Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ulli Beier's Art Legacy: Creator of the Osogbo School

Bruce Onobrakpeya a Nigerian artist, pays glowing tribute to the work of Ulli Beier in Nigeria. He has described  Ulli  as one of the founders of modern Nigerian art, and ascribes the success of the now famous Annual Harmattan Workshop Series, now in its 13th edition, to the fact that, the Harmattan Workshop Experience was  closely modeled after Ulli Beier's workshops in  the 60's and 70's.

By Bruce Onobrakpeya

Ulli Beier was one of the few expatriates involved inthe pre- and post- independence ferment in art that crytallised into what we can today describe as the contemporary and modern Nigeria Art. The workshop series which he started, created a revolution that gave birth to what is now known all over the art world today as Osogbo School. As a great teacher, mentor and role model, he helped develop artistic freedom, drew our attention to Nigerian values by recourse to our past and traditions as well as to look beyond our immediate environment for inspiration. His passion for and invovlement in many areas of the arts has within his lifetime changed the town of Oshogbo into a Mecca for lovers of art.
Ulli Beier had several attributes, but in this brief tribute I will pay attention to his role as a great art teacher and a role model in the development of the arts and also as a vital instrument in the upgrading of a community - the Oshogbo community - into a tourism centre of world renown. The workshops he organised in Ibadan, Oshogbo and Ile -Ife, not only realigned my area of specialisation as an artist but also inspired me towards the development of an informal educational art outfit, which is the Harmattan workshop series of Agbarha-Otor in, Delta State, Nigeria.
I attended three of the art workshops he initiated and organised in the 60s and 70s. The first was at Adamasingba quarters, Ibadan in 1961. It was held at Mbari Artists and Writers club. Julian Bainet stood in for Amancia Guerdes, the South African Architect who could not travel to Nigeria. In that workshop there was a printmaking session but the main thrust was to develop our freedom in the use of found materials: metals, cement, building wire, etc.
But what I later realised to be my greatest benefit at the workshop was working with artists of different stages of development on the same project in the same classrooom. In the workshop was Akinola Lasekan who even then was already very well known as an accomplished artist. Also, I met Roland Abiodun who would later become a great scholar.
The second Ulli Beier workshop I attended came three years later in 1964 at Osogbo. It was on printmaking for which Professor Ru Van Rossen, a renowned printmaker from Tilburg University in Holland, was director. The class was not a big one. It included Jimoh Akolo and Irein Wangboje who were colleagues in the art school at Zaria. Other participants in that workshop included Twin Seven-Seven, Jimoh Buraimoh, Muraina Oyelami, Rufus Ogundele and a few others who had attended earlier Oshogbo workshops under Georgina Beier, Ulli's wife.
Through Ru Van Rossen's teaching and demonstrations and the examples of his prints that I saw, I realised that printmaking was a major area of art specialisation. That changed my direction from painting to which I was lured through peer pressure at the Art School in Zaria. Following that exposure, and equipped with materials given to me by Ulli, I launched into printmaking experiments with feverish passion and great determination which later on resulted in innovations and breakthroughs for me.
I use the word experiments because Ru made us understand from the workshop that printmaking can be very scientific and adventrous, involving the use of chemicals, tools and heavy equipment, as obtained in factories.
After attending the two workshops, Ulli watched my progress with satisfaction and as a way of motivation, he invited me to assist Ru in the Ori Olokun wokshop held at Ile-Ife around 1973. By this time Ulli had moved from Osogbo to Ife as the Director of the Institute of African Studies of the University of Ife, now the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile -Ife. In that capacity, Ulli offered me the post of Assistant Research Fellow at the Institute, Unfortunately I could not take it because my movement to Ife would retard the building up of an artistic audience which I already started in Lagos.
Ulli drew our attention to materials and themes around us - in beadworks, beaten metal, wood, clay, folklore, stones, traditional motifs, etc. These became the foundation for the great art pieces by Twin Seven-Seven, Jimoh Buraimoh, Asiru Olatunde, Nike Okundaiye, Rufus Ogundele, Muraina Oyelami and my metal foil plastograph.
