Divine Transformation: Aesthetic, Theological and Philosophical Significance of Bruce Onobrakpeya's Biographical Portrait of St. Paul

Skip to first unread message

Oluwatoyin Adepoju

Apr 11, 2024, 5:04:36 AMApr 11
to usaafricadialogue, Yoruba Affairs, comp...@googlegroups.com


                                                                Divine Transformation


                                           Aesthetic, Theological and Philosophical Significance 



                                      Bruce Onobrakpeya's Visual Biographical Portrait of St. Paul



                                                                      Oluwatoyin Vincent Adepoju


                                                 Comparative Cognitive Processes and Systems


A detailed exploration of the images and composition of one version of Bruce Onobrakpeya’s etching St. Paul.    



Tradition and Individuality in Artistic Depictions of St. Paul

Gye Nyame

         Divine Omniscience and Cosmic Dynamism

         Divine Remoteness and Expressive Abstraction

         Imaginative Daring in Recreating Reality

             The Dynamic Circle

              Divine Connection

Divine/Human Expression  

Between Divine Abstraction, Cosmic Progression and Divine Immediacy

The Praying Figure

The Boat

The Drama of Paul's Life

Between Visual Perception and Understanding

Why is this a Great Work of Art?

      Conception, Composition, Execution




 Onobrakpeya's Visual Map of Paul's Life Journey and Birth and Re-Birth in Onobrakpeya's Biography

Onobrakpeya's Visual Biography of Paul and My Own Scholarly and Personal Reconstructions 

Tradition and Individuality in Artistic Depictions of St. Paul

What are the options available to a visual artist in depicting the life of a great religious figure? St. Paul the Apostle, perhaps the most impactful  founding figure of Christianity after Jesus, who initiated the religion,  has been represented in the centuries of Christian art primarily in terms of either portraits of him or of scenes from his dramatic life.

Far from the European centres of Pauline depiction in the centuries when Christianity achieved prominence as a central shaper of European civilization and one of the primary means by which Europe impacted the world,  far from the early centuries of the church when North African masters such as St. Augustine of Hippo proved permanently pivotal to the Christian heritage,  a contemporary Nigerian artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya, in the 20th century, broke with the conventions of Pauline visualization, integrating the two major modes of such expression, the portrait and the singular narrative.

He integrated them into a cosmographic visualization within a biographical portrait, evoking the essence of Paul's life as the working out of a vision of divine ultimacy and divine dynamism projected in terms of the co-inherence of the divine and the human expressed in the person of Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity.

This divine impulse is suggested as firing the dynamism of Paul's life, a dynamism evoked through a combination of figurative and abstract symbols, immersed within a dynamic tapestry of classical African designs and elegant shapes created by the artist, Africanizing the features of Paul and his interpersonal and material universe, thereby evoking the trans-cultural potency of the Pauline narrative and its theological contexts.

Onobrakpeya visualizes the turmoil of Paul's life in a manner that yet suggests coherence in that turbulence, doing this in a way that reimagines Paul's story beyond its centuries ago Palestinian context, fixing it in terms of African images, thereby suggesting the story as enacting something speaking to all humans, across space and time, a transformative encounter unique to Paul, strategic for the then new religion, Christianity, which Paul was central to instituting, but also suggestive of all accounts of encounters with ultimate reality, with God or with spirit generally, encounters described as transforming the lives of those who undergo them.

St. Paul (deep etching, plastograph, 74 x 51, 1979) is an example of one Onobrakpeya's greatest achievements,  his exploration of human relationships with ultimate values, such as God and the spiritual world, visualizations more often actualized in his engagements with his native Urhobo spirituality and its associated arts, in dialogue with the geographically and culturally cognate Benin/Edo, Yoruba and Fulani cultures, but also powerfully realized in his Christian art, in which an African context is foregrounded in relation to a Christian subject.

I understand the most powerful version of the work to be the black and white rendering the  clearest image of which is on page 27 of Bruce Onobrakpeya's Symbols of Ancestral Groves, 1985, in which, on page 26,  he elucidates the etching's fusion of African and non-African elements as demonstrating his philosophy of cultural synthesis unifying African and non-African forms and techniques  in creating his art. My evaluation of the work is of this  version. 

Another variant of the same work, using a more varied range of colours, is pictured on page 196 of Onobrakpeya's The Spirit in Ascent, 1992, where he discusses its genesis and content on pages 191-193. Another approach, a black and white version deploying a slightly different set of constitutive images, is pictured on page 197 of the same book.



                                                                                           St. Paul 

                                                                   deep etching, plastograph

                                                                                  74 x 51


                                                                Picture from Bruce Onobrakpeya,                          

                                                          Symbols of Ancestral Groves, 1985, 27

                                                               Located in Vatican Museum Rome


Gye Nyame

         Divine Omniscience and Cosmic Dynamism


Poised at the top of the drama unfolding underneath it in Onobrakpeya's St. Paul is the enigmatic beauty of Gye Nyame, top right in the main picture and the detail shown below, a Ghanaian symbol for the creator of the universe. Gye Nyame means "Except Nyame", referenced by the Twi, Ghanaian language expression,“Abode santann yi firi tete;obi nte ase a onim ahyease, na obi ntena ae nkosi ne awie, Gye Nyame”, "This great panorama of creation dates back to time immemorial; no one lives who saw its beginning and no one will live to see its end, EXCEPT NYAME", the creator of the universe.


