My Father, Myself and the Ancestors : Engaging Bruce Onobrakpeya's Thanksgiving Dance

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Oluwatoyin Adepoju

May 4, 2024, 6:14:57 PMMay 4
to usaafricadialogue, Yoruba Affairs,, frank ugiomoh


                                                         My Father, Myself and the  Ancestors 

                                           Engaging Bruce Onobrakpeya's Thanksgiving Dance 

                    Screenshot (1802) 3.png

                                                                Oluwatoyin Vincent Adepoju


                                                 Comparative Cognitive Processes and Systems


A journey through the associative possibilities of artist Bruce Onobrakpeya's Thanksgiving Dance, (plastocast relief, 2015), in relation to the theme of ancestor relationships viewed in terms of my personal experience and across varied world views in imaginative literature and spirituality. 


My Father, My Grandfather and I 
Relationships with Family and Guild Ancestors

Ancestor Relationships in Imaginative Literature and Spirituality
Onobrakeya's Thanksgiving Dance ( Plastocast Relief, 2015)
     Image: Thanksgiving Dance   ( Plastocast Relief, 2015)                                                       
     Vertical and Horizontal Balance
           Image: Thanksgiving Dance,  Upper section
           Image: Thanksgiving Dance,  Lower section
          Image: Thanksgiving Dance, Bonded Figures                                                        
      Scriptic Cosmos
          Image: River of Script
     Triangular Constellation
          Image: Thanksgiving Dance, Triangular Configuration of Central Elevated Figures

     The Celestial Sanctum
      Between Expansion and Emptiness

My Father, My Grandfather and I 

Sometime  after my father's death in 2000,  Joseph Ohomina, my teacher in Ifa, a system of knowledge and divination most closely associated with the Yoruba, divined on my behalf. 

He declared that my father was guiding me, according to the insights Ohomina described himself as gaining from the seemingly random arrangement the opele, the Ifa divination instruments, assumed when he cast them, a randomness believed in Ifa hermeneutics, Ifa interpretation theory, to be influenced by the powers behind the oracle, which uses those patterns in communicating their response to queries directed to them by the diviner.

I found Ohomina's assertion odd. My father and I had not been close for much of my life, our bond in my childhood, strategic to the love of reading and learning  my mother and himself were fundamental to inspiring, a culture we enjoyed together, had given way to a difficult separation mitigated by intermittent interaction and his profound gratitude at the presence of my sister, Ameto, and myself, at his bedside at his last illness.

Given this background, I wondered why Ohomina was making a claim about my father guiding my steps. He had not been directing them since I was sixteen, so why would he be doing so now, in my thirties,  and after he had left the physical world we both shared?

Years later, however, while studying in England,  far from  Benin-City where that divination was conducted, my father began to appear regularly in my dreams after I deliberately made peace with our joint history, dream encounters so vivid, I could ''smell'' his individuality, his living essence. 

I took those dreams seriously, encounters that meant I now became closer to him in death than when he was alive. One day, as I went to bed, I called out passionately to him for guidance about the direction of my life. That night, I had a vivid dream of visiting my maternal grandfather in Imoga, the village my parents come from.

I had once been required, as a child, to live in my grandfather's house in our village, as a means of protection from the causes of the recurrent illnesses I suffered, his house understood as a spiritual bastion those negative forces could not cross, a strategy I am told worked. I have no memory of that time, however, and had hardly interacted with my grandfather as I grew into adulthood.

Though he has long departed from the world, my mother continually recalls my grandfather's achievements and character, a particularly significant one in this context being his commitment, when it was still new in Nigeria, to Western education for his children, including my mother, at a time when educating women was seen in that village, and perhaps a good part of Nigeria, as an unnecessary expense, an initiative that eventually made all the difference to my mother's life, that of my father, and us, their children.

In the dream I  met my grandfather seated, flanked by two people. He held in his hands what looked like a sheet of paper, which I  understood as detailing my life's progression. 

He asked one question, the only interaction between us, upon which  the dream concluded.

''When am I going to read your book?''

What is a book? Is the answer determined by its physical form or by its contents? Beyond the emergence of digital books, can the understanding of a book be taken further to include a website or even an email? 

Can it be a collection of social media posts constituting the chapters of the book?  Can it be a sequence of images, with or without verbal text?

Can the use of digital media in integrating pictures, video, sound and verbalization not provide a more inclusive experience of organised information presentation within definite organizational parameters than even the conventional digital text or the print book? 

These are questions I engage with as I work towards taking advantage of the full spectrum of information  organization technologies in the creation of robust systems of knowledge, integrating complementary approaches to the concept of a book.

Relationships with Family and Guild Ancestors

My experiences with my father and grandfather are not unique. People testify to what they describe as guidance from or companionship with departed family members,  loved ones and inspirational figures. Some of these experiences occur through dreams. These relationships are with family and guild ancestors, the  latter being ancestors representing a particular way of life,  belief system, discipline or skill outside the biological bonds of the family, as in religion beyond domestic contexts.

