Friday, August 7, 2009

A Master and his Workshop (Bruce Onobrakpeya)


By Tam Fiofori


A turn to the right at this T -junction, past the landmark old airstrip, leads to a j magnificent edifice proudly described by the indigene guide as "a gigantic building:' This truly imposing building is the hub of the 'new' Niger Delta Culture Centre. It is the combination Museum/Gallery/Workshop building of the Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation (BOF) and centerpiece of the venue for the yearly Harmattan Art Workshop, Agbarha-Otor, Delta State, Nigeria, organized by BOF.
Dr Onobrakpeya is undoubtedly one of Agbarha-Otor's most famous and accom-
plished homeboys. He was born at Agbarha- Otor in 1932. Humour, humility and generosity are the long-established and well-known hallmarks of Papa Bruce as the Nigerian art community fondly calls him.
Enquiry into his background solicited spontaneous long laughter, and then sustained chuckles, to punctuate his typical modest answer.
"Son of a farmer. An Urhobo man trained in the Delta and Benin, taught in Ondo, then went to study Art in Zaria and then taught art for many years at St.Gregory's College, Lagos. Retired now, to do what pleases me. Something that I like very much is to pass on the little I know to give confidence to the next generation that are coming after me- that life can be interesting, that they can achieve "
their goals, that our art in the country, which has been very important in the past, can also be very important now and take it’s rightful place in the world. What I am doing with the Harmattan Workshop, is really a way of paying back what I have enjoyed."
Bruce Onobrakpeya has enjoyed an extremely high and sustained international
acclaim for well over three decades.. Conveniently classified as one of the Zaria rebels jn contemporary Nigerian art, Onobrakpeya graduated in 1961 from the then newly established Nigerian College of arts, science and Technology (later to become Ahmadu Bello University) in Zaria where he specialised in painting and graphic art. He then obtained postgraduate Art Teacher's Certificate in 1962.
He is the most notable printmaking artist in Africa. In addition to the production of world-famous works, Onobrakpeya has made Art history for his experiments with various aspects of printmaking techniques, which yielded distinguished world-accepted results. Master printmaker and artist, Onobrakpeya is currently Nigeria's most collected, internationally exhibited and documented contemporary artist and doyen of the creative community.
Practising art and teaching art have been old twin passions in Bruce Onobrakpeya's life. Apart from his long stint at St Gregory's College, he has been an art consultant and resident guest artist in many institutions and colleges in Nigeria and abroad. These include the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, Ibadan (1984), the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Deer Isle, Maine, U.S.A. (July 1975), Elizabeth City State University, North Carolina, U.S.A. (August 1978). He was artist in Residence at the National Gallery of Art Zimbabwe, Harare and at MOJA: An African American Arts Festival, Charleston, South Carolina, U.S.A. both in 1991.
The idea for a Harmattan Workshop germinated over time, nourished by his lasting experiences as a teacher and art-workshop participant.
"My primary interest for teaching," he recalls, "and most importantly my interest for teaching in an informal environment was stimulated in Nigeria in the 1960s when I attended the Ulli Beier and Ru Van Rossem Mbari Mbayo workshops
in Ibadan, Oshogbo and Ife and the Haystack Maine workshop in the ' early 1970s in the United States of America. I liked what I went through in these workshops because they helped me bring out things in me, which were not fully developed when I was a student. I realised that being exposed to an informal workshop situation can bring out other possibilities which might change an artist's
direction from what the artist learnt as a student, to what real art is. What I have at the Harmattan Workshop is something I think will help people, whether they are already practising professionals or beginners, be themselves and bring out the potentials hidden in them that may not have been discovered through the normal, regimental art education:'
Onobrakpeya is also keen to emphasise that the Harmattan Workshop is not set-up to rival educational institutions. "We do not issue certificates that can be used to get jobs," he explains. "The Harmattan Workshop is aimed at helping the art institutions and government. We are just doing a bit to make sure that what the government cannot see to do and, what they don't have interest in, is not lost."
The first Harmattan Workshop was held in Agbarha-Otor in 1998. The curriculum of courses offered naturally included Onobrakpeya’s specialty, printmaking, and many other popular and not-so-popular art forms. There were just 14 participants in 1998. Now, yearly, an average of between 60 and 70 artists participate. Initially, the workshop was for one session of two weeks, and as from the 4th Harmattan Workshop in 2002 it was restructured into two consecutive two-week sessions. The workshop is also no longer free and now attracts a modest fee of N10, 000 per session inclusive of tuition, accommodation and board.
