How Bruce Onobrakpeya passes on his legacy through informal arts education

Bruce Onobrakpeya exhibited some of his works at the University of Abuja while presenting the 2022 Laureates Conference as a recipient of the Nigeria National Order of Merit (NNOM) Meritorious Award. He received the award to promote and reward academic and other achievements in 2017. The nonagenarian, as expected of all NNOM laureates, delivered a laureate lecture focusing on his harmattan workshops.

Bruce Onobrakpeya is a world renowned master printmaker. The painter, sculptor, poet and pioneer of modern African art is no stranger to world art. The living legend has won several awards including the Living Human Treasure awarded by the Federal Government of Nigeria in collaboration with UNESCO. His works can be found in iconic locations around the world, including the Vatican Museum in Rome; the Museum of African Art, Washington; the Tate Art Gallery in London.

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But the Delta State native, whose contemporaries include the late Yusuf Grillo, holds something more important than the awards – mentorship having benefited from the mentorship of Ben Enwonwu, Nora Majekodunmi and others.

This inspired him to create an informal art training workshop where young art lovers are educated in a relaxed and free atmosphere, without the rigid framework associated with formal art schools and academies.

He said Harmattan Workshops, held at Onobrak Art Centre, is an informal art school in Delta State. It is an educational device intended to help, develop and perpetuate creation in the field of the arts, in particular the visual arts.

The recipient of the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) during the presentation of the 2022 award The winners conference, a prerequisite for all NNOM winners of the Nigeria National Merit Award from the University of Abuja, demonstrated the importance of mentorship and how he had consciously passed on his legacy to younger generations through a training session intense artistry which he labeled Ateliers Harmattan.

Entitled his article “Informal Art Education through Workshops: Lessons from Harmattan Workshops”, he said that the most important gain from Harmattan workshops is that they provide a platform that brings together artists from different backgrounds and different levels of development.

“Les Ateliers de l’Harmattan are an informal structure where artists meet, reflect, experiment and share ideas. They are designed to help develop and support creative endeavors in the arts, especially the visual arts,” he said, adding that Harmattan workshops are run by a non-governmental organization, the Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation, and governed by a board of directors on which he served as chairman.

The establishment of the Onobrak Art Center where the Harmattan Workshops are held dates back to 1984 when he acquired a seven-acre piece of land on the outskirts of Agbarha-Otor. Although development began in 1998, the center has been transformed with modern and traditional art facilities.

He said the center also houses the Onobrak Museum where artists see and learn first-hand from a collection of experimental works spread across the walls and floors of the main building. On display, he said, are the works of the participants of the Ateliers de l’Harmattan and especially its collection of arts and crafts as well as contemporary African works of art.

Onobrakpeya through the Harmattan workshops revives art forms whose techniques have been almost completely lost to current and future generations of Nigerian artists. Among these techniques is the stone carving of Esie which he says was facilitated in the workshops by Dr. Oladapo Afolayan of Auchi Polytechnic. He said the forge which was threatened with extinction was reintroduced by John Crawford, an American animator from New York.

“During the 24th Harmattan Workshops, one of the facilitators spent the entire period demonstrating the lost art of mat weaving as it is practiced in Urhobo land.

“We are currently engaged in the restoration and reinstallation of the majestic altarpieces by Yusuf Grillo which were demolished from All Saints Church, Montgomery Road, Yaba, Lagos. Once completed, we will re-engage with the aesthetic and spiritual beauty generated by the two panels,” he said.

He said the Harmattan workshops fulfill a major objective of helping to discover, train and encourage young Nigerian talent to hone their skills, creative strengths and ideas.

“The aim is to correct the general perception or misconception in our society, where art is not seen as a serious or viable career or socio-economic concern and therefore as part of our heritage, worthy of the highest esteem,” he said.

He said participants in Harmattan workshops are reviving traditional culture, including festivals that have suffered some decline.

Beneficiaries of the center include Afuevu Onakufe, Benjamin Akemor and Patrick Akpojotor.

He said he runs the center with a certain percentage of his art sales, grants and support from individuals, companies and international organizations. He said, however, that funding was insufficient, adding that the center needed new and properly equipped studios, fair remuneration for facilitators and other staff.

Despite the challenges, he expressed his wish that the Ateliers de l’Harmattan will one day place Agbarta-Otor on the world cultural stage.

“The Mbari Mbayo Art Workshops and the Duro Ladipo Theater created a cultural awareness and the atmosphere that helped bring attention to the Osun Festival and the works of Susanne Wenger and other artists who eventually made Oshogbo a World Heritage Site. I envision the same happening in Agbarha-Otor where the highest masquerades in Africa happen every 15 years,” he said.

He also exhibited some of his works to the admiration of guests including the Vice Chancellor of the University of Abuja, Prof. Abdul-Rasheed Na’Allah.

The Vice Chancellor commended Onobrakpeya for his contributions to art and his exemplary lifestyle. He urged students to follow in his footsteps.

Additionally, Minister of Special Duties and Intergovernmental Affairs Senator George Akume praised Onobrakpeya’s contributions to arts education.

Senator Akume, who was represented by Professor Bolaji Babalola, said art may be focused for some as it is a loose word that encompasses a wide variety of practices that involve expressing oneself in different ways such as music, theater, sculpture.

“But the focus here is on the fine arts, especially the visual arts whose products are to be appreciated aesthetically or for their intellectual content, or both,” he said.

He said the exhibit offered scenes that portrayed social harmony and appreciation for diversity and portrayed how art brings peace and unity.

NNMA Board Chairman, Prof. Shekarau Yakubu Aku said 79 distinguished Nigerians had received the prestigious NNOM awards between 1979 and 2022.

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