In classical African religions, family ancestor  relationships ultimately imply contexts beyond the family because family ancestors are part of a network of spiritual agents including deities, belonging to a communal religious structure, a framework with the creator of the universe at its centre

Peter Ekeh  describes this in the spirituality of Onobrakpeya's native Urhobo culture as an intersection of private and public spheres, in a universe in which ''the Supreme Being Oghene governed and controlled [ the two main zones of existence, Akpo] ''the visible, tangible world of the living'' and Erivwin, ''the invisible realm of sacred, otherworldly forces-gods, divinities, spirits, and ancestors'',   and, as outlined by Michael Nabofa, a sacred economy in which ''an ancestral cult can be transformed into a shrine of divinity''. (1)

Family and guild ancestors may also be identical, as family members pass on the culture of a guild across generations of their descendants, as splendidly exemplified by the accounts of the succession of Yoruba Ifa and Ogboni guild memberships in the lineage of Kolawole Ositola, in which the image of the bird's quest in the sky of possibilities across lifetimes and the staff of exploration across generations become unifying motifs. (2)

In all these,  the ancestor is believed to constitute a  disembodied intelligence capable of influencing human  beings in ways chosen by the ancestor, or influenced by the requests of their biological descendants or ideological successors  after the ancestors  have passed away from life on Earth. 

Ancestor Relationships in Imaginative Literature and Spirituality

''Is there now a streak of light at the end of the passage, a light I dare not look upon? Does it reveal whose voices we often heard, whose touches we often felt, whose wisdoms come suddenly into the mind when the wisest have shaken their heads and murmured ; It cannot be done?...Elesin Alafin, if the world were not greater than the wishes of Olohun-Iyo, I would not let you go!'' declares Olohun-Iyo, ''the Honey Voiced One'', invoking the image of the ancestors welcoming  Elesin Alafin as the Elesin enters into a trance state progressively taking him to the world of the departed, in Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman, a fictional work inspired by Yoruba cosmology. (3)

The imagery of light, with its associations of cognitive illumination, amplified through its conjunction with the reference to motion from constricted to expanded space suggested by the idea of moving through a passage to encounter light at its end, the correlation of that light with unusual knowledge and subtle guidance from invisible personages, sums up various conceptions of the inspirational force of ancestor relationships, interactions with beings described as living in a non-material dimension but one which intersects with the material world so intimately their inspiration can be experienced in the material universe, at various levels of keenness and subtlety .

Dante Aligheiri's Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy, 1321is based on this concept, unifying the Christian ancestor theology known as the Communion of Saints and European culture and history from the Greco-Roman world to Dante's medieval Italy, in a poem about a  journey through the regions of the cosmos, where he interacts with various departed people from a broad spectrum of European history,  beginning from the stranger passing through the forest where Dante wakes from sleep at the beginning of the poem to find himself in, ''a dark and terrible place, the very thought of which stirs the old fear in the blood'', a wilderness through which passes a silent figure to which he cries out for help, only for that figure to identify himself in ways that lead Dante to exclaim ''Are you Virgil, from whom flowed a wondrous stream of glorious speech, igniting my great love fed by long hours soaking myself in your words?'',  Virgil, a poet who lived centuries ago in Rome, becoming his guide out of that forest, a journey that takes them through illustrious culture bearers in whose company Dante is  astonished to find himself,  '' I, even I,'' moving on to thrilling, at times horrifying and awe inspiring  encounters , culminating in encountering God in Paradise, a poem dramatizing a broad range of elements of ancestor relationships as developed across cultures. 

Marion Zimmer Bradley's novel The Forbidden Tower develops this subject with poignant force in terms of a journey of consciousness into the past to encounter an ancestor whose influence has decisively shaped the present the voyager ventures from, in order to gain from that ancestor knowledge lost in the voyager's time (4).

Clifford Simak's novella  ''The Marathon Photograph'' dramatizes a physical quest through various regions of the past by journeyers from Earth's future to find solutions that would prevent the nuclear holocaust that has devastated the Earth in their own time, most information sources in that period  having been destroyed by the catastrophe (5).

These fictional works, from Soyinka's Nigeria, Dante's Italy and the US of Bradley and Simak, resonate deeply with actual practices of ancestor relationships because spiritual ancestors are believed to live beyond time, providing enlightenment about present, past and future.  Imagination is also strategic in systems of ancestor veneration, since these systems employ imaginative forms in efforts to make contact with the spiritual personalities the imaginative constructs are described as representing. 

Bernard Bromage's adaptation of an imaginative technique from Tibetan yoga exemplifies this:

….most of us have a particular fondness for some inspirational voice of the past, some personality whose echo  comes down to us along the avenues of time to uplift and sustain. 

What better practice than to contact this silent friend in his own haunts? It is not particularly difficult to see the Buddha under  the bo tree or Ignatius Loyola wrestling with his soul at Manresa. 

We can, then, if we will, make friends with the great psychic  figures and scenes of the past. And we shall realise at the same  time that, in the world of the spirit, there is no absolute past,  present, nor future but one glorious sustaining Now. This why  help is so ready to our hands when we take the trouble to ask for it from “ mythical” personages we have come to venerate : we  are conferring with forces so near to us that they can be said to be  at our very ear.( )

The Hindu Sri Devi Khadgamala Stotram ritual, as translated by the Shakti Sadhanna group, opens with an invocation of ancestral figures in Sri Vidya history, the school to which the ritual is central, identifying some of these personages with aspects of the cosmos. Such identification might signal an understanding of these individuals as having passed beyond the confinements of conventional humanity into unity with the intelligence constituting the universe, an intelligence expressed in  the varied workings of the cosmos referenced in these salutations.

