Monday, January 13, 2014

Press Release held on 4th Jan 2014, for Harmattan Workshop Exhibition to be held at Brunei Gallery, London

Hunter's Muse Installation by Bruce Onobrakpeya


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 West African Representative of Ford Foundation, Dr. Adiambo Odaga, the Librarian of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, Janet Stanley, Dr. Perkin Foss of Penn State University, USA and an Africanist, 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 not fixed they may change from session to session. However, the areas covered so far 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

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

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Finally, 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.

Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya (MFR), D.Litt, FSNA
2006 UNESCO Living Human Treasure
Edited extract from The Ben Enwonwu Memorial Lecture – Informal Art Education through Workshops: Lessons from the Harmattan Workshops, delivered at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Kofo Abayomi Street, Victoria Island, Lagos. November 20, 2012.