Just fewer than 400 participants have attended the seven annual Harmattan Work- shops. According to Ekpo Udo-Udoma, Administrator of the BOF and Coordinator of the Harmattan Workshop, the first workshop (in 1998) offered courses in printmaking, stone carving, painting (oil and water colour) and
mixed media. By the second one, metalwork ; and ceramics were introduced and in the fourth., bronze casting and jewellery. He introduced textile in the fifth, photography in the sixth and this year, digital art. "Progressively, we are introducing new things and we hope to continue," Udoma says, adding that, "Dr Bruce is interested in introducing blacksmithing and beadwork. "
What Onobrakpeya calls a principle of synthesis has determined the expansion in the courses offered at the workshop. "New techniques are introduced every year because we want to revisit techniques we are losing as well as bring in other ideas from outside. There are some other things done outside that we think can be added to our own artistic traditions here, to propel us forward in the business of artistic creativity. When these two ideas are married,
there is bound to be a new force which will bring our art to international prominence as great works, in our own lifetime and, in the future heighten the quality of the life we are living."
Bruce Onobrakpeya's many innovations in printmaking were results of "acidic accidents" and consequent experimentation to achieve permanent new techniques that have stood the test of time. This spirit of improvisation and innovation has become an essential principle of the annual Harmattan workshop sessions.
"Yes, printmaking is the main thrust of what we do at this workshop," Onobrakpeya admits. "It is the improvisation in materials for the development of printmaking that has led to a lot of things and techniques that we now experiment with at the Harmattan workshop."
Over the years, he has gathered younger Nigerian artists who have
distinguished themselves In their various fields to be facilitators and teachers at
the workshops. "We have brought in people in other fields of art who are also experimenting in their own areas and achieving a lot of very good results. Like Oladapo Afolayan who started the Stone Carving session in the workshop. He has actually brought back a lost tradition of stone carving in Nigeria. We had the Ikom and Esie monoliths, which are traditions of stone carv ing that died. Afolayan, who teaches at Auchi Polytechnic, has been transferring this skill and interest to the participants in this workshop at Agbarha-Otor. Many people who have gone to Art School and have never carved before have had the opportunity to try stone carving here, and the knowledge of this lost tradition has been brought back to life."
Instructors made every participant to carve stone at the first workshop. Subsequently, it has evolved into a specialisation, though over the years the number of participants in stone carving has been dwindling. Stones that are suitable for carving are found in Kogi and Kwara in the Jebba area. In addition, Nigeria's one thousand and one varieties of stone include marble. Tools and materials are the major constraints stone carvers face.
"What the Harmattan workshop has successfully done is to demystify stone carving," Afolayan postulates with measured pride. "When sculptors who are inquisitive and attracted try it, they all promise to try it for longer periods next time. We have been able to discover talent in Andrew Onobrakpeya who is a site supervisor at the Centre and Godwin Onobrakpeya who is based in Lagos. Both have been able to make steady progress and some sales of their stone carvings. The entire essence of stone carving is to create beauty, create something from within to express yourself. We make a statement."
Olu Amoda and Mike Omoighe, lecturers at the Yaba College of Technology, have both been facilitators in Metal Sculpture and Mixed Media respectively at the workshops. Onobrakpeya regards them as "experimental artists who use various media to express themselves." Amoda has attended many art workshops in Nigeria and around the world.
During the first session of the 5th Harmattan workshop in 2003, Amoda facilitated the workshop's first Metal Sculpture course. As part of the workshop's outreach programme, they invited 12 welders from Agbarha-Otor to participate in a special one-day session in the Metal Sculpture section. Amoda's verdict was that, "the outreach provided local craftsmen who operate in the area an opportunity to learn some new ideas they could apply to their welding practice."
The quality of life in the environment and community that house the Arts Centre and Workshop venue is of paramount importance to Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya and the Foundation. The role of art and the Centre in environment and community building is well entrenched into the activities of the Centre and the Harmattan workshops.
Mrs Olabunmi Ola-Afolayan, lecturer at the Department of Fashion and Clothing Technology at Auchi Polytechnic, is the Workshop facilitator for Textile. This year's Workshop was her third in a row. She is happy certain prejudices are dying and confident of the level of skills the workshop has to offer. "Although textile production in Nigeria has always been considered a ladies' profession we now have men too. What we do here is to teach them skills faster. We get participants directly involved with the practical aspects. At the workshop, participants can choose and acquire their skill faster."
Mrs. Ola-Afolayan facilitated Textile and Machine knitting at this year's Workshop. Her mixed class included artists, lecturers, learners and participants from Agbarha-Otor. Within one week, the participants' textile products were on exhibition. They were eager to assess their workshop experience.