The devotee salutes ''Kalatapanamayi - He who set time on fire; Visnudevamayi- He who expanded himself, taking up the whole of space; Prabhakaradevamayi - He who became a star called the sun; Tejodevamayi - He who became the light which was speeding over all space,  creating space itself''.

The allure of such expansive conceptions is magnified through association of ancestor figures with structures and dynamism of cosmic progression or with superlative natural phenomena. Western esotericist Dion Fortune extends the concept of ancestors to pre-human predecessors of humanity who have evolved into constituting the structural foundations of the universe (

The Tibetan Buddhist image of the city of Shamballa, adapted by Theosophy and Western esotericism in relation to the idea of the Great White Lodge, ideas richly discussed in the linked Wikipedia essays, describes ancestors who live unseen in the ambit of the Himalayas, the world's highest mountains, or in other remote regions, helping to shape human history through their invisible influence ( 8 ). Paul Twitchell, founder of Eckankar, depicts such figures as teachers within various regions of the cosmos   (9).

Elizabeth Haich's
Initiation sums up the thrust of these conceptions of hidden ancestral teachers in her account of a description of humanity's history by a prehistoric seer:

…there will be reincarnated Sons of God working secretly within humanity. They'll find places to live in the high mountains, in caves, or in other remote regions where, undisturbed in their retreats, they can send forth extremely high forces into the atmosphere of the earth.


People who have already developed to such a point that they can receive these spiritual waves will automatically establish spiritual links with these Sons of God, and work together with them.


Often they will not even be aware of this spiritual link. On the contrary, for all they'll know, they will merely be acting on the basis of their own "inner conviction", not knowing that this "inner conviction" is divine power transmitted from the Sons of God.


In this way some highly developed people will transmit and proclaim to all humanity the teachings which the Sons of God will bring to earth from time to time.

Although the masses won't be able right away to understand these high truths, they'll feel the love and power inherent within them, and for this reason they'll believe in them. That is how religions will come into being from the divine teachings of the Sons of God [ through people interpreting these teachings] differently depending on the characteristics of their race and their degree of development. (10)

Soyinka's prison poetry dramatises a related sense of invisible but palpable personages guiding those in need. Depicting himself as withdrawing into silent contemplation within his prison cell, akin to diving into nourishing waters, ''A grey plunge in pools of silence'', he encounters ''peace/Of bygone voyagers'',  who,  ''Cleansed...await the seeker come/ To a drought of centres, to slipholds on the climb'', influences he is able to invoke through the ''Oil of solitude'' in which, ''I call you forth, all, upon/Terraces of light. Let the dark/Withdraw'', dramatising the essence of ancestor relationships in their most creative sense as perceived across various cultural contexts ( 11).

Onobrakeya's Thanksgiving Dance ( Plastocast Relief, 2015)

Everything I have ever encountered about ancestor relationships, particularly in their more exalted forms, is represented for me by Bruce Onobrakeya's Thanksgiving Dance ( plastocast relief, 50 x 195 cm, 2015). It  suggests to me the sense of elevated, quasi-human presence in terms of which ancestors are described, networks of transmuted individualities distilled from and contributing to shaping terrestrial humanity. 

The work's title does not suggest such references, nor do its contents, unlike such other works by Onobrakpeya as Aro Oniemo (Mother’s Shrine,1972), Aro Osemo (Father’s Shrine, 1972), Aro Osomo II (Father's Shrine,  1977) ( 12 ).

Thanksgiving Dance 
( plastocast relief, 2015), however, recalls for me  descriptions of those once-human identities as existing in a universe of their own, a richly insightful cosmos which yet intersects with the material world,  subsuming and transcending the human universe in which they once lived. 

Thanksgiving Dance ( plastocast relief, 2015)   is one of the latest in a series of explorations of the same subject by Onobrakpeya, as an online search demonstrates, complementing the artist's account of the evolution of this motif in his art (13).

Various versions of this subject are dated 1970 (deep etching) and 2020 (plastocast painting), while there are three versions dated 2015- (1) painted plastocast relief on board (2) plastocast on board and (3) plastocast relief. I am yet to get a dating for other versions visible online, designated  metalfoil plastocast and a similar example

Onobrakeya's article presents even more versions, demonstrating his explorations of the same subject using diverse technical forms, thereby actualizing various possibilities of the creative vision represented by the concept, [actualizing the ] ''artist’s relentless pursuit of creativity as he goes from idea to two-dimensional drawing, to near-sculptural metal foils [ and, in come cases] to actual sculptures'', as observed by the Hourglass Gallery.

Thanksgiving Dance, in its various versions, employs one unvarying element, the stylized images of dancers. These images may be complemented purely by placement against a background of geometric structures, as in plastocast on board, 2015. The background may achieve greater complexity in terms of a densely scripted surface composed of Onobrakeya's self invented Ibiebe script, as in the black and white deep etching version of 1970, the undated metal foil plastocast, and a similar, but seemingly different, undated work.