Ulli did not stop with organising workshops. He monitored the progress of the artists in order to encourage them further. He would sometimes buy some of the art works produced at the workshops or at the artists' studios and exhibit them in Nigeria or abroad, accompanying the pieces with literature which would introduce the artists and explain the pieces. The Goethe Institute, the cultural arm of the Germany embassy in Lagos, cooperated with Ulli Beier, who was a German, to showcase our art regularly.
Next, Ulli encouraged his friends and art patrons to establish galleries to help sell artworks, particularly those produced by the workshop alumni. First amongst them was the Mbari Artists and Writer's Club of which he was a co-founder, followed by the Mbari Mbayo at Oshogbo. Next was Mbari Art Gallery, opened by Tayo Aiyegbusi on the ground floor of his studio at Jibowu near Ikorodu Road, Lagos.
Jean Kennedy and her husband Dick Wolford who worked for USAID, were themselves artists and friends to Ulli. They turned their sitting room in McEwen Road, Ikoyi to an art gallery where they marketed products of the Osogbo artists. We called the gallery the ‘Thursday Show' because it took place once a week for only two hours every Thursday.
My works naturally were included but the gallery also exhibited works of other Lagos-based artists like David Dale who were never part of the workshops. The Thursday Show gave me a financial breakthrough and a great impetus to continue my practice as an artist. This gave me the confidence to continue in my practice and I never looked back. Other expatriate families, one after the other, carried on the tradition after the Wolfords left Nigeria.
Ulli's promotion did not end with Ibadan, Osogbo, Ife and Lagos. He inspired the Mbari Club which was set up by Uche Okeke in Enugu. Also, he encouraged Ovia Idah to open a gallery in his house on the moat at beginning of Ekewan Road, near the Oba's market in Benin City. Ulli carried the crusade to Germany, the Iwalewa Haus Centre, which he set up there, did a lot to propagate Osogbo and other Nigerian artworks.
Ulli was totally committed to the development of arts. He cooperated with his wife Georgina in the workshops and with Susanne Wenger for the development of Osun shrines; also with Duro Ladipo for theatre, and was involved with various publications about African artists and culture in Black Orpheus. All these experiences prepared me for other workshops, residences and exhibitions abroad in Canada, India, the United States of America, the United Kingdom and Zimbabwe.
And so, when I started the Harmattan Worshop at Agbarha-Otor, Delta State in 1998, all the credit went to Ulli as one who inspired me to start it. It is his legacy that I am now propagating. The 13th edition of the Harmattan Workshop will end in August 2011 and like the previous workshops we organised, during the induction ceremonies for participants, the name Ulli Beier always comes up as the inspiration behind the project. This has been the practice since inception.
Following the example of Ulli's workshops, the Harmattan Workshop has proved to be a forum where Nigerian, African as well as artists from other parts of the world gather in many sessions every year to hone their skills, share ideas and network among themselves. The workshop has had participants from Canada, France, U.S.A, Benin Republic, Togo and Belgium. The works from the workshops, like Ulli workshops, have been exhibited widely within the country and have featured in the landmark events like the Nigerian Golden Jubilee exhibition at Abuja. Plans are underway to exhibit works from Harmattan Workshop at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. All these artistic activities are gradually helping to upgrade the status of the quiet, sleepy town of Agbarha-Otor where the workshop is situated. We hope it will be like Osogbo someday.
Ulli Beier gave a people - the Oshogbo people, nay, the people of Nigeria, pride in their cultural heritage. He came and awakened us to artistic and cultural consciousness. He laid the foundation that earned Oshogbo the World Heritage status it enjoys today.
Ulli Beier affected my life and a host of other artists whose talents would have remained dormant. He gave us wealth and international recognition. His life and passion for the arts did not only develop the art profession and raised the status of Osogbo, it also proved that the arts in its total application is a potential tool for the growth of any nation. May Ulli Beier's contributions and legacies which he bequeathed long endure.
Master printmaker, Bruce Onobrakpeya, delivered this paper at the celebration of Ulli Beier's life and works, held at the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding in Osogbo, Osun State, on July 2

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Summer 2011 Artistic Retreat

Summer 2011 Artistic Retreat in Delta State, Nigeria.

Participants at the Harmattan workshop
Are You an Artist?

Then, this summer The Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation will help you escape the distraction of the city and enjoy serene and rustic Agbarha-Otor, in Delta State, Nigeria, to create the art you have always wanted.