For Mrs Pamela Cyril-Egware, lecturer, Fine Arts Department, Federal College of Educaion Technical, Omoku, Rivers State, it was her first-ever Harmattan workshop. "I have had the opportunity to mix with other artists and to get involved in the more professional aspect of art. I feel fulfilled as 1 have learnt new techhiques from commercial artists in printmaking and textiles as well." The economic prospects of textile production are bright and attractive to people who want to be self-reliant.
The Foundation invited girls and women from Agbarha-Otor to participate in the 2005 Textile and Machining Knitting two-week course. Miss Endurance Ovwighoriemu, an 553 student and Miss Felicia O. Evue, a teacher, were among the respondents. Pupil Ovwighoriemu declared that her future interest is to make and sell textiles. Miss Evue was ecstatic. up have learnt a lot being here and it has made me happy to be part of the 2005 Workshop. I can now make adire for sale, and eventually as a teacher I will teach my students." These three female participants gave unanimous credit to the skill-acquisition capacity of the Harmattan workshop as well as its outreach.
For Onobrakpeya, there are essential duties the Centre and Workshop must perform for their environment and community. It is all about being duty bound. "If an Arts Centre is established in this environment, it is a Centre which now stands to develop the environment and the community. So, the outreach programme is one of the first fruits of this development. It is a programme to bring art to the community. Our presence here also gives a sense of pride to the people in the community. We employ people in the environment as field workers, plumbers, electricians, construction workers, studio and workshop assistants, cooks and night watchmen. Our presence here is really a strong instrument for the development of this environment. Our outreach programme goes beyond Agbarha-Otor; we want to develop a wider environment and bigger community."
The magnetic field of the Harmattan workshop has been growing. There have been female academics from France and the United States, attending as participants cum researchers. From within the old Mid-West region it has attracted participants from Ughelli, Warri, Auchi Polytechnic, Abraka, Sapele and Benin. Participants have also come from Lagos, Port Harcourt, Enugu, Nsukka, Uyo, Zaria and Jos. All of which prompt Onobrakpeya to clarify. "Our idea of community is a very large geographical area which may include the entire Nigeria. That is the outreach.programme.
The mix of participants for the first 2005 session featured unusual firsts. For the first time two sisters, both full-time artists of note, Mrs Juliet Maja-Pearce based in Lagos and Miss Klara Nze based in Abuja, attended the Harmattan Workshop. Mrs. Maja-Pearce in her first participation registered for ceramics and printmaking, while her younger sister, participating in her third Harmattan Workshop, concentrated on oil painting and printmaking. There was some royalty too, in the person of Mrs Egbe, a grand daughter of Oba Akenzua II of Benin, who participated in printmaking.
One distinguished visitor was Perkins-Foss, author of the book and on-going International Exhibition on the Urhobo -When Gods and Mortals Meet, now an Urhobo Chief and long- time good ;friend of Dr Onobrakpeya and the Foundation. For the second 2005 session, there were for the first time, participants from Benin Republic, Togo, Ghana and Cote d' Ivoire.
Onobrakpeyas assessment of the workshop's impact is pragmatic. "It is gaining ground internationally. Eventually, we want to be able to cater for South and East African artists and the whole international art community."
Raymond 0 Onodje, a University of Benin- trained Textile Designer and Art Teacher with the Post-Primary Education Board is from Agbarha-Otor and a real veteran of the Harmattan workshops; having attended all seven. His learning curve from the annual workshops is remarkable. "I was a crude and raw artist fresh in the principles in Art when I participated in the first Harmattan Workshop in 1998. At the workshops, I have now found out that there is more to art than school principles. We come here to share ideas and there is a lot of professionalism. The basic essence was to experiment and we have exploited this to the fullest. I have gone from textile to stone carving and I discovered some innate ability. I discovered a lot of hidden feelings for stone carving. I learnt to be more precise with my feelings and expressions. I have acquired a lot in the area of experience."
Samuel Ovraiti, a former Lecturer at Auchi Polytechnic, now a full-time studio artist, has been the facilitator for painting (oil and water colour) in many workshops. A well-renowned artist in his own right, Ovraiti highlights the interac- live techniques, which generate success in the painting courses. "We are here
to work together trying to find out new and better ways of expressing ourselves and also trying to learn from other, and older, people informally. It is a form of de-schooling. It is an opportunity for participants to enhance themselves by talking with people in their field who may not be doing things the way they do them." Ovraiti recalls that once it was a new and naIve painter whose works generated very useful discussions.
