Demas Nwoko’s work has been described as ‘sustainable, resource-mindful, and (as) culturally authentic forms of expression now sweeping across the African continent’. In addition to receiving the Golden Lion at this year’s architecture biennale, Nwoko will exhibit some of his material works in the Stirling Pavilion.
Demas Nwoko is a Nigerian artist, protean designer, architect and master builder. As an artist, he strives to incorporate modern techniques in architecture and stage design to enunciate African subject matter in most of his works.
Nigerian artist, designer and architect, Demas Nwoko, will receive the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale Architettura 2023. The awards ceremony will hold on 20 May 2023 at the biennale’s opening. Nwoko was selected by the curator of this year’s biennale, Lesley Lokko, and was approved by the biennale’s board of directors, chaired by Roberto Cicutto.
In a statement, Lokko described Nwoko’s work as: 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 addition to receiving the award, Nwoko will exhibit some of his material works in the Stirling Pavilion during the biennale.
Nwoko was born in 1935, in Idumuje-Ugboko, Delta State. In 1951, he moved to Benin City, Edo State, where he honed his talents in painting, drawing and carving at secondary school. Nwoko then applied for the architecture program at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology in Zaria, Kaduna State but ultimately decided to study fine art.
As a student in 1958, he became a founding member of the Zaria Art Society, a collective of five members—including Bruce Onobrakpeya, Uche Okeke, Simon Okeke, and Yusuf Grillo. The five artists were known as the ‘Zaria Rebels’ and natural synthesis, their form of artistic philosophy, promoted Nigerian artistic identity against the westernized expression in art education. Lokko noted in her statement that the artists 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.’
In 1962, Nwoko received a scholarship from the Congress of Cultural Freedom to study at the Centre Français du Théâtre in Paris, France, where he learned scenic design, theatre and fresco painting. The next year, Nwoko returned to lecture at the School of Drama at the University of Ibadan, Oyo State. His body of stage design and direction includes 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 work blends modern techniques in architecture and stage design with African tradition. In 1967, He began building his New Culture Studio in Ibadan. The project started as a private space but was later changed into a publicly accessible art hub. His designs include the Dominican Institute, Ibadan, which was commissioned in 1970. Its design was based on a paper Nwoko had written about art in religion, synthesizing all religions around the world into a single structure. Nwoko also built the Akenzua Cultural Centre, Benin—commissioned in 1972 but completed in 1995.
In 1977, architecture critic Noel Moffett commented on Nwoko’s Dominican Institute saying: ‘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.’ In 2007, Farafina Books published The Architecture of Demas Nwoko, a study of his work and theories written by two British architects, John Godwin and Gillian Hopwood.
In a 2023 Wallpaper interview covering his lifetime achievement award, Nwoko said he plans to complete the New Culture Studio in Ibadan and launch a design school where architects and artisans can learn and explore ideas⎈