The 14-acre Harmattan Workshop venue in Agbarha-Otor, Delta State, is home to both tangible and intangible treasures, Okechukwu Uwaezuoke discovers
Twin shafts of light seemingly appeared out of nowhere, magically illuminating the deepening darkness. A swarm of children, chattering excitedly and trailed by a lone adult, rushed forward towards this previously unseen spectacle. This was what the renowned artist Bruce Onobrakpeya had predicted to the newest arrival at the Harmattan Workshop camp earlier that evening.
Talking about the illuminated works, they are actually two stained-glass altarpieces, which were originally produced by the late Yusuff Adebayo Cameron Grillo for the All-Saints’ Anglican Church, along Montgomery Road in the Lagos mainland neighbourhood of Yaba. Professor Onobrakpeya, who attended church with his wife, recalled with a hint of nostalgia how these artworks used to help him concentrate during the hours of worship. “They created an appropriate atmosphere for worship,” he added.
But then, Fate seemed to have decreed that their permanent abode would henceforth be in the Delta State town of Agbarha-Otor, the host community of the Harmattan Workshop. Hence, when sometime in 2019, not so long before the COVID-19 lockdowns in March and April 2020, he learnt that the altarpieces were about to be pulled down because water was passing through some of the apertures to inundate the altar area, he approached the church authorities with an offer to acquire them for a token.
After moving the altarpieces, or what was left of them, to his studios in Lagos’s Papa Ajao neighbourhood, it occurred to him that they could be restored to their original form. So, for about a year and a half, he assembled them like a jigsaw puzzle with the help of his assistants, using a photograph of the original. Along the way, some of the missing pieces were replaced with ersatz pieces.
The idea of engaging with the works without necessarily installing them in a real house spawned another during the restoration process: illuminating them from within. This was inspired by what he did with his early plastocast works. Subsequently, six-foot-apart beams were built into which the works were inserted. “[This was how] we reenacted the story that the works originally told,” the patriarch, who will turn 90 on August 30, explained.
Thus, two weeks before the workshop’s 2018 edition, the altarpieces were installed in their new home at the Harmattan Workshop venue in Agbarha-Otor. Grillo died in August of last year, while the foundation for the beams was being dug. As a result, the installation served as an appropriate memorial to him.
In a nutshell, this is how the Harmattan Workshop venue looks. It sits on 7.5 acres of land and includes a massive four-story workshop building designed by Onobrakpeya’s Zaria Art Society comrade Demas Nwoko, a verandah-like dining and meeting hall with a library and a kitchen attached, a large building that houses the Bruce Onobrakpeya Museum as well as some living quarters, and a cluster of residential houses with wood-clad walls. A newly acquired 6.5-acre parcel expands the property beyond a macadamised thoroughfare.
Flashback to 1961. Onobrakpeya had enrolled in the painting class at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (NCAST) in Zaria as a third-year student, despite the advice of one of his teachers, Mr Taylor, who felt he should study graphics. Three years later, in 1964, after attending two workshops in Ibadan and Osogbo organised by German-born editor, writer, and scholar Ulli Beier, he realised he should have specialised in printmaking. Thus, the workshops served as a sort of remedial course for him, leading him away from painting and into printmaking.
But something else struck him: the presence of artists such as Duro Ladipo, Twins Seven-Seven, and Susanne Wenger altered Osogbo’s artistic atmosphere and influenced the people’s attitude toward art. This was the point at which he resolved that if he had the resources, he would recreate the workshop experience in Agbarha-Otor.
Fast forward 11 years to 1975, when he attended the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in the United States. It is located on the coast of the Deer Isles in Maine and is commonly referred to as “Haystack.” He began to plan how to make his Agbarha-Otor dream a reality in this informal education setting.
With his savings, he was able to purchase the first 7.5 acres in Agbarha-Otor in 1984, four years after retiring from formal teaching. The main gallery building’s foundation, designed by Demas Nwoko, was dug in 1990. The building was still under construction when the first Harmattan Workshop edition began in 1998. The residential buildings with wood-clad walls were constructed using reclaimed wood from the construction site. “While Osogbo inspired me to start the workshop, Haystack inspired me about how it should look,” the 2006 UNESCO Living Human Treasure Award recipient explained.
Meanwhile, at the workshop, a typical day begins around 5 a.m., when one of the participants invites his Christian “brothers and sisters” to morning prayers in the dining hall. Shortly after, some of the participants go on a cross-country jog, followed by stretches led by Barrett Akpokabayen, an old regular at the workshop. Participants disperse to their numerous workstations in the vast workshop gallery building after breakfast. Lunch is served between working hours, and special lectures that last late into the night, frequently graced by the presence of Chief (Mrs) Wanda Ibru, the wife of Lagos-based business mogul Olorogun (Dr.) Oskar Christopher Eyovbirere Ibru, conclude the day’s activities.
The brief visit of a handful of members of the Nigerian Field Society, a nationwide organisation founded in 1930 with branches spread across several cities in Nigeria, was perhaps the highpoint of this year’s edition, the 24th in the series. The visitors were shown around the grounds and taken through various workshop sessions such as painting, multimedia, textiles, and ceramics during this whistle-stop tour. They had a brief interaction with the Cameroonian-born facilitator, Nathalie Kassi Djakou, at the ceramics stand.
This edition, like the previous ones, provided an excellent learning opportunity for the workshop’s 98 participants. Ikechukwu Ajibo, a Lagos-based artist who was exposed to a wide range of materials during the workshop, was delighted to meet new people and learn and share ideas during the interactive evening lectures. “From the onset, it has had a significant impact on my artistic career,” he disclosed.
Another Lagos-based artist, Sotonye Jumbo, simply called it “an interesting place to be as an artist,” while Timilehin Fayokun, a.k.a. Bourdilon, a Lagos-based cinematographer, described it as “a great learning centre and a place to network.”
Indeed, this annual workshop, which has attracted studio artists, art students, and lecturers from all over Nigeria as well as from outside the country since its inception, provides an informal learning environment. Onobrakpeya hopes for a day when there will be enough funding to keep the workshop venue open all year. Already, with an impressive alumni list that includes such luminaries as Professor Peju Layiwola and Olu Amoda, the annual workshop has a bright future ahead of it.