                                                                                                             434330887_10161257014843684_8692522719592768148_n ED.jpg


Gye Nyame is one of the family of Adinkra symbols from the Akan and Gyaman of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, respectively, in which visual forms and philosophical expressions are correlated. Adinkra express ideas about the meaning of life, meanings, which in the original contexts of its use, were dramatised in the visual display of the symbols on funeral garments at the threshold between life and death symbolised by funeral rites.

...adinkra means “to make use of a message” ... understood to mean “to leave one another” or “to say goodbye.” Also, because the word “nkra” comes from the word “kra,” which means “life force” or “soul,” adinkra is also thought of as a message that a soul takes with it when it returns to Nyame. Thus, Adinkra is a type of language ( ''The Amazing History of the Adinkra Symbols'', African Booth. Accessed 8th April 2024).

Adinkra could be understood as related both to the intelligence or message which each kra, as the eternal essence of the human being is understood in Akan thought, takes with it from the Supreme Being when it obtains leave to depart to earth,  as well as the message it carries with it on its departure from the earth, a message which could be understood as the distillation of understanding that emerges from the experience of living and which is consummated in the transmutation of death. ( J.B.Danquah, The Akan Concept of God,1968, xxxviii; Kwasi Konadu, Indigenous Medicine and Knowledge in African Society, 2007, 136, quoting Bruce Willis, The Adinkra Dictionary, 1998).

The designs are now used on textiles worn on all kinds of occasions and in architectural designs. In the cyber age, Adinkra has spread beyond Ghana into the designs of various websites, in company logos, in body art, in the production of furniture, chocolates, jewellery  and material ornaments of various kinds, as well as in websites devoted to Adinkra. The variety of its current use often adapts both its visual and ideational value to these different contexts.

Sylvester Gates and Michael Faux suggest the communicative range of Adinkra in referencing its relationship to the symbols they created in mathematical physics, stating, "The use of symbols to connote ideas and conceptions which defy simple verbalization is perhaps one of the oldest of human traditions. The Asante people of West Africa have long been accustomed to using simple yet elegant motifs known as adinkra symbols, to serve just this purpose. With a nod to this tradition, we christen our graphical symbols as ‘adinkras.’ '' ( ''Adinkras: A Graphical Technology for Supersymmetric Representation Theory, Physical Review, D 71, 065002, 2005).

Faux and Gates suggest Adinkra is a method of visualization which integrates and transcends verbal exposition, thereby highlighting its character  as sources of multivalent cognitive possibilities. They could be understood as suggesting that the evocative power of Adinkra  facilitates a penetration into the heart of human cognitive abilities, evoking the visceral character, strength, reach and architectonic force suggested by the spider spinning its web from within itself, enabling an ideational elaboration that is potentially infinite in its possibilities.

The projection of meaning through the force of visuality is actualized in the visual dynamism of Gye Nyame,  demonstrated by its twisted form, its asynchronous symmetry, in which variations of design, the bulges in its centre and the curved protrusions of its front and back, cohere in one fluid shape. This dynamism resonates with the tumultuous drama unfolding beneath the image, the drama of one man's life transformed by divine encounter.


The visual dynamism of Gye Nyame also evokes the cosmic dynamism its associated verbal expression references, and by implication, questions of relationship between cosmic dynamism and divine identity, and, in relation to this work, puzzles of connection between human and cosmic dynamism, of how the human being's motion in time, space, and possibly beyond, fit into cosmic progression. "What is the ultimate value of human activity?", this conjunction between Gye Nyame and Paul's life as visualized by Onobrakpeya may be framed.

                       Divine Remoteness and Expressive Abstraction


The enigmatic beauty of Gye Nyame is distant from any structure known to nature even as it combines varied natural forms in a unique way. It is composed of what look like the horns of a rhino, in tandem with what may suggest the humps of a camel. This odd combination may indicate the imagination straining to evoke something beyond human comprehension or even beyond thought, but which is yet compelling for the human being, the scope of awareness represented by the idea of an intelligence and power spanning and transcending the origins and development of the cosmos.

Gye Nyame is both amoeboid in its plasticity and muscular in its suggestion of the graceful but powerful thrusts of the horns of a rhino framing the liquid centre of the shape. The movement of lines within space that constitutes the visual form of the symbol could be seen as evocative of both inscrutability and cognitive dynamism.

Inscrutability in that its abstract form could be understood as suggestive of the  conception of ultimate being embodied in the idea of Nyame. This abstraction could be perceived as being neither a distortion nor a contortion of known forms but as representing a unique formal universe, suggestive of something outside the boundaries of human perception and fashioning; the gyrations of its thrusting forms enclosing liquid permutations, creating enigmatic, abstract rhythms evoking sonic resonance through visual space.

The difference between the visual abstraction represented by Gye Nyame and conventional shapes could suggest the distance of identity, the ontological remoteness, between the divine subject the abstractions evoke and the total field of existence. The subject projected by the abstractions is neither this nor that definite form, conceptual or visual, but, in a sense, demonstrates a protean plasticity of expression that enables it to become whatever the conceiver or perceiver wants it to be.

                     Imaginative Daring in Recreating Reality

Grappling with the challenge of visualizing an identity beyond human understanding, the artist who constructed Gye Nyame arrived at a solution that incidentally evokes the recreative imperative represented by Onobrakpeya's St. Paul.

