Arts and Culture

At 91, a Nigerian artist who reimagined the crucifixion gets a Smithsonian show

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Bruce Onobrakpeya, a towering figure in modernism, in his home/studio in Lagos, Nigeria. At 91, he has his first Smithsonian solo show.
Manny Jefferson/for NPR

Bruce Onobrakpeya’s home and studio, partly shielded by trees, sits discreetly along a frenetic side street in Mushin — a working class neighborhood of Lagos, dense with small manufacturing businesses, artisanal workshops and old detached houses.

But on a generous plot, his three-story, concrete modernist home where he’s lived since 1976 is a quiet wonder. Towering sculptures with bronze heads resting on bodies assembled from vehicle parts, loom over the gate. They depict a row of traditional monarchs, dressed with coral beads and holding copper staffs.

The compound is an museum in its own right. The concrete yard is covered in sculptures, paintings and a range of murals, some which he describes as “plastographs” — a unique form of reliefs he innovated, with illustrations etched into zinc and metal sheets.

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Bruce Onobrakpeya displays decades of his pioneering art in the compound of his home in Lagos.
Manny Jefferson/for NPR

“I like to use different techniques. I want to show the public what they don't see [but] that I, I think I see. Something below the surface that I perceive and enjoy and bring out,” the 91-year-old says, leading a tour through the compound.

Inside the house, his studio is spread across two floors, cluttered with both recent pieces and other works that span his more than 70-year prestigious career as a painter, sculptor and pioneering printmaker.

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Artist Bruce Onobrakpeya stands before a wall of his artworks at his home studio in Lagos. The studio fills two floors of his three-story residence.
Manny Jefferson/for NPR

Onobrakpeya, born in the oil-rich Niger Delta, is widely regarded as one of the most creative artists and most defining figures in Nigerian modernism. “The Mask and the Cross,” his first major solo exhibition in the U.S., opens at the Smithsonian Museum this week and celebrates some of his seminal works. The exhibit had its premiere at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta last year.

Onobrakpeya gained renown in the 1950s as a student at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology in Zaria City, northern Nigeria. He became a founding member of an influential collective of artists later known as the “Zaria Radicals,” committed to decolonizing visual arts and reasserting Nigerian artistic methods and practices in synergy with Western ones. The collective inspired the guiding mission of his work.

His mythical realist paintings and high relief prints drew critical acclaim, such as “Free Fight in the Blind Underworld,” an abstract piece exploding with bold emerald greens and yellows, depicting a clash of two mythical figures and adapted from a passage in one of the early and most famous Nigerian novels, Daniel. O. Fagunwa’s Forest of a Thousand Demons. His original and compelling depictions of indigenous histories and folktales became the covers of famous literary works like Nigerian literary giant Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease.

A radical rethinking of the crucifixion

It was an Irish priest at St. Paul’s Catholic Cathedral in Lagos who inspired the works now on display at the Smithsonian.

In 1966, Father Kevin Caroll commissioned Onobrakpeya and other artists to produce new depictions of Christian stories and Catholic iconography. Onobrakpeya produced a series of prints titled the “Stations of the Cross,” a reimagination of the crucifixion of Jesus.

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In his depiction of the stations of the cross, Bruce Onobrakpeya brings African symbols and traditions into the story of the crucifixion. Above: At station six, Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.
Michael McKelvey

In Onobrakpeya’s vision, Jesus and the people he encountered as he bore the cross along a tortured journey to Mount Calvary are dressed in traditional clothing like adire — a dyed fabric covered in distinct, abstract patterns, made by Yoruba people in Southwest Nigeria. The Roman guards and executioners are recast as British colonial officers. Jerusalem is replaced by a post-colonial Nigerian city — independence from British rule had come in 1960. Each depiction is replete with symbols and markers of Nigerian life.

The commission presented a compelling depiction of the central event in Christianity within the artist’s own context. And it was also political. In “The Mask and the Cross,” the “mask” refers to indigenous religious symbols and practices opposed by Christian missionaries who arrived in Nigeria, backed by brutal colonial regimes. In Onobrakpeya’s series, features of indigenous heritage come to life and are expressed as a focal part of the Christian story.   

“I'm making us understand it in our own way  rather than trying to use the idea or the imagination of other people to tell the same story,” Onobrakpeya says. “So that my own people, who have the same experience as myself, can understand it, enjoy it and use it as something to move forward.” 

He’s making the point that the African traditional symbols and cultures that were opposed by missionaries are still, to African Christian converts, an important part of their Christian identity.

The Afro-centric works also came during a time, following independence from British rule, when many among the new political elite seemed to venerate British and Western cultural practices over Nigerian ones, he says. “Their references were to London, Paris, Munich, New York.”

Onobrakpeya’s series, on display within the St. Paul’s Church cathedral was the jewel among a wider collection from various artists that emerged from the project. “What I did was a kind of change and people don't take change lightly” he says.

The works were displayed at St. Paul’s Church for almost 45 years, a source of personal pride, but were not beloved by the congregation. They were not seen as a reinterpretation but a distortion, according to Onobrakpeya, and were eventually taken down.

“I felt bad about it, but I let the artwork live their own life. The most important thing is that it gave us a sense of pride that we can go back to ourselves,” he says. Their influence also remained intact, inspiring similar works [by whom? Him or other Nigerian artists. An international appreciation for the collection has grown with time.

“That what I did has now been seen as something original, that brings out the true spirits of our people and that it's going to be exhibited again in Washington D.C., gives me a lot of joy and excitement.”

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A portrait of Bruce Onobrakpeya in his home studio in Lagos. He hopes to travel to Washington, D.C., in the fall to see his Smithsonian show but says, "So I travel out of the country and enjoy it, to go and see what people are doing outside, but then I bring it home and use my ideas to develop this environment.”
Manny Jefferson/for NPR

Now in his 90s, Onobrakpeya says he’s invigorated by travel for exhibitions and events around the world, and he hopes to come to Washington, D.C., in the fall to see the Smithsonian show. But he’s always eager to return, splitting most of his time between Lagos and his hometown of Agbarha-Ottor, in Delta, where he founded the Harmattan Workshop, a residency for artists.

“My guiding theory is that art should be an instrument to help develop and benefit the local,” he says, sitting amid his works, with the sound of local mechanics and artisans bleeding into the ground floor of his studio. “So I travel out of the country and enjoy it, to go and see what people are doing outside, but then I bring it home and use my ideas to develop this environment.”

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