Another variant pairs the dancing figures with stylized humanoid forms poised above the dancers, the scriptic background evident but dimmed, as in plastocast painting, 2020. In  plastocast relief, 2015, all these images come together in terms of the combination of horizontal composition, for the dancers, and vertical organization, for the figures pioised in space,  against a densely scripted background, all images in the work achieving visual prominence,  ''a fully resolved visual impact'', adapting Alisa La Gamma from a different context (14 ).

All subsequent references to Thanksgiving Dance in this essay are to the plastocast relief version of 2015. I was deeply moved by my encounter with this version at one of the galleries in the Onobrak Art Centre at Agbarha-Otor, and have come to see this version as the most compositionally comprehensive of all the variants. 

Each example demonstrates a distinctive power, irreplaceable by any of the others,  but the plastocast relief version of 2015 integrates all the elements, the images and compositional structure, of the other versions, facilitating an appreciation of these works as constellating  around plastocast relief, 2015, as diverse windows into the same motif, unified in a central composition.

The picture of this work which I use in this essay, from the website of SMO Contemporary,  a site showing most of the other versions of this piece, at best only echoes the visual power of the work itself when directly confronted, on account of the resistance to adequate photographic reproduction of works created through the  plastocast technique, part of which is described by Salubi Onakufe, as recorded in a video I made of him responding to the Onobrak Art Centre example of this creation.


                                                                    Thanksgiving Dance
                                                                ( Plastocast Relief, 2015)

         Vertical and Horizontal Balance

Thanksgiving Dance  is a variant of Onobrakpeya's signature adaptation of vertical composition in African shrine structures, emphasizing vertical order in the arrangement of elements, suggesting upward motion, guiding the eye in cyclic upward and downward movement, a verticality at times complemented by horizontal arrangement of elements, a technique powerfully deployed in a version of Onobrakpeya's  etching St. Paul  (15 ).   

Like St. Paul,  Thanksgiving Dance   is divided into an upper and a lower section, both sections suggesting distinctive but correlative universes, two different but intimately related worlds. In St. Paul, the  upper section evokes realms of activity beyond the terrestrial plane, the lower region depicts action in the material world, a similar structure suggested in Thanksgiving Dance.This compositional style suggests a cosmological structure evident in various spiritualities and some philosophies, mediated to Onobrakpeya through his classical Urhobo, Delta, Edo, Yoruba, Hausa/Fulani  and Christian cultural development. (16)


                                                                   Thanksgiving Dance 
                                                                 ( Plastocast Relief, 2015)
                                                                           Upper section

In  Thanksgiving Dance  this distinction between upper and lower sections is projected in terms of  a sense of spatial elevation in the upper region, an impression of upward motion as well as of suspension in space. Poise and  timelessness are evoked, as if the figures positioned in space seem to exist in a different temporal continuum from the abstracted forms of the dancers below, the shapes of the dancers both lyrical and frenzied, stylized to project the energy and power of their dynamic motions.  

Samer Akkach describes an experience incidentally suggestive of the sense of upward motion, of elevation and poise within a mysteriously glorious universe, alive with strangely intriguing presences, visually compelling and psychologically uplifting, dramatised by the Onobrakpeya work:

When I was a little boy I used to love the snowfall in Damascus. Playing with friends in the street was fun, of course, but the real joy was in the gazing trick I had discovered and thought no one knew.

 Raised on a couch placed under the kitchen’s window that opens onto a large light well, I used to stand up motionless gazing at the snow flakes silently and gracefully falling down. In a magical moment, as I concentrated hard on the falling motion, the situation switched: the snow flakes suddenly became still, and I began to rise.

I knew it was a mere illusion, for the moment I blinked I was immobilized and had to start again, yet the sensation of rising was still real and exhilarating. For hours I used to play this gazing trick. The heavier the snow fell the faster I rose, and the harder I concentrated the smoother my ride.


In some long stretches of concentration, as the rising sensation sank deep into my body, the ascension felt monotonously endless, as if I were silently floating in an infinite space. I often wished it were real. I was curious to know what lies beyond the sky, the beautiful blue border of my world. I had a suppressed desire to take a look at God’s fearful yet, surely, wondrous land. I wanted to see where God lives! I knew my gazing trick would never take me there, but I was sure that where God lives was a different world.


Many years later, as I became interested in premodern cosmology, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that my childish reveries were not all baseless fantasies. The world might have been much larger than what my little mind could comprehend, but for premodern cosmologists it was still a bounded world. Not only that, but beyond the known bounds another unfolds, one everlasting with wondrous landscape, luminous structures, and spiritual beings.


Through architecture I found myself able to explore the complexities of the bounded universe—its design, order, and meanings— and to examine how cosmological thinking mediates human acts of making and space ordering. (17 )


                                                                     Thanksgiving Dance 
                                                                 ( Plastocast Relief, 2015)
                                                                          Lower section

The figures immersed in the frenzied dance evoke for me the human condition,  the dance of existence, of being and becoming, of birth and progression, of response to the imperatives of living, of reaction to the stimuli galvanizing human activity in motion through space and time, from birth on Earth to exit from terrestrial life.  

''Everything is on fire''  declares the Buddha in the Adittapariyaya Sutta: The Fire Sermonincidentally evoking the galvanizations of  the dancing figures in Thanksgiving Dance as emblematic of the human condition. ''The eye,  nose, ear, smell and  sense of touch  are on fire with the fire of lust, the fire of hatred,  the fire of delusion, the fires of sorrow,  pain, displeasure and despair”, a situation which the Buddha tried to counter through a contemplative discipline and lifestyle that looked beyond the passions of existence to its underlying meaning.

