By Bruce Onobrakpeya
Ulli Beier was one of the few expatriates involved inthe pre- and post- independence ferment in art that crytallised into what we can today describe as the contemporary and modern Nigeria Art. The workshop series which he started, created a revolution that gave birth to what is now known all over the art world today as Osogbo School. As a great teacher, mentor and role model, he helped develop artistic freedom, drew our attention to Nigerian values by recourse to our past and traditions as well as to look beyond our immediate environment for inspiration. His passion for and invovlement in many areas of the arts has within his lifetime changed the town of Oshogbo into a Mecca for lovers of art.
Ulli Beier had several attributes, but in this brief tribute I will pay attention to his role as a great art teacher and a role model in the development of the arts and also as a vital instrument in the upgrading of a community - the Oshogbo community - into a tourism centre of world renown. The workshops he organised in Ibadan, Oshogbo and Ile -Ife, not only realigned my area of specialisation as an artist but also inspired me towards the development of an informal educational art outfit, which is the Harmattan workshop series of Agbarha-Otor in, Delta State, Nigeria.
I attended three of the art workshops he initiated and organised in the 60s and 70s. The first was at Adamasingba quarters, Ibadan in 1961. It was held at Mbari Artists and Writers club. Julian Bainet stood in for Amancia Guerdes, the South African Architect who could not travel to Nigeria. In that workshop there was a printmaking session but the main thrust was to develop our freedom in the use of found materials: metals, cement, building wire, etc.
But what I later realised to be my greatest benefit at the workshop was working with artists of different stages of development on the same project in the same classrooom. In the workshop was Akinola Lasekan who even then was already very well known as an accomplished artist. Also, I met Roland Abiodun who would later become a great scholar.
The second Ulli Beier workshop I attended came three years later in 1964 at Osogbo. It was on printmaking for which Professor Ru Van Rossen, a renowned printmaker from Tilburg University in Holland, was director. The class was not a big one. It included Jimoh Akolo and Irein Wangboje who were colleagues in the art school at Zaria. Other participants in that workshop included Twin Seven-Seven, Jimoh Buraimoh, Muraina Oyelami, Rufus Ogundele and a few others who had attended earlier Oshogbo workshops under Georgina Beier, Ulli's wife.
Through Ru Van Rossen's teaching and demonstrations and the examples of his prints that I saw, I realised that printmaking was a major area of art specialisation. That changed my direction from painting to which I was lured through peer pressure at the Art School in Zaria. Following that exposure, and equipped with materials given to me by Ulli, I launched into printmaking experiments with feverish passion and great determination which later on resulted in innovations and breakthroughs for me.
I use the word experiments because Ru made us understand from the workshop that printmaking can be very scientific and adventrous, involving the use of chemicals, tools and heavy equipment, as obtained in factories.
After attending the two workshops, Ulli watched my progress with satisfaction and as a way of motivation, he invited me to assist Ru in the Ori Olokun wokshop held at Ile-Ife around 1973. By this time Ulli had moved from Osogbo to Ife as the Director of the Institute of African Studies of the University of Ife, now the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile -Ife. In that capacity, Ulli offered me the post of Assistant Research Fellow at the Institute, Unfortunately I could not take it because my movement to Ife would retard the building up of an artistic audience which I already started in Lagos.
Ulli drew our attention to materials and themes around us - in beadworks, beaten metal, wood, clay, folklore, stones, traditional motifs, etc. These became the foundation for the great art pieces by Twin Seven-Seven, Jimoh Buraimoh, Asiru Olatunde, Nike Okundaiye, Rufus Ogundele, Muraina Oyelami and my metal foil plastograph.
Ulli did not stop with organising workshops. He monitored the progress of the artists in order to encourage them further. He would sometimes buy some of the art works produced at the workshops or at the artists' studios and exhibit them in Nigeria or abroad, accompanying the pieces with literature which would introduce the artists and explain the pieces. The Goethe Institute, the cultural arm of the Germany embassy in Lagos, cooperated with Ulli Beier, who was a German, to showcase our art regularly.
Next, Ulli encouraged his friends and art patrons to establish galleries to help sell artworks, particularly those produced by the workshop alumni. First amongst them was the Mbari Artists and Writer's Club of which he was a co-founder, followed by the Mbari Mbayo at Oshogbo. Next was Mbari Art Gallery, opened by Tayo Aiyegbusi on the ground floor of his studio at Jibowu near Ikorodu Road, Lagos.
Jean Kennedy and her husband Dick Wolford who worked for USAID, were themselves artists and friends to Ulli. They turned their sitting room in McEwen Road, Ikoyi to an art gallery where they marketed products of the Osogbo artists. We called the gallery the ‘Thursday Show' because it took place once a week for only two hours every Thursday.
My works naturally were included but the gallery also exhibited works of other Lagos-based artists like David Dale who were never part of the workshops. The Thursday Show gave me a financial breakthrough and a great impetus to continue my practice as an artist. This gave me the confidence to continue in my practice and I never looked back. Other expatriate families, one after the other, carried on the tradition after the Wolfords left Nigeria.
Ulli's promotion did not end with Ibadan, Osogbo, Ife and Lagos. He inspired the Mbari Club which was set up by Uche Okeke in Enugu. Also, he encouraged Ovia Idah to open a gallery in his house on the moat at beginning of Ekewan Road, near the Oba's market in Benin City. Ulli carried the crusade to Germany, the Iwalewa Haus Centre, which he set up there, did a lot to propagate Osogbo and other Nigerian artworks.
Ulli was totally committed to the development of arts. He cooperated with his wife Georgina in the workshops and with Susanne Wenger for the development of Osun shrines; also with Duro Ladipo for theatre, and was involved with various publications about African artists and culture in Black Orpheus. All these experiences prepared me for other workshops, residences and exhibitions abroad in Canada, India, the United States of America, the United Kingdom and Zimbabwe.
And so, when I started the Harmattan Worshop at Agbarha-Otor, Delta State in 1998, all the credit went to Ulli as one who inspired me to start it. It is his legacy that I am now propagating. The 13th edition of the Harmattan Workshop will end in August 2011 and like the previous workshops we organised, during the induction ceremonies for participants, the name Ulli Beier always comes up as the inspiration behind the project. This has been the practice since inception.
Following the example of Ulli's workshops, the Harmattan Workshop has proved to be a forum where Nigerian, African as well as artists from other parts of the world gather in many sessions every year to hone their skills, share ideas and network among themselves. The workshop has had participants from Canada, France, U.S.A, Benin Republic, Togo and Belgium. The works from the workshops, like Ulli workshops, have been exhibited widely within the country and have featured in the landmark events like the Nigerian Golden Jubilee exhibition at Abuja. Plans are underway to exhibit works from Harmattan Workshop at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. All these artistic activities are gradually helping to upgrade the status of the quiet, sleepy town of Agbarha-Otor where the workshop is situated. We hope it will be like Osogbo someday.
Ulli Beier gave a people - the Oshogbo people, nay, the people of Nigeria, pride in their cultural heritage. He came and awakened us to artistic and cultural consciousness. He laid the foundation that earned Oshogbo the World Heritage status it enjoys today.
Ulli Beier affected my life and a host of other artists whose talents would have remained dormant. He gave us wealth and international recognition. His life and passion for the arts did not only develop the art profession and raised the status of Osogbo, it also proved that the arts in its total application is a potential tool for the growth of any nation. May Ulli Beier's contributions and legacies which he bequeathed long endure.Master printmaker, Bruce Onobrakpeya, delivered this paper at the celebration of Ulli Beier's life and works, held at the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding in Osogbo, Osun State, on July 2