Next Magazines Reviews this Year's Harmattan Workshop

I admit I've not been checking the Nigerian papers for two days (yes, in the sense of the Hausa kwana biyu) but I found this in Next Magazine today … One day, one day only I want to be able to go there and meet all those famous Nigerian artists! One day … Oh, and if you're at Next's site anyway, check out the article on Championing Arts and Culture on Television. Or, if you want to change papers - there's recently been an article on Art and Bureaucracy in The Guardian.

An art haven in the Niger Delta

The edifice that houses the Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation Harmattan Workshop gallery doubles as a workshop.

It is an enormous three storey brick and concrete building designed by renowned artist and architect Demas Nwoko with an architectural style that is contemporary and functional; its accent is on the free flow of natural light and air.

Within this space, works by participating visual artists and student illustrate all known art forms; many stand as masterpieces in their own rights, many revealing their expressionist flair for the grotesque and the attractive, sometimes in the same work.

On the second floor, painters tell their own stories through strokes of paint-soaked brushes on canvas. A preference for the abstract is well conveyed in works by Tola Wewe with his representative “ona” forms that show a preference for infantile representation of forms; Sam Ovraiti’s cubist forms and melancholic faces capture the essence of innocence in vibrant and distinct colour mixes; while works by Port Harcourt-based Ike Francis, convey vivid messages in mixed media.

The works of sculptors such as Nelson Edewor lay emphasis on aesthetic expression of ideas and commentary on societal values; and stand as testament to elements of fast dying folk tales. Edewor’s works are rendered with impressions of traditional glyphs and they hold intricate patterns that expose the artist’s knowledge of subjects he tackles.

The textile section

In the textile section improvised looms are used for creating intricate patterns; the shapes are cut out from used cartons with six carved sticks passed through punctured holes on the carton and threaded vertically as wafts, threads are run horizontally through the waft to create a weave.

For particular designs, the threads are set following patterns drawn out on a graph on paper with number codes that define the designs to be woven. Intricate patterns appear as the threads are woven with studied steps following the number codes on the paper. The results are beautiful mufflers in different colours and patterns.

In sleepy Agbarha-Otor

All this happens in Agbarha-Otor, a sleepy town with quiet neighbourhoods and quaint corner streets that ooze a blend of the sweet scent of ripened fruits and the rancid smell of stale soups. The drive along the tarred tracks of a country road with scenic views of orchards and the stillness of an aerodrome’s long abandoned control tower leads to the art workshop.

There is an overwhelming peace around here that is almost convent like and only disturbed by the sounds of chirping birds, shrilling crickets and loud hoots as an innovative call for lunch breaks. The cabins are furnished simply with two camp size beds, a ceiling fan and a small mirror hanging from a nail fixed firmly to the wall.

Palm groves with cut out paths complement the primness of the commune, and a comparatively small and, as yet, sparsely furnished library complements its efforts at becoming a resource centre for artists.

Each year the foundation sponsors participants chosen from the town’s residents for one of two sessions to help them acquire skills for alternative incomes.

Many choose to be apprenticed in bead making and textile because of the economic potentials; I met quite a few who said they make a good living from the skills they have acquired. There are also arranged tours for students from schools within the locality to interact with the artists and view works on display.

Master print maker

Dele Jegede, art historian and critic, once described Bruce Onobrakpeya, 77, thus: “He still looks witty, rugged and agile. His voice ever so piercing remains a distinct feature of his personality... Onobrakpeya has wormed his way into the bowels of the cognoscenti and the literati without losing any of the trappings which have etched him out amongst his peers and disciples as warm, humane and generous.”

This icon of African art and progenitor of the print easily disarms with his subtle mien, soft speech and that affectionate fatherly attention he renders eagerly; and he still maintains a daily fitness routine.

On the second and third floors of the cultural centre, a large collection of Onobrakpeya’s works, dating back to the 1960s, are on display. They possess a timeless appeal; the attention to detail and stylistic representation of traditional African symbols are easily perplexing.

The “Akporode Plastographs” and the “Sahelian Masquerades” have toured the world on exhibitions; they have been the subject of studied debates on the need to reinvent traditional representations.

Peace amidst chaos

The foundation is faced by some challenges though, and funding is one of them. Dr Onobrakpeya believes the foundation has to start marketing itself through its collection of works, while it creates an archive for its many valuable collections. He hopes to open discussions with the Delta State government, with a view to helping young people in the state acquire skills.

“Art is a natural endowment; we are born with it and grow up developing it further,” he says. “African art has proven its worth both locally and internationally; stifling its development will be detrimental to our mental growth. The identity and meaning of our cultural preferences have been deciphered through an understanding of our art forms and this is what has given value to our cultural traits worldwide.”

An art commune like the Harmattan workshop provides a perfect environment for the fusion of artists and avid interpreters of their works. It reveals a side of the Niger Delta that is hardly seen or heard of.

Considering the news of bombings and kidnapping that consistently makes the headlines, the Harmattan Workshop Gallery is even a contradiction. It reveals a picture of the region most people cannot comprehend, but it is as real as imagined. Next year, the workshop promises to be bigger and better. I look forward to it.


  1. The Annual Harmattan Workshop Experience organized by the Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation, which get's into it's 11th year by 2010, has become one of the most consistent and longest running Workshop of it's kind anywhere in Africa. There seems to be a very high correlation between artists especially in Nigeria who attend this workshop and their outputs as artists who go on to exhibit often.


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