It isn’t every day that you get to interview someone who used to be discussed in your secondary school textbooks. What a privilege it was for me to meet legendary printmaker, painter and sculptor, Bruce Onobrakpeya who has been celebrated for decades as one of the greatest artists from West Africa. I promised him that it would not be a biographical interview since anyone can read about his life and career in Wikipaedia. However, I did ask the octogenarian about the secret to living a long and healthy life.
Howfana: Art appreciation is low in some parts of Nigeria. Why is this the case and what is the solution?
I would go with the solution first. Awareness should be created. The type of thing that Diseye Tantua is doing for Port Harcourt should be replicated for all of Nigeria. And Awareness will increase. Also in the education department, art shouldn’t be restricted to the artworks we see in the museum. Art should include craft; works made of objects like clothes, plates, chairs…jewelry. They are all part of craft. At the moment, there is a segregation that makes people believe that art is an elitist thing.
There is often a debate between digital artists and traditional artists, about the legitimacy of the digital kind. Digital Art VS Traditional Art, where do you stand?
The 21st century is a machine age. So whatever comes out of the digital age is art and is as important and as strong as traditional art. Digital art helps to bring up the traditional art and the two of them can be combined. I am doing the two of them and the two of them combine to create a new kind of art which is very exciting. Before this time, that kind of mixed media art would have been impossible. But the digital art gives power for that kind of mixture and it’s going to elevate us to a higher dimension of art development in the country.
“There are other countries without oil or without any other mineral that supplies them anything.”
At what point should an artist decide to specialize in a particular type of art?
I like the fact that people go to school and do general art. After school, people that graduate from school should be put under masters for some time. Apart from refining whatever technique they have learned before, they’ll then have the personality of their master to draw from. In other words they are able to ride on the shoulders of their masters. In that case they can attain greater heights. When a child goes to school and he comes out, he knows the rudiments, but he must eventually work with masters for some time before he can begin to work on the various ideas that he has (either from school or from the master).
Now when working on those different techniques, some of them will come at the top and that is when specialization comes. It mustn’t be a thing that you force yourself to do. It must come naturally. It must come through an instinct in you that nobody sees, that you think you can bring out for the benefit of the society.
“The practice of art is spiritual. It brings you in contact with your soul.”
What should an artist do to make a name for himself/herself?
Young artists should not work alone. They should work in a group. Whatever manifesto or philosophy they have should be practiced together and they should defend it and grow together, exhibit together, so that when the name of one artist in the group is mentioned, automatically the name of the rest of them show up. And that is the way they grow, and they become important together. Right now, what many people are doing is they are trying to make a name in a solo situation, and that is very difficult. Work together, as a group, and go into debates, discussions. Find out answers to questions and then you’ll grow to become a master.
“Young artists should not work alone.”
What do you think of artists who abandoned their artistic gifts because of a fear that they may not be able to make a living as an artist?
Leaving art and going into other professions has many issues. First of all, it could be caused by parental influences. For example, a family where lawyers have made names and all that… so the parents want a particular son to go and practice law and that particular son does not have an instinct towards law.
Parental influence causes it. Also because they haven’t been under any master that tells them that if they pursue art they are going to make a good living. So as I said, let them say under masters. Let them see how these masters are living. Let them see how these masters are respected within the society. This way their minds will be focused on what they are doing. And the question of whether they will eat or make money with it will never come up. Because their master is making a good living, making a name, he is respected in society. Why should it be different with them?
What can Government do to support the art community?
Government should provide policy that will affect the growth of art. The Government already has their cultural policy. They should go ahead and ratify the cultural policies.
Art is capital intensive. And Government should be prepared to develop the full infrastructure, to develop material, equipment and personalities in order to make art grow. Just as they do with other departments/sectors, like football.
There are other countries without oil or without any other mineral that supplies them anything and they are able to survive. England has no oil well. Paris has no oil well. Yet the art that London, Paris, Munich… because they develop the art, they are able to use that money to live very well. Visitors come from other parts of the world. And when a visitor visits the country because of the art, that visitor will come with the plane of that country, stay in their hotels, move about in the town, buy artworks and other curiosities as well. He will even have a chance to discuss business. You will find that the economy will grow and so will the identity of the people.
Is there a secret to health and happiness that’s tied to the practice of art?
The practice of art is spiritual. It brings you in contact with your soul. It gives you expression and relieves your mind of things that bother you. It increases your power of imagination, helps you to solve problems. It puts money in your hands. The practice of art takes your reasoning and behavior above that of the ordinary person. It helps you solve the problems in your environment and to develop it. Take Osogbo art as an example. Art brought in UNESCO and turned it into a world heritage center. The Harmattan workshop in Agbarha-Otor has put that town on the world map. So art is capable of developing an environment. Diseye Tantua is at the top of the list and we just hope that the younger people will emulate him and carry art to the point that he has raised it.