioned: ”If you want to be a musician, money is not the most important thing; it is what you want to do with the money that counts.” He said he is not fulfilled yet because the stroke denied him the opportunity of participating in the London Olympic Games. He said: “If not for this sickness, I would have been at the London Olympic Games. I was invited because they thought I should be there. But even in my sickness, they still wish to release most of my records at the Olympics. In fact, the organising committee is releasing my old records at the Olympics.” He said he has lots of compositions that have not been recorded, promising to work on them as soon as he recovers. One of the works is entitled: The Palm Wine Vendor, which he would have released if not for the illness. ‘Ife changed my life’ In 1984, Robert Elliot Fox, a Professor of English and Africana Studies, Southern Illinois University, United States, was among the select audience who witnessed the 50th birthday of Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka at the then University of Ife, UNIFE (now Obafemi Awolowo University, OAU). Penultimate Thursday, Prof. Fox was the guest speaker at the 78th birthday lecture for Soyinka. He speaks on how Unife shaped his intellectual growth, the relevance of Negritude and the challenges of globalisation, among others, with ASSISTANT EDITOR (ARTS) OZOLUA UHAKHEME. In your paper: From Tigritude to Transcendence: The Conscience and Conscientiousness of Wole Soyinka, at the Soyinka lecture in Lagos, you said you have not been able to experience the same intellectual engagements you had at University of Ife (UNIFE) since you returned to the United States. What is responsible for this? “I don’t find the same kind of intellectual engagement at home in my university as I had years ago at Ife. I think it is the same here too because there was a woman who spoke after my lecture that in Nigeria the kind of training they used to have in the 70s and 80s was quite different and doesn’t happen anymore. I didn’t know how to counter that but I think it is unfortunate because we might call those days ‘glory days’ because there was so much energy, intellectual development and we debated a lot. I am still close to some of those teachers because we had mutual respect for one another even when we disagreed sometimes but that didn’t mean we could not understand one another. What influenced your decision to take up teaching job at UNIFE? I was young and I had only been teaching maybe for one year in colleges and universities before I came to Nigeria. But I was developing intellectually and I was finding that development in a country very different from my own. So, that gave me an international experience. Again, I went to UNIFE because Prof. Desmond Hamlet, who had been my mentor since when I was getting my PhD, had gone there on one year sabbatical and he decided to stay. So, I went and joined him since I wanted to be associated with that kind of opportunity. But, if someone had told me that I would be there for seven years; maybe I will not have gone but I am glad I did because it changed my life in a very positive way. What was your impression of Soyinka the first day you met him at Ife? There were quite a number of people I interacted with at Ife. But, I can remember a woman who was a Creative Director originally from Jamaica, but had been in Nigeria previously from another university before she came to Ife. She was one of the first people I met when I arrived at Ife and in our conversation, she discovered that I read Soyinka when I was a graduate student and was very interested in his works. So, it happened that she had been invited to Soyinka’s house for a dinner and she asked me if I would like to go with her and meet him. So, I went and met him and many other people. It was an interesting evening because I was able to talk with Prof. Soyinka irrespective of many guests that were present. As far as this lecture is concerned I talked about issues that other people have talked about, which are most important. As I told a number of people, I spent seven years working on African literature. The last time I saw Soyinka was in 2008 when he came to my university because we had a conference around his works and a production. So, I had been concentrating on that until Prof. Segun Ojewuyi called and asked if I was going to be committed to the summer. I told him I was not and he said he had an assignment for me, which was theatric. But as I started carrying out the assignment, more ideas began to come in. Nadine Gordimer wrote an essay entitled: Soyinka; the Tiger. You also wrote on Soyinka’s tigritude. In this lecture, what is the link between Soyinka and tiger? It was one of the first things I heard about him and it was one of his most famous quotes that was very short and striking. He was responding to a philosophy known as Negritude, which was developed by French speaking Black writers from Africa and the Caribbean who were educated in France. Soyinka will start to be dismissive about all of that because, in his comment what he meant was if you are a tiger all people need to do is look at you and see who you are, instead of saying look at me, I am a tiger. It does not need to be said and that was taken to mean that this was nonsense and he actually insisted that Negritude is something that we need to engage in that is important. But, he believes the people were selling an idea and also because what Negritude was doing was taking characteristics of people of colour ascribed to them by white people and written down as negative and making it positive. For example, the European will say we are intellectuals