In placing Gye Nyame at the topmost point of this piece, Onobrakpeya suggests  a zone of spatial elevation and associated ontological prominence. This positioning evokes supremacy in the constitution of reality understood as an unfolding process and the possibilities of consciousness perceiving that process. These possibilities of consciousness are  represented by the limited perceptions enabled by the finite awareness of  human beings and the totalistic understanding demonstrated by the ultimate creator, Nyame.

Onobrakpeya draws on the Gye Nyame artist's imaginative evocation of divine remoteness and divine omniscience in evoking the centring, in Paul's life, of the divine imperative represented by Gye Nyame and of Jesus Christ understood as the human expression of God the Father. Working out the implications of such a focus in his theology implies imaginative creativity in Paul's thought, conceiving and committing himself to possibilities beyond the immediately accessible. ''Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen'', Paul declares in the 11th chapter of his Letter to the Hebrews. ''Through faith we learn that the worlds were framed by the Word of God, so that things which are seen are not made of things which do appear''.

Onobrakpeya's St. Paul may be understood, adapting Onobrakpeya's fellow Niger Delta thinker Nimi Wariboko on the thought of his native Kalabari, as an imaginative work dramatising  the shaping of Paul's life by his focusing his existence in a conviction in realities distant from but implicated within his material universe, enabling him perceive his life as shaped by ''the capability to see through worlds or objects and to comprehend things or powers beyond them [ through imaginative sensitivity supplying]   hints of infinity, immortality, the deep interconnectedness of being, and its inexpressible significance [ converting] every object or experience into symbols or potential symbols [perceiving] the universal in the particular, the timeless in the temporal [in  a]  longing for the infinite'' ( Ethics and Time: Ethos of Temporal Orientation in Politics and Religion of the Niger Delta, 2010, 64-65). 

Onobrakpeya suggests this ontological (on the constitution of reality) and cognitive (on how reality is understood),  conjunction  of universes through the composition of this  work, although the vertical ordering of the piece, in which the divine universe is placed above the material world where Paul and other humans as well as animals are depicted, is best understood as metaphorical rather than expressing literal order.

The divine cosmos, in the Christian and African world views that shape this work, is distant in nature from the material world,  yet it palpitates within the human being. The spiritual and material universes  intersect, with active participation in either the divine or the material world  being an issue of focus, like prayer is a means of focusing attention away from the material world towards the spiritual, the image of prayer being itself central to Onobrakpeya's St Paul, as we shall see shortly.

                         The Dynamic Circle

The unique design of Gye Nyame is enfolded within a circle, one of the most universal images of wholeness, of unity, of the harmony of time, space and all possibilities, of the co-inherence of the temporal and the eternal, of space and infinity, amplifying Gye Nyame's associations of divine transcendence and divine vision in relation to cosmic progression.

The circle is itself surrounded by undulating lines in peaks and troughs like the mechanical visualizations of sonic patterns, infusing the space around the circle with a sense of motion complementing the evocative stasis of the circle.  The depiction of sound as central to cosmogenesis and cosmic order and dynamism, ''the music of the spheres'', the belief that the celestial bodies actualize sonic harmonies in their revolutions or that their rhythms can be depicted in terms of or evoked by sound,  may be suggested by this visual strategy. 

H. P. Lovecraft dramatizes superbly a related conception of cosmic sound correlative with the visual environment of Onobrakpeya's cosmographic picturing:

 ...throughout the churning void there was a heightening and acceleration of the vague tonal pattern, a veiled cosmic pulsing, rhythms said to have an origin outside the time and space we comprehend, a burst of rhythm in whose cosmic timbre are concentrated all the primal, ultimate space-time seethings which lie behind the massed spheres of matter and sometimes break forth in measured reverberations that penetrate faintly to every layer of entity and give [amazed]  significance throughout the worlds to certain [ awesome]   periods.

( Slightly adapted from 
Howard Philips Lovecraft,  “The Dreams in the Witch House” in The Dreams in the Witch House and other Weird Stories, 2004, 300-334).


                            Divine Connection


Directly underneath Gye Nyame, linked to it by a slender line, like a stream of divine inspiration feeding an assembly of devotees, some figures are gathered within an elegantly designed structure, facing a single figure who seems to address them. Paul and the congregations he inspired, the churches he founded, his letters remaining till today as testimony to that inspiration? 




An evocation of the transmission of divine power from the remoteness of its origins to human life, and further mediated to others by such privileged assimilators of divine presence as Paul? An image of the ideal character of Christian and other spiritual congregations as people seek to warm themselves through the flame emitted by such privileged figures, as one view puts it?


Divine/Human Expression


To the left of Gye Nyame is another powerful image of divine encounter, from a different religious context from the classical Akan universe of Gye Nyame. It is a depiction of two humanoid forms, one on top of the other, the larger one, on top, subsuming the one below, which is nestled between the feet of the one on top, the hands of both figures outstretched, suggesting the transcendence of the individuality evoked by the human form to include as broad an expanse as possible beyond the self.




The right hand of the figure on top extends with the fluidity of branches and reaches downward like roots, anchoring themselves in the reality beneath the supervening figure, a suggestion, perhaps, of the constitution of the universe by the divine identity beyond it which yet feeds the material cosmos.


A suggestion of cosmos reinforced by the circle within which the two figures are enclosed, the circle being a universal symbol of totality, of completeness, of ultimate harmony, evoking here a drama of cosmic proportions enacted in terms of the spiritual possibilities of the human being represented by the two humanoid forms.


