Bruce Onobrakpeya, The Harmattan Workshop in retrospective exhibition
As an informal yearly gathering of artists at his homeplace, Agbarha-Otor, Delta State, The Harmattan workshop started in 1998, when Onobrakpeya chose a non-academic environment to share his knowledge to empower artists. With a yearly gathering of artists from Nigeria and abroad, the workshop has been giving artists interactive opportunity in many exciting art forms.
Sponsored by Hogan Lovells, The Harmattan Workshop exhibition showcases 34 important art works highlighting Onobrakpeya’s rich artistic career spanning over 50 years. Also on display are over 200 paintings, sculptures, ceramics and mixed media created by 124 Nigerian and international artists, who have participated in The Harmattan workshops over the years.
The ground floor displays works of introduction tagged, ‘The Road to Agbarha-Otor Series.’ The floor showcases records of the artists’ emotional and physical landscapes of journeying, both alone and in company of others, reflecting many different styles, from naïve to romantic, and abstract to representational. Among the works is Bisi Fabunmi’s ‘Village Landscape’ made out of strips of yarn placed in geometric patterns to reveal rooftop patterns.
The first floor celebrates the legendary Onobrakpeya showcasing his own works. Among such works are ‘Nudes and Protest’, an oil drawing, which depicts nude women of Delta State in protest, calling for divine intervention. Another is ‘Forest of Keys,’ which is made from waste metal objects, consisting of eight pillars produced with nails, keys and things commonly found around. The keys represent opportunities in life while the nails represent the thorns people may have to step on before making it in life.
According to Onobrakpeya, “My primary interest for teaching in an informal environment was stimulated in Nigeria in the 1960s, when I attended Ulli Beier and Ru Van Rossem’s Mbari Mbayo workshops in Ibadan and the Haystack Maine workshop, in the U.S.
“I liked what I went through in these workshops because they helped bring out things in me which were not fully developed when I was a student. What I have in The Harmattan Workshop is something that will help people, bring out the potentials hidden in them.”
A set of works on the second floor titled ‘Our culture our wealth/Sculpture Gallery and Video Screening Room’ shows people’s ways of life as Africans; food, dressing, festivals and so on. It shows how rich and blessed the country is. The sculptural room displays woodworks, clays, ceramics and metals.
The third floor titled ‘Friendship and Connectivity (Self-Discovery and Experimentation),’ presents pieces by artists that highlight their connectivity during the workshop. The workshop helped these artists discover themselves.
Onobrakpeya explained, “The exhibition is a celebration of a dream nursed over many years. It is proof that visual art can create a forum which becomes a fountain head for national and international friendship and connectivity.”
On her part, the curator, Obiago described the show as one of the most difficult exhibitions she ever put together, both in terms of fundraising, which she said took over three years to get sponsorship and the complexity of the exhibit.
According to her, “In terms of complexity, there were one hundred and four artists represented. The breadth of talents being presented here is amazing and, of course, I have so many artworks to choose from and in some ways The Harmattan Workshop wanted it to be more democratic. They wanted everybody to be represented; we had a lot of textile artists, who were doing leather works and so many media that would have been difficult to present here.”
She, however, said finding the venue to house the exhibition was a challenge, adding, “The exhibition is on many different levels. On the one hand, we have the building itself, and we had to look at how to install certain things and where, categorisation of the works. And on the other hand, we are trying to see that the four months lifespan of the exhibition is a rich one. We have trained tour guides to take people around; we also have programmes that will start in a few weeks to ensure that different audiences come here. We will have talks on legal aspects of art and curating and investing in the arts.
“We are trying to look at the art market for education and ensure that it is seen by many people as possible, that it has a life that is rich and diverse. I am sure that by the time we dismantle the exhibition in December, there will be many other organisations in Nigeria that will look to this and say ‘yes;’ we also want to use our corporate headquarters to showcase the best of our creativity because we have museums that are challenged in terms of achieving. Yet we have corporate structures that are fully air-conditioned and maintained, secured and ideal. We want to work in collaboration with corporate entities and artists.”
ONOBRAKPEYA expressed gratitude to the sponsors and the owners of the venue for the exhibition. He stated: “It’s the state of the art standard, and we look forward to such structures. It is fantastic, and more things like this should be done. When the offer from Lovells came, we were not given time at all. We had to prepare within just one month. If we were given more time, more works would have been available here and there would have been more democratic representation of all we go through at The Harmattan Workshop. The facility here is state of the art; it is the dream of every artist to want to show something in a place like this.”
The master printmaker advised Nigeria’s corporate citizens to embrace sponsorship of the arts, noting, “Our own people should be inspired by this partnership as well. What we are saying also is that government should make policies that will enable people, who are either in the corporate organisations or individuals to be able to sponsor the arts. For example, in America, there is a law that encourages people to buy art works. So, when they buy artwork, the money is refunded by not paying tax. Nigeria should adopt such laws to promote the art”.
On the future, he said, “Life continues, and there are greater opportunities; ideas are cooking and when mature, they will be given to the public. We intend to take our works outside Nigeria”.
The elderly artist has perfected the culture of mentoring artists and is keen to teach younger artists how to manage their own affairs. The Harmattan Workshop is organised by Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation (BOF) as an advocacy project for the propagation of the arts.