Thursday, 30th November 2023

Demas Nwoko… Golden lion for master ‘artist-designer’

By Ijeoma Thomas-Odia
01 April 2023   |   3:09 am
Veteran artist, designer and architect, Demas Nwanna Nwoko, is set to receive the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia entitled, The Laboratory of the Future, billed for May 20 through November 26, 2023,...

Veteran artist, designer and architect, Demas Nwanna Nwoko, is set to receive the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia entitled, The Laboratory of the Future, billed for May 20 through November 26, 2023, at Giardini and Arsenale.

This decision was approved by La Biennale’s Board of Directors chaired by Roberto Cicutto, upon recommendation of the Curator of the 18th International Architecture Exhibition, Lesley Lokko. The awards ceremony and inauguration of the Biennale Architettura 2023 will be held on Saturday 20th May 2023, at Ca’ Giustinian, headquarters of La Biennale di Venezia.

One of the central themes of the 18th International Architecture Exhibition is an approach to architecture as an ‘expanded’ field of endeavours, encompassing both the material and immaterial worlds; a space in which ideas are as important as artefacts, particularly in the service of what is yet to come.

With all of its emphasis on the future, however, it seems entirely fitting that the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement should be awarded to someone whose material works span the past 70 years, but whose immaterial legacy – approach, ideas, ethos – is still in the process of being evaluated, understood and celebrated.

Demas Nwoko is everything all at once; an architect, sculptor, designer, writer, set designer, critic, and historian. When pushed, he refers to himself as an ‘artist-designer’, which speaks both to the polyglot nature of his talents and oeuvres, and to the rather narrow interpretation of the word ‘architect’ that has arguably kept his name out of the annals.

The son of a traditional Obi (ruler), he was born in 1935 in Idumuje-Ugboko, Delta State. His early forays into painting, drawing, and carving at secondary school in Benin City pushed him to apply for a place to study architecture at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology in Zaria. However, his discovery that the course focused more on technical drawing skills than the creative imagination prompted him to change tack, applying instead to study Fine Art.

He was a founding member of the Zaria Art Society – a group that included Yusuf Grillo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Uche Okeke and Simon Okeke, also known as the ‘Zaria Rebels’ – who were interested in a blend of modernity and African aesthetics as an authentic language to reflect the spirit of political independence growing in the 1940s and 1950s.

This profound desire to blend and synthesize, rather than sweep away, has characterised Nwoko’s work for over five decades. He was one of the first Nigerian makers of space and form to critique Nigeria’s reliance on the West for imported materials and goods, as well as ideas, and has remained committed to using local resources.

Although relatively few, Nwoko’s buildings in Nigeria fulfill two critical roles; they are forerunners of the sustainable, resource-mindful, and culturally authentic forms of expression now sweeping across the African continent – and the globe – and they point towards the future, no mean achievement for someone whose work is still largely unknown, even at home.

Architectural critic, Noel Moffett in 1977, while writing about Nwoko’s first commission to build the complex for the Dominican Institute in Ibadan, wrote: “Here, under a tropical sun, architecture and sculpture combine in a way which only Gaudí perhaps, among architects, has been able to do so convincingly.”

Nwoko was at the forefront of Nigeria’s Modern Art movement. As an artist, he strives to incorporate modern techniques in architecture and stage design to enunciate African subject matter in most of his works. In the 1960s, he was a member of the Mbari Club of Ibadan, a committee of burgeoning Nigerian and foreign artists.

The 87-year-old who grew up in Idumuje Ugboko appreciating and being inspired by the newly constructed architectural residences in the town and the Palace edifice of the Obi, his grandfather designed the palace himself and further extension work was commissioned by his father.

He studied at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology in Zaria between 1957-1961, where he was a prominent founding member of the Zaria Art Society. This influential group of artists, popularly known as the ‘Zaria Rebels’, promoted natural synthesis: a concept of art coined by the artist Uche Okeke, which bridged their Western training by colonial educators with a focus on African themes and narratives. The Zaria Rebels contributed to the postcolonial modernist vanguard in Nigeria in the early 1960s, along with their peers in literature, theatre and music.

In 1961, Nwoko received a scholarship to study at the Centre Français du Théâtre in Paris, where he studied theatre architecture and scene design. After university, he returned to Nigeria to lecture at the newly formed School of Drama at the University of Ibadan. Reconnecting with his old member of the Zaria Art Society, Nwoko went on to establish spaces such as the Mbari Writers and Artists Club, developing a new art that blended African and Western modernist aesthetics, forms and processes to reflect the spirit of political independence. Nwoko’s first commission to build the complex for the Dominican Institute in Ibadan occurred in 1970, though he had already commenced his architecture work at the New Culture Studios in Ibadan, in the late 1960s.

He founded the New Culture Studios in Ibadan, which is presently run as a training centre for the performing arts and a design center. Nwoko also founded (the now defunct) New Culture Magazine, in the 1970s, a publication that documented contemporary art and culture. Four of his works are also featured in the book, ‘1001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die’ alongside ancient structures such as the Greek Pathenon, Notable Architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and more recent Architects such as Zaha Hadid.

NWOKO led the way toward a modern movement of expression in African art, Theatre, Painting, and Architecture. As a seasoned creative Theatre Artist and stage designer, he made strong impact in the development of Contemporary African Theatre. He carried out innovative design and production styles mixed with his knowledge of Oriental theatre styles and techniques and his expertise and skill in scenic and costume design which resulted in the following productions: Amos Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard for a Travelling Theatre troupe in 1963, which was also presented as Nigeria’s entry at the Pan African Cultural Festival held at Algeria in 1969. The success of The Palmwine Drinkard owes a lot of credit to the effort of Nwoko. His inventive creations helped organise the choreography and direction of the play and brought to life the themes of Tutuola in every act of the play.

He made the stage design and direction, which included Wole Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests, Bertholt Brecht’s Der Kaukasische Kreidekreis (The Caucasian Chalk Circle), and the Mbari Theatre production of John Pepper Clark’s The Masquerade.

Nwoko’s Dance play was presented at the first Negro Art Festival of Dakar, Senegal in 1966; a pure Dance Production Titled the Olympic Dance was the Nigerian Cultural Presentation at the Olympic Games of Mexico 1968; the Children of Paradise an epic production for Nigeria during the Second World Festival for the Black world, FESTAC in 1977 in Lagos Nigeria. This production was aired for many years on television during the country’s independence day October 1st celebration.

Amongst his awards and recognitions are: 2017 Fellow of the International Federation of Interior Architects/Designers (IFI), Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON), Patron, Nigeria Society of Artist (NSA) and Fellow, Nigerian Institute of Architects (NIA).

He is often described as the ‘first and last man standing’, a reference to the fact that, at nearly 90 years of age, the recognition that other octogenarian architects — Doshi, Fathy, Correa — have received has eluded this Nigerian architect who was, and still is, ahead of his time. His approach takes sustainability to another level — conceptual, emotive, environmental, political and economic.

As a ‘dangerous liaison’ all of his own, his work sits at the intersection of multiple forms of artistic and scientific practice — art, architecture, sculpture, installation – life. Unlike the vast majority of African architects who followed, Nwoko did not leave Africa to train abroad, but developed his skills, practice and approach at ‘home’ on the continent, rooted in his community and culture, and transcending it at the same time. Nwoko belongs to that generation of artists, along with Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, who fought for Nigerian independence artistically as well as politically.

Nwoko sees design as an ingenuous activity that carries with it a focus on social responsibility for positive influences in the environment and culture of the society. A forerunner to so many, the recognition and appreciation bestowed by the Golden Lion is long overdue.