Between the outstretched legs of the larger figure is the slender shape of a man, his hands outstretched, the entire figure suggesting a cross. This clearly represents Jesus, the founder of Christianity, described by the Christian scripture, the Bible, as executed by the Roman colonizers in Palestine of his time and whose posture of execution, his two hands outstretched and nailed to a cross with his legs placed together and nailed by his feet to the same cross, has become the world's best known image of self surrender to a divine mission, even to the point of sacrifice of one's life, a sacrifice described in the context of Christianity as redeeming humanity by taking on all human sin, an act anyone may benefit from by accepting Jesus as lord and savior.


The space around the two figures, the larger and the smaller, seems to roil with atmospheric turbulence, the larger than life shape of the larger figure evoking the Christian depiction of God who made humanity in his own image and likeness, a similarity of identity here suggested in terms of humanoid configurations, symbolic for the formless, abstract essence, which Christianity understands the human being as sharing with the creator of the universe.


The size of the larger figure is amplified by the shapes crowning its head, as it breaks out of the circle enclosing itself and the smaller human shape, its head sharing in the larger universe surrounding the circle, a universe defined by dynamic lines. These visual qualities suggest the larger form is not human or fully human though it has a semi-human shape.


These qualities indicate perhaps, a template from which the human form was constructed. The human form may be evoked here as shaped from this divine pattern but that this human structure was created by leaving out the more expansive, cosmos participating, nature integral aspects of the primal form from which the human being devolved, a devolution represented by the fully human shape beneath the larger humanoid figure.


"I saw three circles sharing the exact same space, and in the centre of the circles, a human form. As I struggled to understand how three shapes can share the same space as the three circles did and how the human form fitted within this enigma, a light struck my mind, and my will and my desire were turned by love, the love that moves the sun and the other stars," declares the Italian poet Dante Alighieri of his climatic vision, in his Paradise, of his journey through the underlying structure of the universe.


Dante's lines evoke centuries of reflection on the Christian image of God as three in one, of the human being as made in the image of God, of God choosing to be born on Earth and live as a human being, being killed and resurrecting himself, in the name of redeeming humanity, a realm of faith also evoked by Onobrakpeya's depiction of the figures enclosed by a circle in his etching of Paul's life.


Between Divine Abstraction, Cosmic Progression and Divine Immediacy


Onobrakpeya's piece thus frames its dramatization of Paul's life between representative depictions of two contrastive but complementary interpretations of humanity's relationship with the Ultimate, the creator of the universe.


One is of the ultimate creator and of cosmic progression in abstract terms, as distant from human conceptions, a distance the human being tries to bridge through imagination, represented here by the abstraction of Gye Nyame, its name evoking cosmic vision subsuming the totality of cosmos, from its temporal beginning to its end.

The second is a depiction of the ultimacy of God in terms of the biological constitution of the human form. This evokes ideas of the fashioning of human identity in terms of divine identity, understood in spiritual terms but here visualized in terms of the human body. It also indicates the dramatization of this correlative human/divine identity through divine incarnation in a human form, Jesus Christ, an ultimate expression of the intimacy between the human and the divine, as understood in Christianity.

The Praying Figure


Between these images of polarities of human engagement with the divine, two philosophical orientations visualized through contrastive religious orientations, Akan and Christian, is an image of a solitary person in prayer before a stylized altar which seems to reach out to the individual praying, as if alive to their yearnings. Darkly mysterious shapes, unfolding in jagged masses of black and white, dance in space within a background alive with undefinable activity,  towering above the praying figure, emphasising the figure's minisculinity in the context of  cosmographic immensities. 


                                                                                          434330887_10161257014843684_8692522719592768148_n ed 4.jpg

''...the bewildering phenomenon of the cosmic location of [ the human being]'' as described by Wole Soyinka in another  context (Myth, Literature and the African World, 1990, 2), is incidentally suggested by this visual composition. The minisculity and isolation of the supplicating figure is further highlighted by the figure's  location between  towering, abstract shapes in stark black and white, Gye Nyame and the Christian divine/human imaging,  explicit depictions of cosmographic symbolism.

The sense of comparative smallness and fragility evoked by the kneeling figure are amplified by the background against which are poised the explicit cosmographic depictions between which the  figure is positioned. That background suggests vast space through its size relative to the cosmographic images. This space is  defined by  swirling, criss-crossing lines, as if  evoking turbulence  against or within that spatial background.

These space/activity imagings are correlative with the idea of existence emerging from the Quantum Nothing, described by physicists as the hypothetical state preceding the emergence of the universe, akin to the Buddhist depiction of cosmic origination in a Void beyond being and non-being and with the Kabbalistic  Unmanifest, beyond understanding even by the most exalted of human speculations,    ''inchoate, yet source of all possibility, void, yet breathing forth vitality and being, uncreate yet cause of all creation, motionless, yet every moving nebula proclaims your power made  manifest through nature, naught would exist as anything; unless thy universal nucleus of nil began  its being'' as stated 
of this Kabbalistic conception, by William Gray in his Office of the Holy Tree of Life.




Divine abstraction, cosmic progression and divine intimacy, divine remoteness and divine closeness, human frailty represented by the diminutive fragility of the human being before the invisible, divine presence understood as enabling human existence, are dramatized by the plaintive force of Onobrakpeya's image of a person praying.

''...the fundamental, visceral questioning intrudes'', Soyinka continues, ''prompted by the patient, immovable immensity that surrounds [ the human being, an] undented vastness [creating ] the need to challenge, confront and at least initiate a rapport with the realm of infinity'' (2). 