Come To The


Accommodation and studio space are provided for the 2 weeks where you can work independently or alongside other artists according to your wish.

Come with all the materials you will need to create work and be responsible for you feeding, please pass along this information.

Venue: Niger Delta Art and Cultural Centre (Harmattan Workshop Venue), Agbarha-Otor Delta State.

Date: 14th – 27th August, 2011

Fee: N 5,000.00 per artist (You may pay into Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation account at Union Bank account no. 0151050000020 and present your teller on arrival at the venue).

For further enquiries call : Sam Ovraiti 234-80 3307 2344

Friday, July 15, 2011

Tribute to Ulli Beier By Segun Sofowote

On Saturday, July 2nd in the Osun State capital of Oshogbo, was held an event to ‘Celebrate Ulli Beier'. The event was attended by notable artists and several well wishers, many of whom had been associated with the Great Ulli Bier, who passed away at the ripe age of 88. Among those present were: art patriarch Segun Olusola; artist Bruce Onobrakpeya; and veteran broadcast person Segun Sofowote who gave a tribute to Ulli Bier. Please find the full text of Segun Sofowote's tribute to Beier.



OSOGBO, JULY 2, 2011

As the host on Artists Showcase, which was regarded as the definitive Art and Culture programme on the Nigerian Television Service (NTS) Lagos in the decade from the mid-nineteen sixties to the mid-nineteen seventies, I once asked Ulli Beier a question which I should not have been obliged to pose.

He had lived and worked in the country for two decades. During that time he had cultivated quite a wide local circle of friends, a circle however that hardly extended beyond the interesting mix of the culture crowd, traditionalists, writers, dramatists, painters, sculptors and other categories of artists, many of them in their youth and fired in their creativity by the new nationalism of the period. So ubiquitous was Ulli Beier within the immediate space of his cultural field that if you were ever involved to any significant degree in some artistic expression, you were virtually inescapably bound to cross paths with him.

This fact underscores one of the essential features of the Ulli Beier agency in unveiling to the outer world in the second half of the 20th century the cultural realism of the land in which he operated. He beheld intently and recorded a lot. He had been hired to come and work in Nigeria’s premier tertiary institution of academic learning – the University College of Ibadan as it then was. But it must have clarified inside Ulli Beier either at the time he took up the appointment or pretty soon after that he was not the usual strictly curriculum- or lecture room-bound, campus-dwelling kind of creature. There was by far more town in him than gown. UNESCO, conceivably, would have been a more logical employer of his genre.

He was a lot more restless and more earthy than was regular in the exalted profession of tutoring young people in the appreciation or criticism of great works and great observations which have been captured in books and learned publications. Rather Ulli Beier was by inclination essentially a practitioner or, at the least a front-row spectator of events and practices as they unfolded in the groves, the shrines, the workshops, the smithies, the looms, the dyeing pits, the marketplace, the streets and the home. For his own personal fulfilment he needed to know names, hands, minds, myths and products that were not essentially used in the university.
That his was not the dabbling interest of a dilettante with touristic exploits or material exploitation on his mind is reflected in his path which led him to his soulful haunts and abodes and the company that he kept at Ibadan, Ilobu, Ede, Osogbo and all other locations in Nigeria and indeed the world, and what he then did with the cultural milieu and artistic setting that he came into.

His relating to what he found was not with a scalpel and forceps and such other clinical tools – if he were ever capable of that kind of relationship at all. Rather he used his cutlery and heartily partook of what was served up in this encounter. Indeed, figuratively speaking, he actually discarded such exotic picking tools and fed himself full with his fingers in the tradition of the culture that inundated his soul. In many aspects, small or big, he depicted the toiler’s status in which he had fixed himself within that culture.

In his total self-recast as a Yoruba person, as a result of which, for example, he was never again to be seen in the usual Western mode of dressing, he did not see himself in the flowing robes of the affluent ones (or pretenders to that status) or in the ceremonial paraphernalia of chiefs and titled personages. Ulli Beier never used any of his titles and never cared to look any grander than his stylised buba or dansiki could make him. And concerning such essential matters as his creative writing, quite objectively I have to say, I once remarked as director in a production of one of the plays which he wrote behind the literary mask of Obotunde Ijimere that he created the drama of an Ijaw myth with an incurable Yoruba mind.

