Wednesday, November 28, 2012

9th Ben Enwonwu Distinguish Lecture

 Some Guests at Lecture

From Left to right:Mrs Enwonwu, Prof. Bruce ONobrakpeya, Mrs. Opral Benson, Chief Sam Amuka and Mr. Sammy Olagbaju


Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Kofo Abayomi Street, Victoria Island, Lagos.
November 20, 2012.

Your excellencies, Chairperson of the occasion, Chief (Mrs.) Opral Benson, Guest of Honour, Dr. Sam Amuka, members of the diplomatic corps, your highnesses, the board of Directors, Ben Enwonwu Foundation, professional colleagues in the arts, esteemed members of the press, ladies and gentlemen. It is with great pleasure that I am here today as the guest speaker for the 9th Distinguished Ben Enwonwu Lecture. The man Professor Ben Enwonwu, (Member of the British Empire), almost two decades after his transition remains an icon and a reference point in the annals of Visual Arts in Nigeria. Under him I first worked when I left Zaria. Indeed he was truly a mentor and a man whose influence on me remains till today. Through his mentoring, I came to realize the importance and power of mentoring in the lives of young protégés.

In one of his last paintings before he died titled Ogolo, Ben seemingly portrayed himself as towering above everyone else in the Visual Arts, which indeed was so. The Ogolo is the Ibo manifestation of the ancestral spirit during festivals.  I liken the Ben Enwonwu lectures as the legend’s annual appearance as Ogolo, both to entertain and to instruct. It was from Ogolo that it came into my mind that one day, I will be painting large pictures, which I have since started to paint.

This lecture title, “Informal Art Education through workshops: Lessons from the Harmattan workshops”, is a tribute to Ben Ewonwu as a teacher, not in the formal education setup, in which he became a professor, but in the informal way in which he used the apprenticeship system to develop budding artists.

Fresh from the art school in 1962 I had the privilege of working with Enwonwu in his studio situated at no. 8 Cameron Street Ikoyi.  From this experience I resolved to learn further under other masters in both studio and workshop environments.

Following this example, as soon as I was able to bear the costs of interns in my studio I began to accept them. This was way back in 1972. So I had students on industrial attachment as well as artist-in-residence scholars writing dissertations for their degrees working in my studio.  In time, my studio could not accommodate all the applicants who applied to work with me.  This was when the idea of starting a workshop came to my mind. So my encounter with Ben Enwonwu played a significant role in founding the Harmattan workshop.

For the purpose of this lecture, I have defined Informal Education as a relaxed, rather than the ceremonious and stiff set up associated with art schools and academies, with no syllabi or permanent structures or teaching staff. 

According to Professor John Agberia, notable examples similar to the Harmattan Workshop in Africa, south of the Sahara include, the Cyrene Mission Centre in Zimbabwe, the Poto-poto workshop school established by Pierre Lods, the Poly Street Art Centre started by South African artists.  In Nigeria we have the Mbari Art Centre, Owerri, and the Oye Ekiti Wood Carving Centre established by two Roman Catholic priests, Fathers Sean O’ Mahoney and Kelvin  Carroll for the African Missions Society.  Others include Mbari Mbayo, Oshogbo, Ori Olokun in Ife, Abuja Pottery, Aftershave in Jos, the Ngala artists in Port Harcourt and those run by Nike Okundaye in Osun, Kogi and Lagos states.

These workshops have had a profound effect on the development of the Visual Art on the African continent.  Lamidi Fakeye who was named a “Living Art Treasure” before he died in 2010 was a product of the Oye Ekiti workshop. Artists like Twin Seven Seven, Jimoh Buraimoh, Murainoh Oyelami, to mention but few, were some of the great names in Nigerian art discovered and nurtured at the Mbari Mbayo workshops in Oshogbo.  I should mention that the famous Shona stone sculptors of Zimbabwe were discovered and developed in a workshop organized by Mr. Mc Ewen, who was at one time director of the National Gallery in Harare, Zimbabwe.
The Harmattan Workshop as an informal educational setup is a retreat where artists meet, think, work, experiment and share ideas. They come with the view to develop and sustain their creative endeavors towards the development of the arts, particularly the visual arts.  It takes place at the Niger Delta Arts and Cultural Centre, Agbarha-Otor, Delta State, Nigeria.