The stark black and white lines of the praying figure, in tandem with the same color scheme throughout the work, suggesting both gravitas and austere, lofty beauty, bring to life the convergence of human and divine dynamism in the form of the  figure, seeking to access ultimate reality through humble supplication.


Paul's recourse to prayer after his transformative, unanticipated encounter with Jesus is here evoked, his effort to assimilate and make sense of the arresting and turning around of his life on his way to Damascus in persecution of Christians, only to be stopped by the irresistible force of the founder of the religion he was persecuting, his flight to the desert to immerse himself in solitary communion with the divine in order to make sense of the divine mandate that had arrested him, as the story is told in the Bible, are here evoked by Onobrakpeya's inimitable capturing of the iconic image of a person praying in solitude.

"Withdrawing from the business and pleasure of the moment in order to measure human potential against the human condition", as Arnold Tonynbee describes the Christian monastic ideal, initiated by St. Anthony of Egypt in his solitary life of prayer in the desert; a journey from the alone ( the individual ) to the Alone ( the Creator), as one view depicts the life of the mystic, seeking union with God; "On a dark and secret night, starving for love and deep in flame, I left my house, guided by nothing but the fire, the fire inside", the Christian mystic St. John of the Cross portrays this journey in "Dark Night of the Soul"; Buddha, Ramana Maharshi, Milarepa, various seekers in different spiritualities, who through prayer or meditation or both, approach the unfathomable mystery at the heart of existence, are suggested by this quietly eloquent image of a person in prayer, the kneeling figure and supplicating hands suggesting recognition of the human being as comparatively infinitesimal within both cosmic breadth and divine depth, and yet alive with awareness in seeking to navigate the universe, trying to understand how they fit into the great story in which they find themselves through coming into existence by being born on Earth.


The Boat


Dividing the entire piece into two different but united halves is the image of a boat, running in an elegant sweep from the circle of transformation, as the circle integrating the evocation of Jesus and his divine originator may be described, to the farthest corner of the work. The boat is described by the artist as suggesting Paul's missionary journeys ( Spirit in Ascent, 193), and, one may add, his sea journey to Rome, a journey from which he never returned, presumed martyred, the sequence of pyramids outlined within the boat evoking perhaps physical and experiential landmarks on his journeys, the  journey to Rome rich with astonishing demonstrations of Paul's encounter with the divine.


The praying figure may seem to be kneeling in the boat, suggesting Paul's life of constant prayer, in all circumstances, even as he travelled across continents on his missionary endeavours  and when he was taken to Rome in captivity, the journey in which he was captive becoming, ironically, a vessel of transport of his ministry to the heart of the greatest civilization in the world within his ambit, contributing to introducing the abstractions of Roman philosophy and the imagistic narratives of Roman religion to the person of Christ, in its harmony of humility and power, unifying the human and the divine.


                                                                                        434330887_10161257014843684_8692522719592768148_n ed2.jpg


The praying person, the act of prayer and the boat may also be imaginatively fused, prayer being understood as the vessel of penetration into the cosmographic centres represented by the top half of this piece, Gye Nyame and the inspirational force of divine transcendence in human life, and the Christian image of a superordinate divine identity subsuming human identity, emblematized by the unity of divinity and humanity in Jesus.

The boat may be seen as the dividing line of this cosmographic image, an image of ultimate reality and the unfolding of its impact in the life of one man as depicted in this work. The boat of prayer becomes the means by which the spiritual voyager navigates between the two aspects of the universe the work projects, the cosmographic centres above the boat, represented by Gye Nyame and the Christian image of divine/human conjunction, and, below the boat, the historical experience of Paul in action within space and time, dramatized in the tumultuous world unfolding beneath the boat.

The Drama of Paul's Life


The rest of the work may be seen as depicting Paul's dramatic life, seeking to fulfill the divine mandate he had been called to, in the course of which he became the first systematic theologian of Christianity in the sense of thoroughly exploring the historical and spiritual significance of the Christian message as the consummation of the divine vision described as granted to Abraham, which initiated Christianity's parent religion, Judaism.


                                                      434330887_10161257014843684_8692522719592768148_n ed3.jpg


Paul's theology of the Christian as running a race, "since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses ( ancestral seekers), let us set aside the weight that so easily besets us, running the race set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith", a race undertaken in search of "a city not made with hands, a city made by God" ( Hebrews 11) , his own life one of continual inward and outward striving, in prayer and action, in itinerant ministry fed by his many letters shaping the theology of the new religion, his eventual journey to Rome, taking his understanding of the Gospel to the heart of the empire, where after centuries, and long persecution, it would become the religion of the imperial centre, deeply shaping its outposts across continents and eventually the world, are dramatizations of Paul's working out of his divine mandate suggested by the myriad scenes organized in dynamic harmony in this work.

The Africanization of St. Paul

Paul's figure dominating the lower half of the work, dynamically poised in evoking his fusion of spiritual mobility and physical activity, is that of an African, the racial implications of his broad nose amplified by the African style print, like that of Ghanaian Kente or Yoruba Adire cloth, which he wears over his shoulder and waist to his feet, as Kente cloth is worn.


The intricate design of the cloth reverberates with the complexly elegant shapes defining the entire image space, Onobrakpeya's own distillation of the beauty of African abstract design complemented by his own visual innovations, in a work he describes as presented to Pope Paul VI, and now resident in the Vatican Museum in Rome, in spatial dialogue with other works in that great artistic centre, Rome, where Christian art reached an unsurpassed efflorescence in the Renaissance, a cultural centre where the thought and art of the religion Paul represents achieves one of its most significant concentrations.