The poised figures  in Thanksgiving Dance, existing in their own universe,  also seem linked, through  spatial proximity, to the dancing figures rapt in their own world, dancers with whom the elevated figures  seem to also share an ontological bond, a bond of identity, as if constituting the same realities as those depicted by the dancers but experienced at a more abstracted plane, where space and time are different.

Akinwumi Ogundiran's description of the crystallization of Yoruba origin Orisa cosmology evokes a similar sense of relationship between temporality and infinity, between the dynamism of human life within its spatio-temporal contexts and of distillations from that continuum into a realm of thought and action integrating and transcending those material coordinates, akin to the juxtaposed visualizations of Thanksgiving Dance:

Ilé-Ifè led the charge, beginning in the eleventh century, to reconceptualize the community of orisa [ by “building on the legacy of [ Yoruba] deep-time cosmological and theogonic thought’’ a] process [that included translating those deities that had regional appeal into a system of filial relationships… and using them as parallel mirrors for viewing and reflecting on … everyday social lives.


The light bouncing from these everyday lives, to borrow the lingo of optical physics, created the infinity effect on these parallel mirrors—the orisa pantheon. The orisa offered…multiple angles to view everyday lives in a series of reflections that receded into an infinite distance.


It would take deep learning, knowledge, and expertise to observe, read, and interpret these reflections. And, inasmuch as…everyday life is not static, the pantheon could not be static. New deities (new parallel mirrors) were therefore created from time to time to capture and account for these new everyday experiences(18).


''A journey across the landscape of human error, culminating in an encounter with those who know'', is how Ezra Pound describes his poetic sequence, The Pisan Cantos, one approach to relationships between the transcendent and the temporal, between superordinate insight into the human condition and immersion in that condition, as the  the relationship between the elevated and the dancing figures in Thanksgiving Dance may be perceived.

''...mentally praying and wishing for blessings on others so earnestly that that one's mind processes...transcend thought'', the hermit Jetsun Milarepa's account of an aspect of the teaching of his Kargyutpa Buddhist school,  an understanding of relationships between distance from the gyrations of human existence and sensitivity to the shared humanity between the hermit and his fellow humans, engrossed in the play of existence, the ultimate significance of which  the hermit seeks to understand through contemplative withdrawal from society, a withdrawal and sensitivity incidentally evocative of the elevated figures in Thanksgiving Dance, elevated above the pains and pleasures of society represented by the frenziedly dancing figures, yet sharing the same space with them (19).

"As long as space abides and as long as the world abides, so long may  I abide, destroying the sufferings of the world'', declares Santideva, in his picture of the Buddhist Bodhisattva ideala vision of human possibility indicating the human person may transcend the limitations of mortality by transitioning to a plane, where, freed of those limitations, they may assist humanity across its aeons of existence, a balance of alert engagement and transcendence belonging in a similar universe of ideas as that suggested by Thanksgiving Dance (20).


The ascending/suspended figures in Onobrakpeya's composition are either humanoid or semi-humanoid, and are therefore correlative with the idea of the human identities ancestors are described as possessing before passing away from life on Earth, henceforth understood as guiding human beings  through intimate relationships akin to those evoked by Onobrakpeya's humanoid figures, each of whom  seems to hold a smaller humanoid figure to itself as they both hang suspended in space.


                                                                             Thanksgiving Dance
                                                                                 Bonded Figures  

The ascending/suspended figures in Onobrakpeya's composition also suggest other identities in humanity's visualizations of intelligences different from terrestrial humanity, intelligences such as angels, which such a writer as Western esotericist Dion Fortune aligns with ancestor conceptions in describing angels as humanity's predecessors who guide human beings, doing this through intimate relationships like  those evoked by Onobrakpeya's humanoid figures, a physical bonding akin to Fortune's depiction of mental and spiritual conjunction between  individual humans and  such pre-human entities, the influence of one of these, the archangel Metatron, experienced  as ''a blinding flash of illumination of remote spiritual truths'' ( 21 ).
Dante visualizes such a human/non-human conjunction as a dream experience, in which the non-human agent is symbolized by an eagle, ''Light sparkled and gleamed, glowing faintly on the eastern horizon, the wind calm and caressing as I fell asleep, seeing in my dream a golden feathered eagle in the sky, its wings outspread, poised as if to strike, lightning fast it moved, terrible as a thunderbolt, tearing  me upward into the sphere of fire, where we both burned in one furnace-blast, a visionary fire that so seared me through, it broke my sleep'', waking up  to find that he had been carried a distance on his cosmic journey, the process of his carrying being what he had experienced as the lifting by the eagle in a fiery union ( 22  ).

Ochuko Tonukari depicts a universe of non-human and human vitality in tandem as constituting Urhobo cosmology, a sense of elevated power in a larger-than-human context that is yet intimately embedded within human existence, a rhythm of possibilities with which Onobrakeya's visualization resonates, suggesting the artist has adapted the human/non-human intimacies of the correlative Urhobo/Delta/Edo and Yoruba cosmologies.

