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National Museum of African Art Presents Bruce Onobrakpeya’s ‘The Mask and the Cross’

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The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art will feature works by sculptor and printmaker Bruce Onobrakpeya, a pivotal figure in postcolonial Nigerian modernism. Running from June 21 through January 21, 2025, “Bruce Onobrakpeya: The Mask and the Cross” will showcase 52 pieces from 1966 to 1978.

Veronica wipes Jesus’ face 1969 Bruce Onobrakpeya born 1932 Purchased with funds provided by the Africa Acquisitions Committee 2019

This period marks his significant contributions to the Catholic Church, including the iconic “Fourteen Stations of the Cross” series. The exhibition also highlights Onobrakpeya’s enduring influence on Nigerian visual artists, with selected artworks from the museum’s collection reflecting his impact.

“This exhibition, ‘Bruce Onobrakpeya: The Mask and the Cross,’ carries profound cultural and institutional significance,” stated guest curator Janine Gaëlle Dieudji. “It celebrates Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya’s illustrious career and the broader spiritual narrative of global Africa. The artists’ printmaking practices from the 1960s significantly advanced contemporary art in Nigeria, enriching this exhibition’s narrative.”

Born in 1932, Onobrakpeya began his artistic training in 1957 at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology in Zaria. In 1958, he co-founded the Zaria Arts Society, aiming to decolonize visual arts and develop the “natural synthesis” aesthetic, which blends African traditions with Western techniques. Over six decades, Onobrakpeya has also pioneered new printmaking methods and established himself as a leader in West African modern and contemporary art.

Onobrakpeya’s art blends Christian iconography, Nigerian folklore, and West African traditions, offering a global perspective on spiritualism. He depicted biblical stories with Nigerian characters and settings, such as Roman soldiers in British military uniforms and Jesus in Nigerian robes. In an interview with Lauren Tate Baeza, curator at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Onobrakpeya expressed his goal to further “bring out what Christ means to our people in a way they can understand.” By integrating Western and African influences, he helped redefine postcolonial Nigerian art.

A special section of the exhibition, curated for the National Museum of African Art, includes works by Onobrakpeya’s contemporaries. These Nigerian printmakers also explore faith and spirituality through African heritage and mythology. For example, artist Rufus Ogundele merges his Christian upbringing with traditional West African culture, depicting the Yoruba god Ogun in his linocuts. The exhibition also features printmakers Adebisi Fabunmi, Yinka Adeyemi, Solomon Irein Wangboje, and Oluwole Olayemi, who similarly bridge Christian stories and Nigerian aesthetics.

“Seeing Bruce Onobrakpeya’s works in dialogue with his peers illustrates the dynamic nature of artistic practice across Nigeria and Africa,” noted John K. Lapiana, interim director of the National Museum of African Art. “As we celebrate our 60th anniversary, this exhibition encapsulates the museum’s mission to explore cross-cultural influences, develop diverse cultural identities, and present the rich variety of African art.”

Originally shown at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in 2023, this exhibition marks Onobrakpeya’s first major solo show in a U.S. museum.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art dedicates itself to collecting, conserving, studying, and exhibiting African arts across time and media. It offers a comprehensive view of African history and culture with over 13,000 artworks spanning more than 1,000 years.

The exhibition is supported by Lilly Endowment Inc.


Derrick Chidumebi is a creative writer and growth marketer hailing from Lagos, Nigeria. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Industrial Chemistry from Olabisi Onabanjo University, Nigeria, and is the founder of The Eko Place, a media/marketing agency based in Lagos, Nigeria. Currently, he serves as a writer for Art Network Africa.

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