Anyone who is so unfamiliar with the facts as to consider that observation a bit of grandstanding only needs to be factually informed that beyond Woyengi, Ulli Beier is quite consistent with that strain in the whole lot of his works, especially those standing in the names of his alter egos. Such a doubter would also have to be reminded of the way this aspect partly accounts for the compatibility between Ulli Beier and Suzzane Wenger, with whom he had started out on this journey into trans-racial self-discovery and the well-known fact of Adunni Olorisa drinking herself to complete immersion into the Osun deep.

How did the two surmount such mountainous notions as ‘fetish’, ‘primitivism’, ‘mumbo jumbo’ etc to become capable of resonating with the tones, rhythm and values which others from their background usually fail to perceive in technology-deficient cultures? It must have to do with a kind of seeing through the opacity of that background and a personal fascination with the quality of the unmechanised human essence that they encountered. They found traditional arts and crafts talking intelligibly to them.

Further, they recognised creativity in people who had not presumed to attract a lot of attention to themselves. In Suzzane Wenger’s case, it was enough for her that she was welcome and that she could freely unwrap her soul and bare her artistic insight in this environment. On his part, as far as Ulli Beier was concerned, he had found a head-shrinking rationality from which he had to offer the world another hue and taste of culture and creativity.

Having remarkably deepened himself in this culture in the manner, and to the extent to which, very few of the active and enlightened generation of the heirs of the culture themselves ever cared to apply their creative and intellectual faculties to do, Ulli Beier extensively documented, created, motivated, managed, organised, promoted and networked, all to see indigenous expressions of culture and creativity set on a footing that is self-assertive. Today the hub of cultural expression that Osogbo represents in the perception of the world cannot be divorced from the one-time synergy of activism on the part of Ulli Beier, Suzzane Wenger and Georgina Betts, later to become Georgina Beier.

Certainly a lot of reference must be made on this occasion to the historical theatre of Duro Ladipo, the new art of the set of Muraina Oyelami, Jimoh Buraimoh, Twins Seven-Seven, Rufus Ogundele, Nike Okundaye and the others, the peculiar stone accompaniment of Ademola Onibon-Okuta’s music, the widely patronised Ifa consultation and facilitation of Yemi Elebuibon etc, etc. Naturally a lot will be said about how much the emergence of Osogbo as the base of all these owes to the exegetic and analytical pen of Ulli Beier, his ever clicking camera, his cultural zeal, his knack for conceptualisation, his organisational ability and his international connections.

To all this I shall now add one more account which you may not be familiar with. It is about a unique entity, a world first. The inventive conceptualisation involved Segun Olusola and Ulli Beier. It was christened by me as Theatre Express. In concept it was a theatre group entirely made up of three persons. This unique concept was inspired by the chance assemblage at the time of three young theatre men who related, each in his own way, to the Nigerian Television Service (NTS) Lagos where Segun Olusola was the Controller of Programmes.

At the birth of Theatre Express in 1965, Wole Amele after studying drama at the University of Ibadan was in employment as a set designer for television; Wale Ogunyemi had just started work in the same station as a typist fresh from Ibadan and with significant theatre experience on the cusp of Wole Soyinka’s 1960 Masks transforming into Orisun Theatre; I was back in Lagos working by choice as a non-staffer broadcaster on radio and television after my years on the staff of WNBS-WNTV Ibadan and with a theatre experience that included having been a member of the 1960 Masks right from its inception. It is relevant to mention here that Wale Ogunyemi later returned to Ibadan and his place in Theatre Express was taken by Segun Akinbola, another product of the University of Ibadan who came to work in NTS Lagos.

Without any immodesty, Theatre Express is enough subject for a book or books. Similarly Ulli Beier’s support can be more copiously documented than this occasion can accommodate. Still we can voice briefly an appreciation of Ulli Beier for a number of specifics.

Though itinerant, Theatre Express was Lagos-based. That base was sourced by Ulli Beier. It was at Mbari Mbayo House where Mr & Mrs Tayo Aiyegbusi were our kind and accommodating hosts.

In contemporary times you can easily search the internet and come up with a long list of two- or three-character plays. Curiously though, that is not known to have resulted in a proliferation of three-man theatre groups. In its days Theatre Express was considerably challenged in regard to repertoire. Apart from what the likes of W. B. Yeats and Anton Chekov yielded us for adaptation, and Wole Soyinka’s The Trials of Prophet Jeroboam (for which we had to have recourse to a few guest actors), we had to depend on ourselves to come up with our own plays and sketches.