and you (black) are emotional. The negritude people will say what’s wrong with having this feeling? Abiola Irele, who is one of Africa’s leading critics wrote in one of his books that there isn’t any writer who actually embodies the principles of Negritude more than Wole Soyinka. So, there is a lot of complexity and more to it. And the idea of tiger came up in 2008 when Soyinka came to my university where Gordimer worked on Soyinka’s tigritude. What I meant by that his firm commitment to justice, he does not talk about something and he tries to act on behalf of those issues he is committed to. I was also concerned about his moving from being somebody who was a very strong Nigerian patriot to a Pan African view point to a global view point. That was to broader perspective. Do you think Negritutde has really lifted the course of Africans and how relevant is it at this contemporary time? I don’t think ideas that are relevant lose their relevance completely. I don’t believe in too many people pushing the notion of Negritude now. I was trying to compare Fela with Soyinka in their approach to the Negritude movement. Fela was somebody who was actually promoting Negritude without ever using the word because Negritude was trying to resist the European’s view that blackness was nothing and as such holds that black is everything. That was what Fela did. And he did it crudely. But Soyinka embodies in less obvious much more subtle way. Today, it is common knowledge that many African nations are trying to get over the challenges of colonialism. Now, globalisation has come with its greater challenges. How will Africa get out of these? I had a similar conversation and several people asked me about globaliSation and I think it is a problem. There are countries who are still trying to find their footings and identity and I think Nigeria is one of them. The United States is not old but we have got a couple of centuries and they created their own system. But Nigeria inherited one and is still trying to figure out how that will work and it is not a simple thing to achieve. And now, comes globalisation when Nigeria is still trying to establish her identity and everyone’s identity is being upset because of the flow of ideas and images around the world. And if you must consider what has been happening within the last decade even in Europe and the United States, it has been turbulence for everybody even in countries that were stable and well established. So, it is a bigger problem but the ability to speak to the whole world like Soyinka did, and be heard is what is very important. Hopefully, that will help people learn how to understand each other. Do you think the world is more at peace now than when it was polarised between two world powers - US and Russia? The collapse of the old conflict did not mean that the problems have been resolved. In fact, one of the things that have happened is that these powers were able to suppress lots of conflicts. But once they lost the power to do that all of those issues came back, they never gone away. Up until the collapse of the Soviet Union, they could not do anything about it. So, the past came back to hunt the present. And now, there are much of economic problems around the globe. Even in communist China, there are emerging millionaires. I will not want to go back to the cold war era, but things are little more dangerous now. What did you miss since leaving Ife in 1985? I was in Nigeria from 1978 to 1985 and I have been back a couple of times. But I have not been able to come as often as I would have liked. I see differences although I haven’t been out of Lagos this time because I have only been here for weeks. I am seeing people who are so accomplished doing good things especially the man who owns the hotel I am in right now. The way he has been able to develop his business and make things work and also find people who are ready to work with him is commendable. But, the traffic in Lagos is awful, yet the people are getting on. But I just wish that the problems that I had seen 30 years ago concerning electricity doesn’t still exist. To provide electricity is easier than providing some other things like having your own airline. So, I think there are still some issues in terms of leadership that the people need to make serious changes on. Any shift in paradigm in terms of content of books by African-American writers? There have been lots of changes and developments in books by African-American writers. When I was young, there were not too many African-American writers known to people. There was just a handful. But in the 60s, there was militancy in the US not just in the wake of the civil rights movement. And Black people started going to white universities and courses were being reviewed and demanding Black Studies. The interest of Black writers then grew, but they were more on protest over racism etc. It is not that racism no longer exists that we have a Black president. There is still racism in US. People have now moved beyond saying ‘look at me I am a human being.’ Now, they are writing about African-Americans who are successful and wealthy. What fired your interest to study Africa-American literature? I got interested in it because when I was in graduate school, I was a teaching assistant and I wanted to find text for my students that were various and engaging and I did not know much about Black American writers. But I later discovered some African-American writers I never heard of who were remarkably good. You wrote a long piece on Soyinka. Who is Soyinka? I think he is a great man and a spokesperson for humanity.

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