Informal Art Education …the Harmattan Workshop Experience

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By Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya

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.

*Bruce Onobrakpeya (middle) with other guests at the lecture.

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.

This excerpt is taken from a paper titled Informal Art Education Through Workshop: Lessons from the Harmattan Workshops delivered by Professor Bruce Onobrakpeya on the occasion of the 9th annual Ben Enwonwu distinguished lecture.

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