‘The most important impact was the (workshop) environment’
‘What he’s doing at the workshop was what he got at Osogbo Workshop’
By Anote Ajeluorou
‘I don’t know why UNESCO hasn’t named it (Onobrakpeya’s Harmattan Workshop) a monument (World Heritage Site) for tourism yet! It’s more than deserving of it (global honour)’ -Inyang
‘As someone mentioned earlier, I will ensure that UNESCO recognises Agharha-Otor Harmattan Workshop. I have enough connection to make this happen’ -Pa T. Fasuyi
By Anote Ajeluorou
THIS year’s Lagos Book and Art Festival is dedicated to Prof. Bruce Obomeyoma Onobrakpeya who is 90, a living legend of global arts practice. He was roundly celebrated on Tuesday, November 15, 2022, starting from ‘The Onobrakpeya @90 Fiesta’ exhibition of his found objects at the FoodCourt of Freedom Park, home of LABAF, where audience, amidst frothing drinks and steaming food plates, viewed towering, larger-than-life size installations of his works that are a marriage of old and new, ancient and modern themes. For a 90 years old man, Onobrakpeya is still as modern and futuristic as they come. It is this continuous evolution and reinvention of himself that makes Pa Onobrakpeya the supreme artist that he is in a practice that spans 60 years and still waxing strong.
LABAF 2022 has as theme ‘Pathways to the Future.’
The exhibition quickly morphed into the Onobrakpeya Symposium tagged ‘Intergenerational Conversation’ on the theme ‘What I Took from Bruce.’ The session had Barret Akpokabayen, Juliet Ezenwa-Maja-Pearce, Ogochukwu Ejiofor and Nse Abasi Inyang, with Dr. Kunle Adeyemi moderating insightful reminiscences about the enduring legacies of the Harmattan Workshop, an open-source space for art founded by Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation (BOF) at his Agbarha-Otor hometown in Delta state. Painter and art historian, Professor Chuu Krydz Ikwuemesi also lent his voice to the timeless work of Pa Onobrakpeya. Pa Timothy Fasuyi wasn’t left out in this season of eulogies for a man so deserving of the accolades from old and young professionals alike. But before the session started, a documentary screening showing the sprawling, picturesque ambience and artists at work at the Harmattan Workshop ushered in guests to Kongi’s Harvest venue.
A former Dean of School of Art and Design at Yaba College of Technology, Adeyemi said there was no gainsaying that Onobrakpeya is an African icon since one in four Black African is a Nigerian, as are such men in the humanities as (Christopher) Okigbo, (Wole) Soyinka, (Chinua) Achebe, (JP) Clark, and others.
“A distinguished Nigerian over the years, who has carried a lot of us along,” Adeyemi spoke about the impactful life of the honouree. “He’s a futuristic artist; his generation loved to share. But I don’t know if my generation loves to share. Bruce is an enigma. God has entrenched him in the art history of Nigeria.”
Having studied printmaking under Prof. Solomon Wangboje at the University of Benin, Benin City, Adeyemi said it was not until he arrived at the Harmattan Workshop that he saw and experienced printmaking in its proper light and became an instant convert, adding, “When I got there, the illumination came. I realised printmaking had gone beyond what I knew. Towards my second trip, I saved enough paper and plates. My art was elevated. Bruce was the stone the builder rejected, but the success of my construction. Bruce became my transformation. Bruce was my source of innovation. I became very bold in my art, had courage to impart it to others and became strengthened.”
For Ejiofor also, the privilege that Onobrakpeya’s Harmattan Workshop injected into her art is unquantifiable, noting, “When I came to Hamarttan Workshop in 2018, I became speechless. It’s different when you see someone you studied in real life. It gave me goose bumps, and then he tells you that you can actually be what you want to be. At the workshop, you keep exploring. Getting to understand what you’re doing each time you get there. It made me feel whole. The workshop made me understand what I wanted to do. There, you just find it when you get there. One of the facilitators Sam Ovraiti will tell you ‘leave your work, you mustn’t finish it. Come back to it again; let it breathe…’ It took strength to leave your work when you haven’t finished it, let alone let it breathe.
“I learnt simplicity. I learnt texture, knew that every surface has a story to tell, gave rise to storytelling, understood what my lecturers did not make me understand. It brought that possibility of what can be, what’s possible. The workshop makes you meet people you never imagined, a family for me, a soul that has come to stay.”
Adeyemi interjected on Ejiofor’s submission making life-long friends, saying that the workshop brings about “synergy between the formal and informal. Natives (of Agbarha-Otor) are encouraged to be part of the Harmattan Workshop.”
Among the hundreds of alma mater of Harmattan Workshop, Inyang’s story with Onobrakpeya probably goes far back than most, including his family who Onobrakpeya knew first hand. The legendary artist had taught him fine art at St. Gregory’s College, Lagos, and he was one of the pioneers of the workshop, having run errands that set the tone for the workshop series in 1998 when it was founded.
