In the Igbo town of Idumuje-Ugboko in southeast Nigeria, artist and architect Demas Nwoko reports to his home office Monday through Friday.
The room is cool, softly lit and furnished with his own hand-built wooden desks, tables and chairs. A selection of Nwoko’s terracotta sculptures is displayed on shelves. Throughout the day, the 84-year-old meets one-on-one with his two young interns, recent architecture school graduates who assist with the logistics of his latest building projects. His feedback and direction are those of an exacting perfectionist, but his serious tone is softened by an easy chuckle.
Outside his two-storey mud-brick home is the community’s only paved road, connecting the town to the capital Abuja in the north and Lagos in the west. A slow but steady stream of residents patronises nearby shops, buying mostly basic food provisions. The farm-based economy here is bolstered by work in Lagos and remittances from abroad.
The African Designs Development Centre, Nwoko’s factory, is the sole industrial venture in town and is under the direction of Nwoko’s son, 54-year-old Ashim, an architect and building contractor. The family hopes to eventually employ workers from the area to manufacture furniture and building components from locally sourced materials to be sold across the country. For now, the workshop is used to build custom parts to supply Demas Nwoko’s building commissions.
Today, Nwoko’s attention is focused on a recent government commission to design the new National Gallery, 415km (258 miles) away in Abuja. His laptop sits next to stacks of notes for his autobiography and a manuscript about his architectural philosophy. His wife beckons repeatedly until he finally allows his work to be interrupted for lunch.
“I’m a realist, a concrete thinker, allergic to wasting effort,” Nwoko says, gazing into the distance as he speaks, as if seeing his vision before him. His now-white beard and afro echo the pattern of white circles on his indigo tie-dye top. He is still a man with much to do as he follows his plan to “keep pushing in my own small corner at what is positive and viable”.
Nwoko grew up as a prince in a mud palace, a son of the village king. The palace was fashioned to emulate those of the Oba of Benin from whom the royal family descends, and features spaces for public gatherings, private meetings, and secret rituals, all constructed from laterite.
“By the age of three, I was already recognising architectural features,” he recalls with some wonder. “I was aware of buildings as architecture – design built by somebody.”
Throughout his childhood, he played at architecture and paid close attention to new buildings in the community, watching their construction from the foundations up.
To formalise his interests, Nwoko apprenticed as a draughtsman in the Public Works Department, preparing himself to study architecture. But after applying for admission to universities in Nigeria and the United Kingdom, backed by the promise of government funding, he became disillusioned with his plans. “Other government-sponsored students came back to work in an office. I wouldn’t be studying my own idea of architecture,” Nwoko explains. He chose to study fine arts instead, ensuring that he would have the opportunity to develop himself creatively.
But when he got to the University of Zaria, he “found that there was a complete absence of the study of our own traditional knowledge”.
Nwoko remembers how the curriculum avoided the study of modern art as the “Europeans tried not to teach it because it would reveal that there is an African influence”.
So he and like-minded art students formed the Zaria Arts Society in 1958, a collective committed to the independent study of Nigerian artistic heritage as a means of forming the foundation for their curriculum.
They developed a methodology they coined “Natural Synthesis”, anchoring their drawing, painting, sculpture and printmaking in the knowledge of African art traditions (with the conscious addition of Western innovations where useful) as a platform for their creative output. Among peers who would become giants of Nigerian modern art, such as …