• Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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Demas Nwoko receives Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at Venice Biennale

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Demas Nwoko, Nigerian-born artist, designer, and architect, is the recipient of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement of the 18th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia entitled The Laboratory of the Future. The decision was taken at the recommendation of the exhibition curator, Lesley Lokko, and was approved by La Biennale’s Board of Directors chaired by Roberto Cicutto. The awards ceremony will be part of the inauguration of the 18th exhibition and will be held on May 20, 2023, at Ca’Giustinian, the headquarters of La Biennale di Venezia.

Demas Nwoko is a Nigerian-born artist, designer, and master builder at the forefront of Nigeria’s modern art movement. Through his works, he strives to incorporate and articulate African subject matter and modern techniques in architecture and stage design. His versatile works span mediums and disciplines, including architecture, sculpture, design, literature, criticism, set design, and history.

Son of Obi (King) Nwoko II, Prince Demas Nwoko was born in 1935 in Idumuje Ugboko, Nigeria. There, Nwoko was inspired by the newly-constructed residences in the town and the palace edifice of the Obi, his grandfather, who designed the palace. He studied at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology in Zaria between 1957 and 1961, where he became a founding member of the Zaria Art Society. The group, also known as the “Zaria Rebels,” promoted the idea of natural synthesis, a concept developed by artist Uche Okeke. The concept aimed to bridge the gap between the artists’ Western training by colonial educators and their African background, focused on traditional themes and narratives. The Zaria Rebels contributed to the movement of the postcolonial modernist vanguard in Nigeria in the early 1960s.

Later, Nwoko founded the New Culture Studios in Ibadan, a training center for the performing arts and design program. The impact of his body of works lies in his desire to synthesize Western influences with authentic and traditional African practices. His architecture demonstrates these interests. His buildings, although relatively few, demonstrate a sustainable and resource-mindful approach while incorporating culturally authentic forms of expression.

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

Baba (a Nigerian honorific title) 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.

He was a founder 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 characterized 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. In 1977, writing about Nwoko’s first commission to build the complex for the Dominican Institute in Ibadan, the architectural critic Noel Moffett 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.

It gives me enormous pride and pleasure to award the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement to Demas Nwoko, an architect of both the 20th and 21st centuries, and to encourage all visitors to the 18th International Architecture Exhibition to visit the small but perfectly formed and articulated display of his work in the Stirling Pavilion in the Giardini, alongside the Book Pavilion Project of The Laboratory of the Future.

Commenting on the life time award, Giles Omezi, Architecture & Academic (London/Lagos), said that the Golden Lion Award to Demas Nwoko is fantastic news and long overdue global acknowledgement of the special work that Demas has built in Nigeria over the last 60 years.

“His very limited oeuvre of architectural work has a distinct quality and character that has been shaped by a clear theoretical position of cultural synthesis and strong technical awareness about building and making,” Giles Omezi said.

“His ideas, which in most cases he executed in the classic role of the master builder, are often intense workings of building and space informed by his knowledge as both a sculptor and set designer. Unafraid to innovate, to make and to experiment, he has provided an almost ‘Gaudiesque’ reference for architects that is ultimately difficult to copy, but offers a proof of the possibilities of a more considered approach to architecture”.