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Global honour for veteran Nigerian artist, Demas Nwoko


SOME superstars of the arts never depart the limelight because what makes them great is original and they do not relent in their quest to get better with every new work.

  Veteran Nigerian artist, Demas Nwoko is one the never-recceeding masters.        The Idumuje Ugboko, Delta State born teacher, sculptor, designer, environmentalist and architectural innovator is still reaping honour globally and locally.

  The octogenarian prince, Nwoko has been named the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Biennale Architettura 2023. He will be garlanded in May when the periodic global art fest begins.

  Nwoko, one of the surviving members of the forerunner generation of Nigerian modern artists and of the 1950s through 1970s avant-garde ilk dubbed the ‘Zarian rebels’ because of their graduation from the Zaria School of Arts in the early 1960s, and their radical approach to studio practice is a multi-dimensional artist and philosopher.

  Apart from the ground-breaking ‘natural synthesis’ philosophy which he and some of the Zarianists, like Bruce Onobrakpeya, Uche Okeke, Yusuf Grillo, Simon Okeke, Okechukwu Odita  among others explored in their artistic productions, teachings and writings (to the marvel of the art world), Nwoko produced very engaging works of architecture and interior design.

His pieces of furniture are as simple as they were complex and never easy to resist in homes and galleries.

The buildings he designed even in the 1960s and 1970s such as the Chapel of the Risen Christ in University of Ibadan  or his 1970 commission, the vast and oval The Dominicans’ Chapel in Ibadan are standouts. Same are the several cross-ventilation church halls, country homes that are still subjects of puzzle to researchers in architecture, mathematics, kinetics, physics and sculpture.

In those commissions that he built (and still builds) across Nigeria for his predominantly elite clients pundits, art afficionadoes, tourists and nature enthusiasts make dutiful visits, like in pilgrimages to behold mansions built from rare thinking. The structures stand without fixed windows or vents and never have need for such things as fans, use of air conditioners or  electricity for lighting once there is day light.

  In the words of the 2023 architecture biennale’s curator, Lesley Lokko: “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”.

His work, characterised by a “profound desire to blend and synthesise” nature with structure and the user will be celebrated, the organisers of the biennale inform, in a “small but perfectly formed and articulated display” in the Stirling Pavilion in the Giardini. The display will open, along with the 18th International Architecture Exhibition.

The honour will be  bestowed on him at The Laboratory of the Future, on Saturday, May 20, the same day as the inauguration of the global architectural expo and festivities at Ca’ Giustinian.

This year’s Biennale Architettura in The Laboratory of the Future, is the 18th International Architecture Exhibition, curated by Mr. Lokko, will be open from Saturday, May 20 to Sunday, November 26, at the Giardini, Arsenale and Forte Marghera in Venice, Italy.

Born 1935, the son of a traditional ruler, the seldom public and less-talking Nwoko who actually cuts the visage of a recluse is one of the slim clan of artists whose philosophy cuts through his ouvre. A rare audience with him shows a sage too.

The man began his foray into the art world in 1951 in a secondary school in Benin City where he got exposed to cartography and technical drawing.

The interest led him, upon graduation to seek admission to Zaria College of Arts where his original ambition was to study  Architecture.

Upon getting to Zaria, he found out, to his dismay that what was there for him to study was mostly developmental architecture “and nothing like African architecture.” He veered to fine arts where along with some of his course mates, they kicked against (rebelled) against the then predominant curriculum of western art.

Hence the birth of the ‘natural synthesis’ and in the punchy unconventional art pieces they regularly exhibited, an art critic, prophetically, saw heady radicals and dubbed them ‘Zaria rebels’. It stuck, and somehow almost all the revolutionaries of the Zaria ilk became successful in the field.

A visit of Nwoko’s over 60-year-old New Culture Studio in either Ibadan, Oyo State or Idumuje-Ugboko presents a man on whom all those ramparts of learning and vast reading, as well as traditional grounding have rubbed off heavily on his creative outputs.

The very lanky, tall and ivory-haired 88-year-old creator, and master builder comes across as a man who loves people too, and an artist who strives to incorporate modern traits of designing, construction to the building of just anything imaginable, even as he approaches 90.

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