The Mask and the Cross exhibit at the High Museum of Art. Photographs by Isadora Pennington.

The Mask and the Cross, on view at the High Museum through July 30, features more than 40 works by artist Bruce Onobrakpeya, whose paintings, printmaking, and sculptures combine Nigerian tradition with Christian motifs.

Onobrakpeya is considered to be one of the fathers of Nigerian Modernism and has earned a reputation for portrayals of biblical stories as seen through the perspective of Nigerian folklore and cosmology. The exhibit has been curated to align with the Fourteen Stations of the Cross prints from 1968 which are a part of the High Museum’s permanent collection. 

“Onobrakpeya is one of the most important artists in Nigeria and has played a central role in shaping contemporary art on the African continent,” said Rand Suffolk, Nancy and Holcombe T. Green, Jr., director of the High. “As an institution with an exceptionally strong and growing collection of Nigerian art, and as one of the few American museums to hold his work, it’s fitting for us to celebrate his importance and continued influence with this exhibition.”

Bruce Onobrakpeya.

Born in 1932, Onobrakpeya attended the Western Boys High School and took drawing classes at the British Council Art Club in Benin City. After high school he was hired as an art teacher at his alma mater, the Western Boys High School, from 1953 until his stint teaching at the Ondo Boys High School from 1956 to 1957.  

In 1957 Onobrakpeya was admitted to the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology at Zaria where he was trained in the Western tradition of representational art. He later became a founding member of the Zaria Art Society, later called the Zaria Rebels, which was formed with the intent to decolonize visual arts and develop the “natural synthesis” aesthetic philosophy. Onobrakpeya began thinking about how Western techniques and African art traditions could fuse together to suit the reimagined identity of post-colonial Nigeria. While his college experience gave him technical skills it was groups like the Zaria Arts Society that informed his perspectives on art as a profession and a calling.

Onobrakpeya’s first introduction to printmaking came in the early 1960s and sparked a passion for the medium which has continued to this day. In 1967 Father Kevin Carroll commissioned him to paint a mural of the 14 scenes from the last days of Jesus Christ. Onobrakpeya’s Biblical scenes were reimagined with Nigerian characters and in Nigerian settings. This ushered in a new phase of his creativity and artistic career that lasted into the late 1970s. 

In the years since he has taught at St. Gregory’s College in Lagos, Nigeria and created the Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation for which he is President. He attended a series of printmaking workshops in Africa and one at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine. Onobrakpeya has exhibited in solo exhibitions across the globe including Ughelli, Italy, Zimbabwe, Germany, Britain, Kenya, and now Atlanta. 

Onobrakpeya is considered to be one of the most successful 20th century West African artists. The exhibition of Onobrakpeya’s work at the High Museum of Art highlights the institution’s commitment to engage with Nigerian art within the context of the nation’s sociopolitical history. Onobrakpeya was present at the museum for a preview reception and the High Museum of Art’s Fred and Rita Richman curator of African Art Lauren Tate Baeza spoke on the importance of this exhibition and Onobrakpeya’s importance in the global art scene. “This is but one chapter of many,” said Baeza from the stage at the Hill Auditorium. 

During the preview event the Georgia General Assembly presented a resolution to recognize Bruce Paul Obomeyoma Onobrakpeya for his innovative printmaking techniques and his impact on Nigerian, African, and international art. He was also commended for mentoring youth through his Harmattan Workshop series and various university lectures. In early April the Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger issued a proclamation that Onobrakpeya is now an honorary citizen of Georgia. 

Distilling an artist’s 60 year career down into one exhibit is unlikely to be comprehensive, however the High Museum’s The Mask and the Cross exhibition has provided a glimpse into the storied career of this renowned Nigerian artist. The works are rich in color with distinct linework and evidence of the artist’s hand in every composition.

There are three major parts of The Mask and the Cross: a fourteen piece color print series of the Passion story on rice paper, 60 rare prints from children’s texts for fifth and sixth graders, and a retrospective of works from 1975 to present day. Through perusing this collection visitors can can better understand Onobrakpeya’s innovative techniques, the evolution of his art, and his impact on African arts and culture.

Isadora Pennington is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta. She is the editor of Sketchbook by Rough Draft, a weekly Arts newsletter.