Between Visual Perception and Understanding




What references to scenes from Paul's life are indicated in the lower part of the work? The three figures on the right, perhaps suggesting the people Paul was directed to who would help him orient himself after the reconfiguration of his person  through the shock of the divine encounter?




The elegantly sinuous motion of the snake at bottom left, near Paul's right hand, suggesting the account of the miraculous encounter with a snake as he was being taken captive to Rome, the snake's inability to harm him interpreted by his captors as evidence of his spiritual anointing?




Is it the image of a person who seems to be riding an elephant at the mid right hand of the work, an image that has no direct relationship known to me to Paul's story?





Most of the lower part of the work is constituted by abstract forms with no definable reference to anything.  The centring of the vigorously positioned image of Paul, his stance suggesting the dynamism of his life as he holds what might be instruments of his tent making profession, within the sheer dynamic variety of these forms, interlocked in sprawling luxuriance, fluidly shaping a delightful tapestry of unity in difference in a space unified by Paul's image, gives  the impression they evoke the physical and inward vigour of Paul's life, from itinerant pastor to Rome bound traveller.




Only the barest evocations of this sequence are evident in the work, however, a realization I came to only after close examination of the lower part of the etching in order to substantiate my thesis that it depicts the velocities of Paul's varied activities.

May they be perceived as abstractions of Paul's historical realities, visual depictions of invisible essences in order to evoke factualities expressed through visible activities but which are otherwise appreciable only through how people interpret events? Is the artist simply giving free reign to his imagination, allowing it to respond to the Pauline story in terms of the imagination's unanticipatable ''creative or reconfigurative power" expressed in ''varying degrees of intensity'', as Isidore Okpewho describes myth, narrative depictions of ultimacies to which this work is related in terms of fundamental values? ( "Rethinking Myth", African Literature Today 11,1980, 19).




The subject of the work, in relation to those aspects of its symbolism which are readily understandable, in relation to my knowledge of the account of Paul's life, led me to make a conclusion about the work which it turns out, is more conjectural than definitive, that the lower half of the work evokes Paul's dramatic life.



What does this indicate about relationships between artistic creation and the response of the perceiver, in general, and in relation to Onobrakpeya's work in particular? The Urhobo, Benin/Edo, Yoruba and Fulani cultural universes constituting his larger inspirational contexts are not as textually represented, are not as rich in textual accounts, as the Biblical story of Paul.

Yoruba sacred cultures have the best textual representation amongst them, both in texts from the classical tradition and post-classical responses to those traditions but even they are late comers to scribal literacy, to the culture of writing.

How is one, therefore, to adequately respond to Onobrakpeya's very rich engagement with these cultures, particularly the arcane evocativeness of their sacred arts, deeply embedded in a discursive universe of which the extant information might be uneven in terms of what may be read about it?


To what degree could one appreciate the magnificent evocation of the cosmological framework of Paul's life and the evocation of the physical and interpersonal dynamism of that life if one knew nothing or little about it?


Clearly, Onobrakpeya scholarship has to proceed through visual engagement with his works, through the study of the inspirational contexts of those works, as described by himself in his various publications and as presented by others, in relation to everything else one may learn through direct encounter with those inspirational contexts, such as exploration through reading and first hand encounter with those cultural matrices and the  various forms that inspire his work.


Along those lines, one is able to appreciate the Africanization of Paul's story, thereby articulating its universal force, as Onobrakpeya's own effort to domesticate inspiration from various sources, thereby dramatizing the trans-cultural potency of this inspiration, as he describes this process in his Symbols of Ancestral Groves ( 26).

Onobrakpeya's sensitivity to the challenge of adequately contextualizing his work motivates his becoming one of the most significant authors on his art, as represented by various books of his. His efforts, while priceless, represent, however, only a small fraction of the interpretive possibilities of his complexly detailed art, its deployment of an awesome variety of materials and techniques in relation to a universe of mythic, spiritual, philosophical and historical subjects across decades of experimentation.

His account of the genesis and meaning of St.Paul, as it journeyed through diverse versions in experimental reworking at his hands, helps provide the foundations of an interpretive platform beyond which the respondent to the work may travel into regions beyond those directly referenced by the artist, as the viewer experiences  the unfolding of the potentially infinite evocative possibilities of this  wonderful artistic work:

In 1975, Bishop Edmond Fitzgibbon of Port Harcourt asked me for a picture on a Christian theme. He let me choose the subject but would want it in bronzed lino relief style. I chose the subject of Christ's resurrection. It is conceived partly as an abstract composition showing a cross, the rising Christ and His disciples, all supported below with structures of plants and houses. Titled in Urhobo "Obaro Ishoshi Rovue Esiri'' meaning ''The Front of the Church of Good News'', the picture is inspired by Jesus' final instructions to his disciples Go ye into the world and preach the gospel.


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Screenshot (1793) ED3.png

                                                                        Obaro Ishoshi Esiri

                                                     ( The Front of the Church of Resurrection)


                                                                        102 cm x 90 cm


A preliminary study was made in plastograph ( deep etching). The enlarged version of the picture was then later transferred and cut onto a lino block, mounted onto plywood and given the bronzed lino relief patina.  The Bishop took delivery of the picture and it was the beginning of a line of commissions. 


