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Revered postcolonial Nigerian artist Bruce Onobrakpeya opens Smithsonian exhibition

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Ninety-one-year-old Bruce Onobrakpeya is one of Nigeria's most beloved artists, most famous for his pioneering work as a printmaker. Well, some of his most striking works will go on display this Friday at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art. NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu visited him at his home and studio in Lagos.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Bruce Onobrakpeya's home and studio in Lagos is easy to miss, partly shielded by trees along a busy side street. But inside, it's a wonder. Towering metal sculptures assembled from vehicle parts peer over the gate. They appear like traditional monarchs, adorned with coral beads.

BRUCE ONOBRAKPEYA: Good morning.

AKINWOTU: Good morning. My name's Emmanuel. It's a pleasure to meet you.

ONOBRAKPEYA: Welcome.

AKINWOTU: The compound is an exhibition of its own, covered in murals and sculptures.

ONOBRAKPEYA: And this double - this house doubles as a studio and a living quarter...

AKINWOTU: And inside, he leads us on a tour through each floor of his three-story home, cramped with his artworks.

ONOBRAKPEYA: I'm very excited. I'm very excited. I never knew that it will eventually come to this.

AKINWOTU: At 91 years old, Bruce Onobrakpeya is as prolific as he's ever been. He's regarded as the most prominent and innovative Nigerian printmaker of his generation. His illustrations have been the covers for some of the most famous literary works, like Chinua Achebe's "No Longer At Ease," and his forthcoming exhibition focuses on some of his seminal work.

ONOBRAKPEYA: The theme is actually my Christian art, which I label "The Mask And The Cross."

AKINWOTU: "The Mask And The Cross" features a series of murals, reliefs and prints of his depictions of the passion of Christ, the story of Jesus' crucifixion. It was commissioned in 1966 by an Irish priest at the St. Paul's Catholic Cathedral in Lagos who wanted Onobrakpeya and other artists to reimagine Biblical stories through their own lens.

ONOBRAKPEYA: The design behind there, which is more like the Adire motifs and all that, so...

AKINWOTU: What emerged was both striking and controversial. Jesus and the other characters appear in traditional clothing such as Adire, a peculiar dyed fabric made by Yoruba people in southwest Nigeria. The Roman guards and executioners are recast as British colonial officers. Jerusalem becomes a Nigerian city.

ONOBRAKPEYA: And 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.

AKINWOTU: The works were evangelical but political, created in the years following independence from British colonial rule in 1960. While they were widely celebrated, they were not beloved by many in the congregation at St. Paul's.

ONOBRAKPEYA: People don't take change lightly.

AKINWOTU: They saw his reinterpretation as a distortion, he says. And after 45 years on display, they were taken down.

ONOBRAKPEYA: 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 and use our own ideas.

AKINWOTU: It's also inspired other reinterpretations by Nigerian artists. And now this exhibition, he says, gives him even more satisfaction.

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

AKINWOTU: Emmanuel Akinwotu, NPR News, Lagos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.