Clement Emodah, a ceramics expert and lecturer, has been the facilitator
for six consecutive ceramics sessions. Emodah admits that even in the
polytechnics and universities, ceramics does not attract many students. All the same, there have been encouraging breakthroughs for ceramics at the Harmattan workshops. He is rightly proud about the modern efficient kiln he and his friends have finally built at the Centre, an improvement on an earlier basic kiln. He explains, "The presence of the new functional kiln is the fulcrum and the centre of ceramics production, because if you produce any work and you don't fire it, it is not ceramics. In this workshop, we will now be able to do a good bjscuit firing followed by a good glaze firing. We can now produce ceramics of standard that can compete with any other work in the world."
As would be expected, printmaking is the most popular course at the Harmattan work- shops. The opportunity of learning from the master himself; whose innovative techniques and works have become world famous, is always attractive to participants. Onobrakpeya still teaches printmaking at Harmattan workshops. Outstanding professional artists who had earlier studied printmaking under him as interns also ably assist him. One such artist is Lara Ige-Jacks. Onobrakpeya describes her as "a very strong painter with wonderful strokes." She is also a print- making addict armed with a Masters degree from England. Ige- Jacks was the facilitator for printmaking at the first session of this year's workshop. Moses Unokwah, a graduate of Auchi Polytechnic and a long-time studio assistant at Bruce Onobrakpeya's Ovuomaroro Gallery and Studio in Papa Ajao, Lagos assisted her.
The Niger Delta Art Centre in Agbarha-Otor is the result of the expansion project for the Lagos-based Ovuomaroro Gallery and Studio of Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya. When the space in the Lagos Studio could no longer comfortably accommodate Onobrakpeya's students and assistants, he decided to set up the Agbarha- Otor Centre as an extension project a decade ago and, before the start of the annual Harmattan workshops. The main block of the new Centre, designed by Onobrakpeya's contemporary and fellow artist, Demas Nwoko, is very user- and visitor-friendly. It houses the prestigious Museum-Gallery and provides both exhibition and workspaces.
Onobrakpeya explains that, "the Art Centre embodies many things. The Gallery and Museum section is another aspect of the work of the Centre. It is necessary that some of the things that are produced, either here or else- where, are kept as an example of excellent things that students and people can learn from, either now or hereafter. We will construct places to e house artefacts."
It is now customary that months after the one-month long Harrnattan workshop sessions, a selection of some of the best art works produced in the various disciplines are collected and exhibited in a grand manner in Lagos. This has helped to raise the artistic profile of the Harmattan workshops, while also yielding needed revenue to administer the Centre and workshop.
The Centre and Workshop get some funding from Ford Foundation. Individuals like Perkins Foss and many others help either through direct financial donations or by buying art works from the Centre and Workshop.
What then, is the current state of the contemporary art scene in Nigeria? Four centuries ago, when the Europeans first encountered Benin Art, bronze and ivory works, they never believed that black Africans made such excellent art pieces. Since then, have there been the same cross-cultural responses from Europe and America to the work of the Bruce Onobrakpeya's generation of modern Nigerian contemporary artists?
Onobrakpeya answers in parable. "The Western people, like the tortoise, think they have all the wisdom in the world. The tortoise gathered all the wisdom, put them in a calabash, and was trying to climb up to hide it so that nobody else would have any wisdom. Some- body then said to the tortoise, look, put that calabash behind you so that your hands and legs will be free to help you climb better. He did it, and later realised that he did not have all the wisdom in the world. What the West did to us was that first they gathered our artefacts and took them away. The beauty of those artefacts inspired their own artists. With colonialisation, we started to practise art in the modern way, and they said we were aping the West. When we do things that are very, very traditional, oh they say we are copying our past. So, you never can win. But we went on and never stopped. Now... now, the West is recognising Nigerian and African artists as a force in the 21st Century."
Bruce Onobrakpeya has graciously received the long loud applause of respect and appreciation from the international art world, and he is ready to take a bow away from further limelight. He is Chairman of the Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation, which is an instrument, and government statute that has built donor-confidence. The aims of the Foundation include a project to help with developing the different ideas that are connected with artistic and cultural development in Urhobo land, Nigeria and the rest of the world.
The Foundation serves as an instrument to accomplish these goals and protect the future of the Centre and the Harmattan workshops.
Onobrakpeya is confident that the future of the Centre and Harmattan workshop are well assured even without him being involved. "The future is very bright. This place has come to stay. What we are doing now is grooming people who have been here and enjoyed the facilities and opportunities, to take over the Centre. What I am asking them is to be ready to take over and carry on the good work we think we are doing here. In all this, I am very thankful to God, and I accept in all humility all he has given me, and pray that I be Ied on to accomplish his will and, pray that someone more able should take over the affair and develop it on divine lines."

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