In two years, Pope Paul VI would be eighty and Vatican City was planning to celebrate his birthday in a special way. As an important part of the celebration the Pope was to be honoured with pictures inspired by the life of ''St.Paul''. Artists from all over the world were to be invited to translate the theme into paintings, drawings or sculptures. Bishop Fitzgibbon wanted me to be a part of this and so he asked me to produce a picture in any medium on the theme of ''Life of St.Paul''. 

My preparatory drawings were first tried out in a platograph print. The picture focused on St. Paul's experience in the Island of Malta after the shipwreck on a voyage which was taking him to Rome for trial. In the picture St. Paul is shown shaking the viper which bit him into the fire. Standing beside him are people who were amazed that he came to no harm after being bitten by the snake. These same people had thought that the snake episode, following shortly after the shipwreck was divine justice to punish him. At the top  section of the print was a boat which symbolizes Paul's missionary journeys. Three other vignettes in the picture show St. Paul as a teacher, Jesus Christ resurrecting and lastly a symbol of God as a supreme being. Satisfied with the composition, I produced the picture in the bronzed lino relief technique. When completed Bishop Fitzgibbon paid me for the panel, saying he would keep it for himself if it were not accepted for the exhibition. 


All the entries from artists all over the world were subjected to scrutiny and approval by appointed experts. Selected ones were then exhibited by the Vatican museum and presented to the Holy Father. Bishop Fitzgibbon returned from Rome with the good news that my picture had passed the test. He handed me a bronze medal, an award attached to the acceptance.A subsequent grading exercise took place during the show, and another medal, this time a gold one, was sent to me from Rome. This brief account of the journey of my picture titled St. Paul to  the Vatican Museum will not be complete without reference to part of the letter written to me by Don Pasquali, Secretary to Pope Paul VI.


''I am happy to forward to you the enclosed copy of the volume ( San Paolo nell' arte Contemporanea) just published, which commemorates the exhibition of Art which took place to honour the 80th Birthday of his Holiness Pope Paul VI."

"The exhibition has been a great success and I must thank you again for your very generous and precious collaboration. You will note I know with pleasure that your work figures prominently not only in the exhibition itself but also in the present publication, which I am sending you-Vatican City, Christmas 1977.

( Onobrakpeya, The Spirit in Ascent, 191-193)


Why is this a Great Work of Art?


      Conception, Composition, Execution


Onobrakpeya's St. Paul It is a great work of art because of the creativity of its conception and composition and the imaginative dexterity and technical skill of its execution.




In order to represent or evoke Paul artistically, a practically infinite range of possibilities is accessible. The tradition of Pauline representation, however, seems to be limited to either a focus on his appearance or on  rendering landmarks in his history, such as his revelatory encounter with Jesus on Paul's  way to Damascus to further persecute Christians.

Onobrakpeya breaks from the tradition of Pauline representation by integrating that traditional approach of portraiture and event depiction into an expansive yet carefully structured evocation of the essence and dynamism of Paul's life. He projects Paul's life and persona in terms of its grounding in a spiritual imperative, a cosmological core demonstrating divine omniscience in relation to cosmic progression, evoked by Gye Nyame, and the divine as the template for human formation, a template uniquely exemplified by the incarnation of Jesus.

The essence of Paul's life, his vocation, "the orientation of a person's life and work in terms of their ultimate sense of mission", as Webster's dictionary defines ''vocation'', is thereby vivified.

Paul's vocation is visualized and anchored in an evocation of his life as one of prayer within the tumultuous symmetry of his existence. This harmony in variety is evoked by a balance of figurative and abstract forms, the entire ensemble actualized in terms of African geometric fabric designs, Kente and Adire, seamlessly integrated with Onobrakpeya's own lyrically harmonious abstract structures. 

In Africanizing the Pauline story, Onobrakpeya lifts the narrative from its originating Palestinian context to an African one, evoking the trans-cultural potency of the Pauline narrative and vision as Onobrakpeya assimilates the Biblical figure to himself and his racial and environmental context as an African.



The seemingly simplistic approach of placing all elements of the work on the same plane, avoiding any use of perspective or of spatial relationships beyond the most basic, in tandem with the stark black and white colour scheme of the piece, gives the work the elemental force of something both visionary and vivid, abstract and concrete.


The simplicity of the division of the cosmographic, upper section of the work from the more figurative and generally abstractive character of the rest of the composition gives the work the character of something primal and unsophisticated in its force, evoking the early stages of humanity's efforts at suggesting relationships of value, power or ontological primacy, using simple spatial divisions.


The method employed here echoes most specifically the Jewish Kabbalistic adaptation of the image of a tree in evoking cosmic multiplicity in harmony,  the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. The upper branches of the tree, like the upper section of Onobrakpeya's work, evoke the ultimate sources of cosmic origination. The lower branches, like the lower part of Onobrakpeya piece, symbolize the expression of those ultimate originating sources in the character of the cosmos, culminating in the world defined by space and time, the realm of Paul's ceaselessly mobile ministry, its velocities evoked by the tapestry of sinuously conjunctive abstractions in this work.




The conception and composition of the work are powerfully actualized through images of pristine clarity within a dazzling array of designs, vivid contours that could have been achieved only through painstaking effort in the use of the technique of etching through which this work was made, a meticulous and time intensive process involving the drawing of forms on a surface and the transference of those forms to another surface, creating the black and white lustre giving the work its sense of gravitas within the uplifting force of imaginative play.

