This Harmattan Workshop in Agbarha-Otor focus on the environment this year gives its participants the opportunity to acknowledge its host community Agbarha-Otor in a unique way, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke

Just for being consistent, the Harmattan Workshop has wormed its way into reckoning as one of the local art scene’s top-notch events. Kudos to its founding patriarch Bruce Onobrakpeya for conceiving this long-running annual harvest of local talents. Besides, plodding on for 20 years is a rare feat for any privately-funded creative endeavour in this Mammon-worshipping wasteland.

A celebration of the annual workshop’s 20th edition is also an affirmation of the organisers’ resilience and hopes for greater artistic strides. But what indeed would the event have been like without its rural Delta State-based host community, Agbarha-Otor? An acknowledgement of the rustic town’s role would, therefore, chime so well with this year’s theme “Conservation of Natural Environment through Creativity”.

Surely, sensitising the workshop participants to the environment could pave a way to bequeathing lasting values to Agbarha-Otor. Hence the organisers urged: “We encourage participants to produce works that will reflect the theme and hope that the art works they create will proffer solutions to solve challenges of plants and animals in extinction.”

The participating artists would be expected not only to complement the workshop complex landscape by creating outdoor sculptures, but also to replicate known ones of the Niger Delta in larger-than-life sizes.

This annual workshop has for sometime now been split into two sessions. The first in the year usually holds in February while the other, which is tailor-made for professionals, holds in August (hence, it is called the “August Retreat”).

This year, the February segments officially opens today (February 18) with the arrival of participants and facilitators at the workshop venue, the Niger Delta Arts and Cultural Centre in Agbarha-Otor, and closes on Saturday, March 3, when everyone would depart. But a series of build-up activities that included the launch of the last year’s edition’s catalogue on Saturday, January 24 and a thanksgiving church service at the Ibru Ecumenical Centre the following day have so far paved the way for the workshop.

About a week into the workshop, on Monday, February 26, there will be a lecture on “Art Conservation” by Dr. Nics Nbogu and Professor Ben Ezeohagwu, who is a professor of comparative cultural studies at the British America University in Porto Novo, Benin Republic. On Wednesday, February 28, there will be an open day and an exhibition from 10 am to 5 pm. A gala/award night on Friday, March 2 draws the curtains on the workshop’s first session.

The February workshop programmes only offer a flag-off platform for the 20th anniversary celebrations, which the organisers hope to keep in the collective consciousness of art aficionados for the rest of the year.

Close up on the workshop. It has traditionally always been split into departments, which are managed by facilitators. This year, the participants are expected to enrol for one of the following departments: Painting/Mixed media (with Yves Midahuen from Benin Republic as facilitator), Drawing (to be led by Medjeva Ayeva from Togo), Printmaking (to be led by Pius Emorhokpor), Fashion/Textiles (to be led by Dr Pamela Cyril-Egware), Metal Construction (to be led by Muraina Akeem), Computer Graphic (to be led by Ademola Tajudeen), Stone-carving (to be led by Moses Afeso Monday), Machine-knitting (to be led by Lilian U. Ikogho), Weaving (to be led by Dr Margaret Ajiginni), Wood-carving (to be led by Friday Ighomor), Jewellery (to be led by Okiemute Ejoh), Photography (to be led by Timothy Ukuta), Leather Craft (to be led by Sade Thompson), Cement Sculpture (to be led by Philip Nzekwe) and Pottery/Ceramics (to be led by Dr Emmanuel K. Mordi).

It is expected that the workshop participants would leverage on the visual interpretation of the theme to depict images of plants, animals, landscapes, seascapes as well as artistic and cultural legacies. “The theme may be stretched to reflect on changing climatic conditions,” the organisers had advised.
But those intending to make presentations based on either the above themes or themes of his or her choice had been advised to inform the Harmattan workshop secretarial at least 24 hours before presentation.

During the workshop, there will be an exhibition of photographs, titled SM- Art: Smart Phone Art. This exhibition will feature a collection of works by Tim Ukuta taken during the 19th Harmattan Workshop last year, using the INFINIX HOT 4 Smartphone. “Smartphones are ubiquitous, nevertheless… like the human brain [they are] underutilised,” the organisers opined. “SM- Art’s objective is to maximise the use of Smartphones as a tool for cultural, historic and artistic documentation.”

The SM-Art exhibition only complements the workshop venue’s permanent exhibition, featuring: Perkins Foss’s “Where Gods and Mortals Meet”, “Akporode”, a mixed-media installation by Bruce Onobrakpeya and “Totems of the Delta”, installation and paintings by Bruce Onobrakpeya. There are also panels of “Jewels of Nomadic Images” and “Sahelian Masquerades” by Bruce Onobrakpeya as well as works by such contemporary and modern African Artists as Uche Okeke, Olu Amoda, Yves Midahuen and Monica Sellolo, among others.

There are, in addition, a wide selection of paintings, prints, mixed-media, textiles, jewellery, pottery, ceramics, stone carvings, and wood sculptures) produced during previous Harmattan Workshops, a display of traditional African art bronzes and metal works, staffs, bangles, ornaments, wood and calabash carvings, textile, leather and baskets, posters and banners of modern African art as well as the recent works of Onobrakpeya.

Among the foreign participants, who have graced the workshop premises in the past, are: a French doctoral candidate Emmanuelle S. Fourchard (in 2002) and a Fulbright scholar from the US, Dr. Jean Borgatti (in 2003) and the US-born art historian and a specialist in Urhobo Studies, Dr. Perkins Foss (in 2005).

The Beninese artist Midahuen, whose first visit was in 2005, returned in 2006 with his compatriot Thierry Gansa Adebayo. More recently, a Belgian academic Professor Dunja Hersak and a former Time Magazine staff-member Marguerite Michael attended the workshop in 2010.

These and other visits were opportunities for imparting new skills as well as for the cross-fertilisation of ideas among the participants. They were, for instance, presentations in 2000 by Professors Egonwa from Delta State University and G.G. Darah, Chief of Staff, Delta State Government, who was then the Chairman of the Editorial Board of the Guardian Newspaper, Lagos. Interactions with such artistic luminaries as the late Professor Uche Okeke and Demas Nwoko in 2006 as well as with the likes of Kolade Oshinowo, Chief Jimoh Buraimoh, Ndidi Dike and Jide Adeniyi-Jones, Sam Ovraiti, Dr. Peju Layiwola, Dr. Nelson Edewor, Roland Ogianmwen, Oladapo Afolayan, Jerry Buhari, Duke Asidere and Professor John Godwin further enriched the experiences of the participants.

Among the other distinguished guests of the workshop were the one-time US Ambassador to Nigeria, Robin Renee Sanders, the Ford Foundation’s Dr. Adiambo Odaga and Smithsonian Institution’s Janet Stanley as well as Professor Alagoa, the literary icon J.P. Clark, Wanda Ibru and former Governor Felix Ibru.