In this regard, the earliest pieces written by me and by Wale Ogunyemi were soon in print, published by Ulli Beier along with two others sourced by himself, one of which was written by him purposely for our repertoire. He called the collection the Theatre Express Sketches.

But his help with our repertoire was by no means limited to all that. As resourceful as ever, he also sourced two- or three-character plays for us from non-English dramatists who were as at that time yet unfamiliar. It was a task that involved him in translating such works from German – and maybe Portuguese too, actually.

Theatre Express was frequently on the road. With Ulli Beier’s unflagging support, Osogbo was the most constant stop in our itinerary. And Ulli it was also who made all the arrangement for the Theatre Express tour of Britain in 1967. Indeed so fond was he of this successful theatre innovation that when the time came for him to go away after more than two decades here, he endowed Theatre Express with his Citroen truck, thus giving my trusty Volkswagen beetle (my dearly loved LG 1630) a much deserved break from so much country road run.

On one of his few visits after he had departed from Nigeria the second time, he heard as Georgina and I were chatting and discovering that we were born around the same time – about the beginning of the Second World War. We then compared our experiences and perceptions of life in our different locations in the world at the time. It was enough to give Ulli one of his well-known brainwaves. “Segun,” he said, “why don’t you and Georgina write down these separate accounts in full! Together,” he added, “they’ll make such an interesting book.” There is no doubt that he would have got such a book into many a world reading list if we had obliged him.

Why do I recall this now? It is to substantiate that Ulli Beier was that kind of a tireless cultural worker, an artistic workaholic who never allowed any creative impulse to go to waste – whether his own or somebody else’s.

Well, yes, there was that question that I posed to him in my television programme, the one that I wish I did not have to ask him. It was about what a very few but quite vocal ones of the new intellectual elite of the period had started saying, to the effect that what the likes of Ulli Beier were doing was meddling in indigenous artistic traditions and that was creating a distortion in the normal development. What would he say to that, I asked him. In doing so I was only engaging in the best media practice of course.

One of the aspects of media practice that I like most is that it is not for the ignorant or the uninformed. In taking on an expert or specialist in any discipline for example, an interviewer would quite rightly declare himself a layman. In the best practice however, he ought to have taken the trouble to educate himself on the subject matter far beyond what a layman commonly knows. That is the only way he can adopt the layman’s position, assume the layman’s posture and employ the layman’s parlance to plumb the depths of his subject thus serving the best interest of both layman and expert. Quite often he plays the devil’s advocate and deliberately rocks the boat to test the stability of the expert’s vessel and/or demonstrate the same to any doubters.

So it was that I suddenly sprang this question on Ulli. I had hoped that it would provide him with one opportunity to enlighten all such cynics. But I had miscalculated! What did Ulli do? He simply waved it off and dismissed any obligation to engage in a response! Well, one is not unfamiliar with the disposition of people who are not inclined to talk about themselves, which would then make it necessary for one professionally to chip in here and there with subtle bits of the much that one knows of them. That skill was needed on that occasion and one had to steer shrewdly away from a dead end… Interestingly however, many of those who posited that way at the time are known to have since turned into avid collectors of the works of those Osogbo artists who had their technical initiation from Georgina Beier and were so actively promoted by Ulli Beier.

And now Ulli has aged and gone, the one who gave that institution in Bayreuth, Germany set up for African creativity the name of Iwalewa Haus, a name that resounds in the tones and ethos of his soul’s favourite place on earth. It cannot be doubted that Obotunde Ijimere, or Tunji Sangodare, or Ulli Beier, father of Tunji Beier would have preferred to live his last years here, for his soul to depart the earth from here and for this land to have his bones. As to why that was not permitted to be, only those who saw to it can answer.

But his extensive and priceless artistic and archival collection of Nigeriana, Africana and Oceania is firmly in our hands. So this is not in the nature of an isipa ode, or in the tradition of burying treasures with their noble collectors. We keep those treasures and send after Ulli Beier our deepest wishes that his ever active spirit will continue to mature towards an eternity of joy, unfettered by any kind of jingoism.

Good bye, Ulli.