Founded in 1998, it was patterned after workshops organized by Ulli Beier at Ibadan, Oshogbo and Ile Ife in Nigeria and the Haystack Mountain School of Arts and Crafts, Deer Isle, Maine, USA.  These I attended in the 60s and 70s.

The Harmattan workshop is the flagship programme of the Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation, a registered non governmental organization.

It holds each year in several sessions of two weeks each. It starts in the middle of February and ends after April.  Very intensive, it is also both interactive and instructive. In 2008 we began another session of two weeks which holds in August. This is different from the regular one in February as it is designed for already established professional artists who go there to develop their ideas undisturbed.  Outside the sessions, schools and various groups come for special programmes.    The art galleries have on display art works (traditional and modern) and are open to the public all year round. With permission, alumni members can work in the studios, using the facilities available, particularly the etching presses, when the Workshop is not in session.

During the evenings, lectures, slides presentations and films are given by participants and invited experts with different backgrounds to share theoretical and practical experiences.  Among guests that have visited the workshop, we have the one time ambassador of the United States to Nigeria, Robin Sanders, the Director of the Copyright Council of Nigeria, Dr. Adiambo Odaga, the West African Director of Ford Foundation, Janet Stanley of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, Dr. Perkin Foss and Dr. Jean Borgatti, also of the United States.

Facilitators for the various sections of the workshop are carefully selected. These facilitators are also participants who engage in their own creations during the sessions but are looked upon by participants for leadership and instruction during the workshop.  The facilitators are drawn from different backgrounds – professors, professional artists, local craftsmen, etc. Special craft programmes are designed to enable participants, in particular from the indigenous community, acquire skills that will make their practice a source of livelihood.

Participants choose and specialize in one of the subjects available in a particular session.  They are free to try their hands in other departments if time and materials are available.  Subjects available are  Painting (Oil, Acrylic, Watercolor), Drawing, Mixed Media, Sculpture (metal construction, wood carving, stone carving, cement and fibre glass sculptures), Bronze Casting, Textile Designs ( Tie & Dye, Silkscreen, Weaving), Blacksmithery, Jewelry including bead works, Photography, Printmaking (Wood cut, Plastography, Etching, Lithography and Silkscreen), Macramé, Pottery, Ceramic and Computer Studies.  In the choice of subjects, we try to revisit and revive old and dying crafts like stone carving and blacksmithery as well as upgrade popular craft to art.  Art materials are sourced from found and recycled materials.

The Harmattan Workshop has a reference library built around books donated mainly by Janet Stanley, the Smithsonian Institution librarian.  Apart from the workshop participants, research students come from tertiary institutions around the country to use the facility.

The Harmattan Workshop has chalets that can accommodate up to 60 participants at a time and facilities that can cater for them.  It is within a walking distance from the Ibru Ecumenical Centre which we also use in accommodating guests.

Life in the workshop camp can be very interesting.  Because the environment is close to nature, the quiet mornings give room for meditation individually or in a group, in the multi - purpose hall. Some participants do exercises, while others engage in walking or jogging in the premises or along the township road.  Participants queue up for food.  There is the popular joke about going back to take more soup to finish the eba or going back for eba to finish the soup.  There are other jokes and we owe a lot to likes of Sam Ovraiti who brings in humor to everything and liven the camp always.  In the nights after the lectures, participants discuss issues among themselves, sometimes going into the early hours of the morning. Some workaholics work during the nights undisturbed. Weekends are not relaxed but some participants go on excursion trips on Saturday to the Abraka Turf Club and attend services on Fridays and Sundays.

The Harmattan Workshop with its gallery facilities serve schools and institutions far and near.  School children and students who visit are taken round to learn and appreciate art.  Some even participate in some of the creative processes.  This is a great service to the formal educational system.  The Harmattan Workshop facilities also attract visitors who come to enjoy art, shoot films or record music. Different groups use the premises for picnics. In 2011, we recorded 186 participants who attended three sessions including one specially designed for 70 students from the Ambrose Ali University, Ekpoma, Edo State.  During the workshop session, the media are in attendance.  The NTA, The Guardian, and The Nation newspapers deserve special mention.  Also art reporters and critics like Chuka Nnabuife, Ozolua, Tajudeen Sowole and Chioma Opara, have helped us in letting the world know about the Harmattan Workshop.

We publish a magazine called Agbarha-Otor every year as funds permit, to inform the public about the Harmattan Workshop activities which include exhibitions.

