Onobrakpeya was born in Agbarha-Otor in Delta State, son of an Urhobo carver He was raised as a Christian, but also learned the traditional beliefs. His family moved to Benin City, Edo State when he was a child.He attended Western boys High School, where he was taught art by Edward Ivehivboje, among other subjects. He also attended drawing classes at the British Council Art Club in Benin City. Onobrakpeya was inspired by the watercolour paintings of Emmanuel Erabor. After leaving high school, Onobrakpeya was hired as an art teacher at the Western Boys High School (1953–1956). In 1956 he left for Ondo City|Ondo, where he taught at the Ondo Boys High School for a year.
In October 1957 Onobrakpeya was admitted to the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, now the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Funded by a Federal Government Scholarship, Onobrakpeya was trained in the Western tradition of representational art. At the same time, he began to experiment with forms in relation to Nigerian folklore, myths and legends. Much of his work uses stylistic elements and compositions derived from traditional African sculpture and decorative arts. The Zaria Arts Society, later called the Zaria Rebels, was formed on 9 October 1958 by a group of art students at the college led by Uche Okeke with the aim of “decolonizing” the visual arts as taught by expatriate Europeans. Onobrakpeya has said that the college gave him technical skills but the Zaria Arts Society, a discussion group, shaped his perspectives as a professional artist. The society gave him the confidence to seek a personal expressive idiom. He elongated his figures, ignored perspective and evoked the supernatural through ambiguous decorations. “Undoubtedly Nigeria’s best documented artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya needs very little introduction in art circles both within and outside the country. A living legend, Bruce Onobrakpeya has devoted his life to his work and is today regarded as the main custodian of Urhobo folklore and culture.
“As a founding member of the Zaria rebels, he is responsible for the renaissance in contemporary art in Nigeria and extended his vision to St. Gregory’s College, Lagos where he taught for many years. Through his various workshops and symposia, Bruce has influenced generations of young artists and is today respected as one of the leading print makers in the world.”
“Bruce Onobrakpeya, a Nigerian Urhobo printmaker, painter and sculptor, belongs to the first generation of contemporary artists graduating from the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (NCAST, presently known as Ahmadu Bello University). Onobrakpeya’s training was based on the Western illusionistic tradition of representational art. However, many of his artworks do not reflect his training in Western aesthetics. Instead, they portray stylistic elements and compositions that mirror traditional African figural sculpture and decorative arts.”
“In 1998, 1999, and 2000 [Bruce Onobrakpeya’s] Agbarha-Otor [artistic] outfit, with in-built chalets, successfully hosted artists to three annual communions, called the Harmattan Workshops. They drew artists from all parts of Nigeria. Bruce Onobrakpeya is involved with art works that show concern for the environment. The first of these, styled the Sahelian Masquerades, was seen in Europe, America and Southern Africa. Bruce Onobrakpeya has traveled and exhibited extensively in Nigeria and abroad.”
On June 6, 2000, Bruce Onobrakpeya was honoured with the Fellowship of the Society of Nigerian Artists. Previously, Bruce Onobrakpeya received Pope John Paul II award for painting the life of Saint Paul, the Fellowship of Asele Institute award, the Sadam Hussein award, the Solidra Circle award, and Fulbright Exchange Scholar award. He has been listed in International WHO IS WHO in Art and Antique. Bruce Onobrakpeya received an honourary D. Litt. from the University of Ibadan in 1989.