Onobrakeya   could be seen as suggesting, through the evocative force of this powerfully realized work in two dimensions, a view of the cosmos depicting the universe in terms of the union of the conventionally known three dimensions with a  fourth dimension, where non-human, non-animal forms of consciousness intersect with the human, a cosmology dramatizing  the human capacity to conceive possibilities beyond the immediate, as described by Tonukari of the classical Urhobo universe: 

The Urhobo pantheon features a fascinating and diverse array of divinities. The pantheon is dazzling in its breadth, encompassing voluptuous river spirits, maternal nurturers, exalted wisdom figures, compassionate healers, powerful protectors, cosmic mothers of liberation, and varying forms of female goddesses.

 In Urhoboland, deities preside over childbirth, agriculture, prosperity, longevity, art, music, love magic, and occult practices. There are deities who offer protection from epidemics, snakebite, demons, curses, untimely death, and every mortal danger. There are also gods who support practitioners in their pursuit of knowledge, mental purification, a higher rebirth, and full spiritual awakening.

Deities occupy every echelon of the divine hierarchy, from nature spirits embedded in the landscape to cosmic figures representing the highest truths and attainments of Urhobo tradition. Variously beatific and wrathful, tender and fearsome, serene and ecstatic, they represent the energies, powers, and beings that surround and suffuse human life.

They also reflect the inner depths of the human spirit, embodying qualities that may be awakened through spiritual practice. Thus, they are envisioned at once as supernatural beings who minister to those enmeshed in worldly existence, as potent forces that may be invoked through ritual and as models of human aspiration ( 23 ).

      Scriptic Cosmos

The sense of enigmatic meaning in Thanksgiving Dance is amplified by the mysterious script against the background of which the contrastive but seemingly complementary actions of  ascension/stasis and frenzied dancing take place, a sequence of graphic forms running across the entire surface of the space against which all the  figures are placed, as if evoking a continuum of meaning, a progression of understanding or a potential for knowing represented by symbols as humanity's primal forms of abstracting  and projecting meaning.

            River of Text
                                                                       Thanksgiving Dance
                                                                             River of Script

A textual universe unfolds, like the Buddhist image of the universe inscribed on a scroll,  a sacred text unfurling infinitely as the possibilities of the cosmos are actualized, akin to Salman Rushdie's sea of stories, correlative with the Ifa tapestry of stories perceivable as dramatizing the cosmos as a network of interpretive possibilities the significance of which unfolds as it is engaged by reflective consciousness, conceptions provoking questions of the intersection between cosmic order and its enablement of life and awareness, an evolving story of being and becoming constituted by numerous interlinked stories emerging from the confluence of possibilities from which each moment is born, depths of meaning grappled with by all expressions of awareness in seeking to navigate the arcane universe, from which continually erupts new interpretive possibilities. ( 24 )

Hindu thinker Abhinavagupta centralizes relationships between consciousness and meaning, in the form of a tradition of religious scholarship and practice, in celebrating his guild ancestors, his teachers, grounding them in the deities of his school. The image of the lotus is recurrently evoked as indicating the unfolding of consciousness and the cosmos cognized by awareness: 

I bow to the flash of consciousness, the consort of Bhairava, the Divine Mother who has assumed the form of the spokes of the wheel of creation as also of the petals of the lotus of the essential constitution of the individual.


I praise the Supreme Goddess, Parā Devī, the creative inspiration of Consciousness, the yogic consort of Bhairava, who has made her abode the lotus-and-trident-throne, its prongs the subject, object and means of knowledge, knower, knowing, and known.


Honor finally to Parapara, the radiating trident of gnosis that destroys the triple enslavement of humans and can annihilate all obstacles on the path to truth.


May the ancient teachers triumph. Glory to the first masters shining like precious pearls in the river of spiritual tradition to which Tryambaka gave his name, stainless helmsmen, unfailing pilots who guide us in the turbulent ocean of the guru’s scriptures effulgent with waves.


Glory to the work performed by the great Utpaladeva from the teachings of the glorious Somananda, who emanates from supreme Consciousness like a perfume spreading everywhere.


We salute the bee-like mind of the Master Laksmašagupta, its enchanting resonance intensified by its total immersion in relishing that Lotus, his teacher Utpaladeva.


Everything I could desire was taught to me by the venerable Cukhulaka, eminent master, the best of teachers, who, having traversed the entire purport of the scripture, rests in perfect bliss. Instruct me in what I desire to learn.


May Śambhunātha be victorious! He who, together with his consort, can elevate the entire universe — he who, by the enlightening rays of his instructions, has made this path of scripture clear to me although profound and hard to grasp. ( 25)

Brian Magee's account of his discussions with a fellow philosopher in the Western tradition, Karl Popper, dramatizes  ancestor relationships in terms of a quest for philosophical understanding:

Every [ philosophical ] question was met head on, yet seen in the context of Western thought since the pre-Socratics, a living tradition that was in the room with us like a presence. There were invisible participants in every conversation: it was as if Plato, Hume, Kant and the rest were taking part in our discussion, so that everything we said had naturally to be referred to them, and then back again to us for our critical and often dissenting responses. ( 26 ).