“I didn’t know he was an icon back then,” Inyang recalled, “because he wasn’t teaching in higher institutions like Uche Okeke, Wangboje (and others of his generation). Bruce never discouraged you in what (the work) you were doing. He was so passionate about teaching you. You research into creativity, a space for innovation and resourcefulness and a marriage of formal and informal art. There’s a creative surge at the workshop, a whole connectivity of creative ideas. We did so many things, and you come back full and exploding in creativity. It’s a good place for the Small and Medium (Scale) Enterprises (SMEs).
“‘I don’t know why UNESCO hasn’t named it (Onobrakpeya’s annual Harmattan Workshop) a monument (World Heritage Site) for tourism yet! It’s more than deserving of it (global honour).”
Akpokabayen, who said after studying for his Bachelor’s of Arts degree at Ife he didn’t know exactly where he fitted in life’s scheme of things, had a family member who recommended him to see Onobrakpeya. But the legend told him that he could be famous as an artist but he might not make money, which further put confusion in the young man’s mind, but he plodded on regardless.
“I was one of the guinea pigs at the Harmattan Workshop,” he recalled with fondness, “it changed my life completely. I started the photography section of the workshop. I have had the longest friends from the workshop. When you talk to baba, you don’t feel he is 90 years. He’s full of new ideas, has something new to talk about every time you met him. At 6:00am, baba is up, and it’s about the best time to talk to him at Agbara-Otor.”
Ezenwa-Maja-Pearce first attended the workshop in 2017 while suffering artist block (artist’s inability to produce) and someone suggested the workshop as possible elixir for her troubles. She lamented, “it was my 16th year as an artist. When I got there, I decided to do ceramics. But when I looked over the fence, I saw printmaking in progress. We did lithographs. Printmaking answered to my questions that year. The most important impact was the environment, being away from the distraction of Lagos, and then psychologically as an artist.
“Artists stand out as intellectually queer people, not in that ‘vulgar’ manner of being queer, but as a state of mind, strangers to norms, people who are a bit too much. For a creative person, you find yourself in your own cocoon, that pressure of putting on air as a garment in order to pass off as normal. And when you encounter people like you, it makes you release that aspect of you. The workshop gives you that space to be normal in your skin. Bruce gives us experimentation that inspires a long line of ideas, a cross-fertilization of ideas, to move my work from the 2-dimensional art you’re used to.”
Pa Fasuyi, who was two years ahead of Onobrakpeya at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and who later employed him to teach art at St. Gregory’s College, also showered praises on Onobrakpeya for his vision that gave birth to the Harmattan Workshop. He regretted not having visited the workshop yet, but promised to do so as soon as possible. Onobrakpeya’s generosity prompted Pa Fasuyi to pray for him to continue to do more. He said even the government-owned Yabatech could not be compared to what Harmattan Workshop stands for and continues to achieve in the arts space.
“The Harmatan Workshop is one of the few things that I’ve missed, but I will go there,” he said ruefully. “What he’s doing at the workshop was what he got at Osogbo Workshop (organised by the German Ulli Beier) years ago. It’s that workshop that changed his life. It was at Osogbo that he learnt printmaking and that changed his life and informed what he’s doing and giving back to thousands of Nigerian youths. I’ve very impressed what I saw in the video. When I saw the arrangement and layout, I told myself ‘this is a man!’ He’s extremely generous. God will continue to strengthen him. The Harmattan Workshop is a great project, and when he’s gone, it will be a great place for learning.”
An audience member and fashion designer Nneoma Ohuabunwa testified to the mental shifting impact of the Harmattan Workshop, which would ground in her the artist she’d shied away from after attending the workshop, saying, “the art in me finally evolved. Art tortured me so much, but the art in me came out at the workshop.”
Wife of late poet and dramatist, Clark, Prof. Ebun Clark gave historical context to their relationship with Onobrakpeya, saing 1965 was the year when art began to draw them close. “When he came to see my husband at the University of Lagos (I was about leaving for Ibadan where I was teaching), he had a big canvas with him. Bruce used to hawk his work. So young artists should be patient and not be in a rush. Onobrakpeya is the father of printmaking. We had a work of his in 1962. When we moved to a new flat, he gave us a painting as a gift. He’s so generous. Young artists will have a time of waiting before the big break. Every single celebration you (Onobrakpeya) has you have deserved it.”
Painter, art historian and curator of ‘Songs for the Weaverbird: Writing and Art’ in celebration of Christopher Okigbo at this year’s LABAF Ikwuemesi praised Onobrakpeya’s generosity of spirit and his humility even as a giant in his own right. He gave Achebe’s telling proverb in his famous Things Fall Apart to illustrate the symbolism of Onobrakeya’s life of high impact and value to society. According to Ikwuemesi, “’Achebe said in a proverb that if you don’t lick your lips, the harmattan will lick it for you’. It means the responsibility we must bear. Bruce is a giver, but not much a receiver. This is symbolic. More people should do this kind of thing (Harmattan Workshop). When they (people like Onobrakpeya) are no more, who will lead us? If you have succeeded, what are you doing to show others the light? Once you are no more, what would you be remembered by? The people you mentored and impact will continue to elongate.
“This is one man when you visit him, he makes you look like a king. He has the humility to receive you. May God open the hearts and minds of us all to see and learn from your example, because artists are envious and difficult to manage.”