Funding for the Harmattan Workshop comes from the donations from individuals, corporate institutions and the Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation (BOF).  Between the years 2000 and 2009, the Ford Foundation was the main funding partner. They also provided technical advice which encouraged us in our move forward.  The Chairman of Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation, with the team of trustees, advisers and friends also raise funds to support the Harmattan Workshop.

1.  The most important gain of the Harmattan Workshop is that it provides a platform that brings together artists of different backgrounds and levels of development. They include cultural engineers – professional artists, teachers, research scholars, students, school children, historians and curators.  I like to mention some names that have been part of the Harmattan Workshop either as participants or guests:  They include Bunmi and Oladapo Afolayan, Kolade Oshinowo, Jerry Buhari, Uwa Usen, Tam Fiofori, Ben Ekenem, Tola Wewe, Ndidi Dike, Titi and Mike Omoighe, Jimoh Braimoh, Sangodare, Olu Amoda, Inyang Nse, Peju Layiwola, Osa Egonwa, Sam Ovraiti, Duke Asidere, Professor John Godwin, Professor Uche Okeke, Prince Demas Nwoko, Roland Ogianmwen, Midy Maduhuen, Professor Alagoa, J.P. Clark, Wanda Ibru, Ambassador Robin Sanders of the United States and Governor Felix Ibru.The list endless.

1.    It creates time and space and suitable environment in the rural town of Agbarha-Otor for artists to practice with utmost concentration.

2.    It helps participants to acquire skills through direct instruction or personal observation.  They share ideas which energize them.  For professional artists, it helps them to remain contemporary rather than temporary. I am one of such beneficiaries.  It explains why I come out with new ideas always.  Another example is Dr. Peju Layiwola who discovered from the workshop that etching on metal for jewelry follows the same process as etching a plate for printmaking.  She automatically became a printmaker after her first visit.

3.    The Harmattan Workshop helps its participants to develop freedom of expression with materials and ideas.  They are not tied to any rigid and set curriculum; put under any examination stress or sales expectations.

4.    The Harmattan Workshop participants are not slaves to imported or manufactured materials.  Very often Dr. Nelson Edewor, Adeola Balogun, Anyanladun Anyandepo, to mention but a few, only have to source their materials from the bush or dump nearby to create work which result in masterpieces.

5.    Being at the Harmattan Workshop helps participants to learn first - hand, the problems of the rural communities in the Niger Delta face and so help to create an appreciation of problems in such communities.

6.    New methodologies evolve between facilitators and artists across the entire country, the West African sub region, Europe and the Americas, when they interact.

7.    Artists establish relationships with one another that goes beyond the locality – in seeking information about supplies, exhibitions and other workshop information, even facilitating visits to other countries.

8.    The Harmattan Workshop helps in the training of people who would never have been able to acquire skills unless within the confines of an art school.  Art education is made available to them in their own locality.  Among the beneficiaries are students, single mothers, teenage mothers, school dropouts, university students, etc, from around Agbarha - Otor.  My two brothers who never attended art school became master stone carvers. In the first Harmattan Workshop, we admitted a talented participant who had been a dropout from the Ibru College.  Seeing him interact with artists in drawing and painting classes, his status in the society later changed, not only did he get a wife to marry , he got commissions to decorate buildings. Also, a large number of the women and girls who work in the jewelry and craft sections take their babies along with them. The Harmattan Workshop is not only gender sensitive but also has a baby friendly environment.

10.    In the Harmattan Workshop sessions, both the beginner and the very advanced work in the same room or setting, one learning from the other.

11.    The Harmattan Workshop attracts tourists to Delta state, creates employment for the people, and generates a sense of pride in the people within the communities around which the workshop is held.  Ultimately, the Harmattan Workshop will give Agbarha-Otor the type of recognition which the Mbari Mbayo gave to Oshogbo which made her a world heritage site.

12.    Apart from teaching skills and exposure to relevant issues, (artistic, local, national and international) through lectures, the Harmattan Workshop help develop the artistic personalities of the participants through art shows like the democracy exhibition at Asaba on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the creation of Delta State.  There was the Pan African University show at Lekki Lagos, the Nigerian Jubilee exhibition at Abuja in 2010 and the recently concluded 12th Dakar Biennale in Senegal.  The momentum is already gathering for the Harmattan Workshop show at School of African and Oriental Studies of London University planned for 2014.