This work by Onobrakpeya represents another effort along these lines, seeking, perhaps, to construct an image of the universe, succeeding, at best, in projecting one out of an unknown scope of ways of representing the  relationship between human beings and other aspects of the cosmos, becoming another object brought into being within the cosmos, the sobering understanding all creators of efforts to symbolically encapsulate the cosmos arrive at eventually, akin to Dante and the tiger's dreams of the meaning of their lives, that of the poet relating to the role of his poem the Commedia, in the structure of the universe, and that of the tiger as inspiring a word in that poem, dreams forgotten by both creatures, the designs of the universe being too subtle for either man or animal to adequately grasp, as Jorge Luis Borges puts it ( 27 ).

     Triangular Constellation

                           Screenshot (1802)Screenshot (1802).png

                               Thanksgiving Dance, Triangular Configuration of Central Elevated Figures

A human looking head above a circle framing the head of a humanoid form. The image  is at the apex of a composition in which another such image is positioned at the lower, extreme left and right of the apexical image, a composition constituting a triangle. The images are powerful in their spare formulation, suggesting carvings into the walls of an ancient temple, their precise meanings lost to history, as the meanings of the Onobrakpeya images are not identified by their creator, but unmistakably project the sense of sensitivity to visualisations of possibility beyond conventional forms of existence, enabling identification with the use of such triangular schemes in various cosmologies, and resonating with varied cosmological uses of the number three, the numerical equivalent of the triangular structure. 

These constructs evoke the combination of elementary structuring and visual power of the frontal stance of standing figures in edan ogboni, central visual symbols of the Yoruba origin Ogboni esoteric order which Onobrakpeya uses with such immense force in his Oracles multi-media series (28).

 May the triangulally constellated figures evoke entities embodying the Ogboni conceptualization of the number three in terms of  ''dynamic power, physical and metaphysical [ linking ] cause with effect, the physical with the metaphysical, the visible with the invisible..the human with the superhuman...the mystical union implicit in threeness [ transcending] the intimacy and equilibrium commonly associated with twoness...a dynamic force uniting two elements toward a common purpose'' a matrix of possibility at the intersection of the esoteric dynamism of existence and its outward expressions, focused in the journey across life's stages of birth, adulthood and old age, representing the morning afternoon and evening of life, as described by Babatunde Lawal?( 29).

May they embody 
the view of  the cosmos as a ''three-tiered structure, consisting of the heaven [s] above, the physical world and the world beneath [ each of these] inhabited by different categories of beings'' as  Tonukari describes Urhobo  cosmology ?. ( 30 )

Could the humanoid forms dramatize these cosmograhic conceptions in terms of a pattern of equilibration akin to the Yoruba Ifa creation story in which cosmic conditions are embodied by awo, adepts in the esoteric knowledge of Ifa in which ''
There-were-no-living-things/ Was the [awo] on earth/ That-which-was-suspended /  But-did-not-descend/  Was the [awo] in the otherworld/ All-was-just-empty-space/ With-no-substance/ Was the [awo] of Mid-Air [in]  Earth and the otherworld/When they both existed/ With no inhabitants/ In the two empty shells''? ( 31).

         The Celestial Sanctum

Thanksgiving Dance, as an imaginative space,  evokes for me the Celestial Sanctum, as conceived by Harvey Spencer Lewis, a universal contemplative zone,  unlimited by space or time, ''a magnificent focal point  of all the positive thought, the finest concepts  of which [people] are capable'',  which anyone may uniquely adapt to their own use,  identified with people   one draws inspiration from,  those whom we know or know about and ''those whom we will never meet,  and those who have not even been born yet''. (32) Such trans-historical conceptions, reaching into the past, linking it with the present and perhaps the future, emblematize conceptions of ancestors, particularly in spiritual traditions.

       Between Expansion and Emptiness

Having journeyed with Onobrakpeya's Thanksgiving Dance across a range of associative possibilities, I withdraw from the explicatory effort, to relate further with the work, admiring and contemplating it, realizing that it subsumes and transcends anything that I or anyone else may say about it. I return from an effort at fullness of response to emptiness of mind, enabling the work to further seed my mind.

Frank Ogiomoh sums up superbly this necessity in relating with art, in general, and Onobrakpeya's work in particular:

....Onobrakpeya's metaphors [demonstrate a] capacity  [ for evoking ] new meanings … despite time and age [remaining] forever renewable [ a ] rejuvenation of meaning in every new encounter with the work of art that [ is both playful and engages] the human spirit in the quest for knowledge [ actualizing] The work of art [ as] always remaining open] to be thematized...into... different constellation [s] of meaning for as long as it [is] encountered by all peoples of all times. ( 33 )


1.   Peter Ekeh, ''Urhobo World View"; Michael Nabefo, ''Urhobo Art and Religious Belief'', both in Where Gods and Mortals Meet: Continuity and Renewal in Urhobo Art, ed. Perkins Foss, 2004,30-31, 31 and 37-51, 37, 38.

2.  Margaret Thompson Drewal, Yoruba Ritual: Performers, Play, Agency, 1992, 29-47, 33;  Margaret Thompson Drewal and Henry John Drewal. ''An Ifa diviner's shrine in Ijebuland'',   African Arts, Vol. 16, No. 2, 1983,  60-67+99-100.

3. Wole Soyinka, Six Plays, 1984, 144-220, 185.

4. Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Forbidden Tower1977, 243-253.