Onobrakpeya's Visual Map of Paul's Life Journey and Birth and Re-Birth in Onobrakpeya's Biography

I wrote most of this essay on the 31st of March 2024, the month in which I consolidated my research into Onobrakpeya's life by my second visit to his natal community, Agbarha, to Agbahar-Otor precisely, the location of his Onobrak Art Centre and of his annual Harmattan Workshops, attendance at the 26th edition in February 2024 bringing me to Agbarha for the first time.


How may this artistic work dramatizing the inspirational forces and dynamism of Paul's life relate to my effort,  in exploring Obobrakpeya's  birth community, to better understand the roots constituting the world  out of which the great artist shapes his universe, his Urhobo/Edo/Yoruba/Fulani cultural matrix, in order to more fully appreciate his achievement as an artist, as a writer, as represented by his various books on his art, as an arts entrepreneur, as demonstrated by the Harmattan Workshops which provide opportunities for artistic training and interaction?


"Babini koto ka tura eni bi", "being born is not as significant as giving birth to oneself anew", a Yoruba saying goes.


"Giving birth to oneself anew is as significant as being born" it may also be stated.


Agbarha, in general, and Oghara, where he was born and where his father's house is,  Agbarha-Otor, where his art centre is located and where the Harmattan Workshops take place, represent Onobrakpeya's inspirational foundations. They  constitute the soil of his primary exposure to those cultural dynamisms from which he expanded to the cognate Nigerian cultural contexts he draws from in relation to his exposure to Western artistic techniques,  generating his distinctive artistic and general professional identity.


Like Paul's ancestral Jewish spirituality which formed the matrix for his transformative encounter with Jesus, another Jew, projecting his reformist vision of the ancestral spirituality he shared with Paul, Onobrakpeya's Agbarha roots are the matrix of his eventual journeys of exploration, in artistic subjects and artistic styles, contributing to shaping his vocation, his sense of mission, his sense of ultimate purpose, as he seeks to actualize, in his own way, the palpitations of the sacred he would have first encountered in Agbarha, as demonstrated by his adaptation of Urhobo, Edo, Yoruba and Fulani sacred cultures as his primary inspiration.This is demonstrated, for example, in the adaptation of the "Nigerian shrine arrangement of frontal static postures" in composing  St. Paul, as he states in Ancestral Groves ( 26).


Beginning from Agbarha and moving to Benin, Sapele, Zaria, Lagos and abroad and back to Lagos, where he lives, and Agbarha, where his Onobrak Art Centre and galleries housing some of his greatest works are located and the site of his annual Harmattan Workshops, how has he utilized the possibilities available to him, as Paul reconfigured his own life under the impact of divine encounter, as the story goes?


How has Onobrakpeya responded to the encounter of the fusion of art and the sacred which he most likely first encountered in Agbarha, given his father was a carver of sacred objects and the priest of the central communal shrine in Oghara, as stated by Onobrakpeya's close relative, Sunday Emazargbo in a personal communication? Having initiated his developmental journey from Agbarha, where has he gone, where is he now and where is he going, in terms of his legacy as it may unfold into the yet unforeseeable future?


"Let us run the race that is set before us" Paul urges, as " we seek to build a city", made with hands, in the case of Onobrakpeya's art, but transcending its materiality in impacting human minds, a collaboration with cosmic creativity in not only shaping the material cosmos through the physical structures humans are able to construct, but contributing to reconfiguring how the universe is perceived, in its discrete forms and its totality, from cosmographic evocations to the details of human life, as demonstrated by the referential scope of Onobrakpeya's art.


Onobrakpeya's Visual Biography of Paul and My Own Scholarly and Personal Reconstructions

What is the significance, for me, of Onobrakpeya's visualization of the cosmographic contexts and progression of Paul's life, in relation to my general study of Onobrakpeya and to my ongoing work on a biography of him? Like Onobrakpeya constructs coherence out of multiplicity in creating his depiction of Paul and his life, I aspire to a similar coherence in bringing together a broad range of explorations, in the visual and verbal arts, spirituality, philosophy, history, and other disciplines, where necessary, in illuminating the progression of Onobrakpeya's life and art.


How well can I integrate the varied universes of knowledge in which I have been travelling and in which I intend to go farther still, universes of discourse sensitizing me to the numinous power of Onobrakpeya's work, a counterpart to what Stephan Körner on the German philosopher Immanuel Kant describes as "the metaphysical moment", the attitude of sensitivity to the character of existence beyond its immediacies, probing to its foundations, its underlying logic beyond biological and social imperatives mandated by the sheer fact of existing, a depth of sensitivity inspiring much of the world's greatest expressive creativity, as  Körner puts it? (Kant, 1955). 


What is the place of Onobrakpeya's image of Paul's life in relation to my broader scholarship and my life in general?


What is the role of my work on Onobrakpeya's biography in the larger context of my own life, my own quest for meaning, my own efforts to make sense of the significance of my life or to construct value in that life?

Onobrakpeya's St. Paul is for me, like a mandala, a Buddhist image of cosmic structure and dynamism, an oriki, an imaginative form mapping the unfolding of a person's being at the intersection of ultimate possibility and psychological, social and material coordinates, as Rowland Abiodun's oriki theory of Yoruba aesthetics may be described,  a matrix within which I perceive my own aspirations to creating order in the construction of my life and in aligning it with ultimate values ( Abiodun, Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art, 2014).

Also Published 
In full


Cognitive Diary blog 

In a shorter version

on Facebook

Reply all
Reply to author
0 new messages