13     The Harmattan workshop has inspired some of the participants to set up other informal workshops even around the institutions where they teach.

14.    Finally, the Harmattan Workshop engenders friendship, peace, national and international understanding.

          The challenges of the Harmattan Workshop as an informal
educational setup are also many:

1.      The first and the greatest challenge is funding.  Fees are set low in order to reach the target audience of students and locals.   Because of the unfinished conditions, and the experimental nature of works produced during the workshop, sales at subsequent exhibitions are low, making commissions due to BOF negligible.  The Harmattan Workshop is classified as charity under which the parent body the Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation was registered.  The workshop does not enjoy the status of formal education setups and so it has no support from the government which also has not ratified the cultural policy that could provide subventions to enable such entities function properly. However, the Harmattan Workshop receives help from individuals, corporate bodies including the National Gallery of Art which is a government parasatal.  The Ford Foundation became our funding partner two years after the workshop began.  By 2009 its policy changed, and funding the workshop became an unending task for the BOF chairman, its trustees and friends.

2.      The infrastructure development of the Harmattan Workshop has been very slow because BOF does not own the property on which the Harmattan Workshop operates.  And naturally, no one is willing to contribute to the buildings.  The good news now is that BOF  has acquired a 7.5 acres tract of land, fully paid for in Agbarha-Otor, and it is ready for development.  We hope that donors will come to our aid in developing the critical infrastructure.

3.      Handing over the management of the workshop has been slow because it takes time for people to buy into the dream of the Founder and to work as volunteers.  However the process has started. Sam Ovraiti and his team are to be congratulated for the management of the Harmattan Workshop in the past two years.  The problem of succession is therefore in focus.

4.      Next to the issue of succession is viability and continuity.  Certainly the Harmattan Workshop cannot survive for long the way it is been run now.  We have to find financial partners but we must be careful that financial interest does not destroy the initial vision.  The government has to enact a tax rebate law that will encourage donations to the NGOs like us.

5.    Janet Stanley suggested that works produced at the Harmattan Workshop should be critiqued for the purpose of letting participants know how they fared.  We do critiques at two levels.  The first is when the pieces are being produced and next, at the end of each session when experts from outside are invited to look at them.  However, we are careful that beginners are not discouraged with very harsh criticisms.

Lastly, ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your patience in listening to my presentation. Informal art education through workshops has the potential to help develop and build capacity for artists in Nigeria and the West African sub region. Unlike other professionals, artists in Nigeria mostly don’t have the opportunity to access training after graduating from school. We are encouraged when we see participants attending the Harmattan Workshop year after year. Some participants have attended the workshop for at least ten times and the feed back we keep receiving is that anytime they attend there is always something new to learn. We are humbled by this. We see accomplished artists on their own attending. Also, government agencies in art, culture and the educational institutions send their staff and lecturers yearly to the workshop. So, workshops like the Harmattan Workshop as Informal Education agents in Nigeria provide compelling environment for accelerated learning which enhance greater creativity. The formal educational system of training artists is not by itself able to sustain this kind of creativity. Therefore, the workshop experience as exemplified in the Harmattan Workshop is a welcome experience and development for sustaining the creativity of tomorrow’s great artists.

Thank you.

Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya (MFR), FSNA

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Tribute To Akinola Lasekan by Bruce Onobrakpeya

First row extreme right seated Papa Akinola Lasekan, Third row standing on extreme left Bruce Onobrakpeya

 Akinola Lasekan

Ladies and Gentlemen

We should be grateful to the organizers of this show for giving us the opportunity to contemplate the legacy of the Nigerian pioneer painter, cartoonist and art educator.

I had known him by reputation while growing up in the secondary and the art school but only physically met him in an art workshop organized by Ulli Beier at Ibadan in 1961. At this time he was already very well known and to have been part of a workshop targeted more to the up coming artists was something that gives him credit as an avid learner, scholar and one who was interested in lifelong learning and imparting knowledge.

As a realistic painter his works has had tremendous influence on generations after him. I am thinking of Abayomi Barber and his School, and another artist Boniface Okafor. Their surrealism is a branch off from Lasekan’s realism. As a cartoonist in the now defunct West African Pilot, a principal weapon for the fight for African emancipation, was his cartoons that  condemned the injustice of colonialism. Lasekan should therefore share the honour of our freedom with great politicians like Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah.