5. Clifford Simak,  The Marathon Photograph and Other Stories, 1987, 77-147.

6. Bernard Bromage,   Tibetan Yoga, 1952, 227.

7. Dion Fortune,  The Cosmic Doctrine2000; 97-103.

8. Vera Stanley Alder, The Initiation of the World, 1970.

9. ''Spiritual Teachers and Guides'';  ECKANKAR:Ancient Wisdom for Today, 1993, 60. Both accessed April 30, 2024.

10. Elizabeth Haich,  Initiation2000, 198.

11. Wole Soyinka, A Shuttle in the Crypt, 1972, 4, 19.

13. Bruce Onobrakpeya, ''Experimental Art: A Case Study of Bruce Onobrakpeya's Semi Abstract Dance Motifs'',  Agbarha-Otor, 2016: 18th Harmattan Workshop: Experimental Art, 2020, 1-21.

14. Alisa La Gamma,  ''Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary'', African Arts, Vol. 40, No. 4, 2007, 32-43, 40.

15. Oluwatoyin Vincent Adepoju, ''Divine Transformation: Aesthetic, Theological and Philosophical Significance of Bruce Onobrakpeya's Visual Biographical Portrait of St. Paul" ( LinkedinCognitive Diary blogUSAAfrica Dialogues Series Google group, and a shorter version on Facebook).

16. Described by Bruce Onobrakpeya in The Spirit in Ascent.

17. Samer Akkakh, Cosmology and Architecture in Premodern Islam: An Architectural Reading of Mystical Ideas, 2005, xiii-xiv.

18. Akinwumi Ogundiran,  The Yoruba: A  New History, 2020, 128.

19. Tibet's Great Yogi, Milarepa, translated by Kazi Dawa-Samdup and edited by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, 1969,  142.

20. Santideva, Bodhicaryavatara,  translated and edited by Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton, 2008, 143.

21. Dion Fortune, The Cosmic Doctrine2000;205 

22. Dante Alighieri, Purgatory, Canto IX. Adapted from  translations by Dorothy Sayers, John Sinclair and Henry Cary.

23. Ochuko Tonukari, "Aziza: King of the Urhobo Forest'', Urhobo Historical Societyaccessed April 29, 2024.

24. References and inspirational sources: Buddhāvataṃsaka Sūtra; Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories,1990; Martin Rees,  Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape The Universe, 1999; Oluwatoyin Vincent Adepoju, ''Cosmological Permutations : Joseph Ohomina’s Ifa Philosophy and the Quest for the Unity of Being''; Shloma Rosenberg, ''Olorun-God in the Lukumi Faith'', Mystic Curioaccessed April 29, 2024.

25. From Abhinavagupta,Tantraloka: Light on the Tantras, chapter 1. Compiled from translations by Roger-Orphé Jeanty, Mark Dyzckowski Christopher Wallis, Professor Satya Prakash Singh and Swami Maheshvarananda.

26. Brian Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher: A Journey through Western Philosophy, 1977, 184.

27. Jorge Luis Borges, ''Inferno, I, 32'', The Floating Library,  accessed April 29, 2024.

28. Oluwatoyin Vincent Adepoju, Bruce Onobrakpeya Oracle Questaccessed April 29, 2040.

29. Babatunde Lawal,  ''À Yà Gbó, À Yà Tó: New Perspectives on Edan Ògbóni,”  African Arts, Vol. 28, No. 1, 1995, 36-49+98-100, 44-45. 

30. Ochuko Tonukari, ''Urhobo Community as Unity of Two Worlds'',  Urhobo Historical Society, accessed April 29, 2024.

31. Rowland Abiodun, Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art, 2014, 28.

32. Charles Dana Dean, Liber 777: The Celestial Sanctum, no publication date; "The Rosicrucian Egregore", Rosicrucian Digest, Volume 93,  Number 1,  2015,  Rosicrucian Order AMORC,  West Africa, Facebook, Oct. 14, 2018.

33. Frank Ugiomoh, ''Bruce Onobrakpeya's Art: An Analytical Approach to Configuration of Form", Onobrakpeya: Masks of the Flaming Arrows, ed. dele jegede, 2015, 54-69, 61-62.


 The printmaker, painter and multimedia artist  Bruce Onobrakpeya and the writer Wole Soyinka are particularly strategic figures in dramatizing the power of African ancestor cultures,  even though, to the best of my knowledge, their work is not known as used in actual spiritual practice. Their achievements, however, help to amplify the voice of   centuries of engagement with the practice and suggest how such voices could be cultivated at the present time.

They are both great explorers of classical African spiritualities.  Soyinka, largely those of his native Yoruba,   but also correlative with other African systems.  Onobrakpeya  at the intersection of  the spirituality and arts of his Urhobo ancestry with the cognate Yoruba, Edo and Fulani cultures, along with enagements with Ghanaian Adinkra and perhaps other African forms. 

Wole Soyinka's writings and Bruce Onobrakpeya's visual art, complemented by Onobrakeya's  writings, are correlative in terms of depth of insight and sophistication of expression, across both luminous simplicity and imagistically and ideationally dense expressive networks, dramatizing uniquely powerful technical skill in creating complex universes as they explore classical African thought worlds, at times in intersection with contemporary realities.  

Earlier, shorter drafts published on

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