What do a global law firm, a brand new building in Lekki, and a Nigerian art organization have in common?
The world famous Bruce Onobrakpeya it would seem, as well as a mutual love for promoting the best of Nigerian contemporary art.
And when you mix these diverse elements together, stirring thoroughly this way and that way, just like you would the myriad colors on a master’s palette, what you get is Onobrakpeya & the Harmattan Workshop, an ongoing exhibition put together by SMO at the Lagos Court of Arbitration right here in Lekki.
The Harmattan Workshop
From Sep 19 to December 16, you’ll have the chance to wander happily through 4 entire floors filled with over 200 paintings, sculptures, prints and installations created by 134 artists at the world-famous Harmattan Workshop in Agbarha-Otor in Delta State.
Don’t be surprised if you find your mind repeatedly blowing up at every turn.
After all, the Harmattan Workshop and Bruce Onobrakpeya its founder represent one of the most important sources of the visual arts tradition anywhere in Africa, and arguably the world. Some of the works you’ll see at this exhibition have never been shown to the public before.
And as far as I can tell this will be the first time in the entire 18yr history of the Harmattan Workshop that such a large collection of its pieces will be shown at once, let alone in such unusual settings.
Unfortunately, quite a number of the most magnificent pieces are not for sale.
An example is “The Last Supper”, a 12 by 15 foot bronze relief [fact check needed] of such immense complexity that could you spend a lifetime just trying to understand it’s many layers of rich symbolism. It belongs to the professor’s personal collection and it is said that he has been working on it for over 10 years. [fact check needed]
But then, perhaps this is a good thing. Perhaps some things have no price. Or perhaps Prof simply prefers waking up to the misty mornings at Agbarha-Otor, and privately enjoying some of the most stunning of his works.
A Forest of Keys
If the Last Supper has been in progress for a decade, then at the other end of the chronological spectrum lies A Forest of Keys, Bruce Onobrakpeya’s most recent work. A magnificent installation consisting of 15-columns painstakingly hammered, molded and handcrafted from over a thousand individual pieces of repurposed material – mostly single keys.
When you hear the professor in his words let you into the deeper meaning behind this piece, and how “every single key is an opportunity waiting to be grasped”, you begin to realize that in it’s own way this particular piece perfectly symbolizes all of Prof’s work till date. Right from his Zaria Rebel days, to the beginning of the Harmattan Workshop itself.
Thousands of keys, thousands of opportunities taken, thousands more missed and thousands upon thousands of lessons to be learnt by this country about just how great we can be if only we get our act together.
Very apt for this Are-We-Heading-Deeper-Into-a-Recession-Or-Are-We-Heading-Out-of-it Times we find ourselves.
A Tall Tree in Our Forest
Bruce Onobrakpeya is an icon. A real life, honest-to-God living legend. A man who in the course of his life has single-handedly invented close to a dozen new art techniques.
Along the way he even invented Ibiebie, a whole Lord of the Rings–esque writing style of ideographic geometric and curvilinear glyphs, inspired by his native Urhobo symbols and proverbs as well as Chinese, Japanese, Ghanaian and Nigerian calligraphy. Just because.
Today, as a painter and sculptor, he is known everywhere in the world. As a printmaker, he is in a class of his own. Whole books and libraries have been written about his work.
Yet, if one were to see the forest in spite of the trees, I suspect he’ll be long remembered more as a teacher, and a bringer and keeper, guardian if you will, of our art and culture.
In the long road to understanding the man Bruce Onobrakpeya and his art and life, the Harmattan Workshop itself, and every piece it ever produced, every artist it ever nurtured or inspired will remain one of his finest masterpieces.
Photography by Olupitan Olusanya
See Onobrakpeya & The Harmattan Workshop at the Lagos Court of Arbitration from Sep 19 to Dec 16. Sponsored by Hogan Lovells.