The second part of my remark is on the fate of works created by masters like Lasekan. How are the works being kept and who benefits from the sale or resale of these great works.

In 1977 led by Prof. Yusuf Grillo, Prof Uche Okeke, Kolade Oshinowo, Na Alah and myself were part of a team which visited Ipele near Owo, the hometown of Lasekan to scout for his works,  that may be included in the Nigerian Contemporary Show that was to be part of Festac 77. We learnt then to our shock that a wooden box with his paintings had been destroyed by white ants .  Not too long ago, also, water through the leaking roof of the National Theatre was said to have destroyed some of the National Collection.

The conservation of our contemporary artworks particularly known master pieces should not only be the job of the government, but also those of individuals around the artists and communities.

My second remark is about the sale of art pieces in our secondary market, as is practiced in some other countries, an artist or his estate should benefit from the Super prices which master pieces now fetch in Nigeria. Although the idea has been given some consideration in our national policy, it awaits further ratification. How long shall we wait?

Ladies and gentlemen may Lasekan’s artistic legacy endure for the benefit of his family, Nigeria and posterity.

Bruce Onobrakpeya
Lagos 15th Nov 2012

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Author:Bruce Onobrakpeya
First Copyright date 2012
Type of Book Hard Cover
General subject matter General Art
Price $15.00
Color Plates: 23 Colour
ISBN 978 - 2509 -49 - 03

By means of a series of serigraphs, Bruce Onobrakpeya recently revisited a number of his drawings and paintings produced about the mid 1960s. Particular attention was paid to the time now popularly known as the "Sunshine Period" of his artistic development. This period was characterized by a palette of colours that reflected the rich rays, and the radiance of the sunlight in the tropics. The time between 1964 and 1970, was before the Nigerian Civil War, and was also one that experienced a tremendous amount of change and transformation all over the African Continent, especially in the areas of social, economic and political upheavals.

All these art-pieces were executed using the serigraphy technique and date from 2002 to date, but however retain the name of the older drawings and paintings produced in the 1960s. As a series they collectively pay tribute and bear witness to the immensely fertile artistic and creative phase of Onobrakpeya's works in the 1960s,  that soon was to define the rest of his career. earth.

Bruce Onobrakpeya was born in 1932, the first child of twelve siblings in Agbarha-Otor, Delta State and raised in the Niger delta, both his parents are Urhobo. He left for Zaria in 1957 in order to study arts, after working as an art teacher at different schools for a short period. At the college he was taught about prominent European artists and art theories by British teachers during the day and discussed traditional African art with his fellow students as Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko, Yusuf Grillo, Jimoh Akolo, Isiaka Osunde or Simon Okeke, who later became very famous, in the evenings. 

Bruce Onobrakpeya is also an important Nigerian artist  who represents best practices in documentation of his art and  creativity and innovation in studio practice.

In this book the artist himself has attempted to chronologically capture and give information on his art, source and inspiration for his works created between 1960 and 1970. This he effortlessly does with the ease of a seasoned teacher taking us by hand on an important epoch in Nigerian art. The small book  provides easy reading for even young children, but comes across  with forcefulness and the conviction of a witness to a phenomenal era of Nigeria's history.

Intended  beneficiaries will include  lovers of art who may be collectors  or close watchers of the visual arts. Scholars and school children interested in  epochs of Nigerian art are certain to gain insights on contemporary life of the post independence years of Nigeria.

The artist is also very qualified to give this first hand account and rendition  of life in strife ridden Nigeria as he also lived through the civil war years in  Lagos, the then capital city of Nigeria himself.

My all time favorite Serigraph of the 20 serigraphs featured in this book, is a colorful  work done in the  golden yellow tint of evening sunlight, titled Have You heard. It shows 3 women standing together in a gossip pool discussing the sudden news that the war had ended. Their faces show no emotions and appear to be like masks, perhaps hardened from the wear, tear and turmoil of their spirits, all through the war years. They just stand as witnesses to history. Perhaps in one of these faces, we may catch a portrait or glimpse of the artist Bruce, as he sees himself in the years between 1960 and 1970.

These serigraphs therefore must rightfully also be considered as some of Bruce Onobrakpeya's visual notes on The triumph of the Human Spirit which he freely celebrates in his eightieth year passage on earth.

We can expect more books like this from Bruce Onobrakpeya and historians who write on his work, who will work on other periods of his prodigious artistic career.

This is a must read book.