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Personality Of The Week: Denmas Nwoko

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Demas Nwoko (born 1935) is a Nigerian artist, protean designer and architect. As an artist, he strives to incorporate modern techniques in architecture and stage design to enunciate the African subject matters 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. He was also a lecturer at the University of Ibadan. In the 1970s, he was the publisher of the now defunct New Culture magazine.

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.

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The painter, actor and architect Demas Nwoko is one of the best known Nigerian artists. Having first studied painting, he soon turned to stage-design, to directing plays, and at the end of the 70s to co-publishing the art magazine New Culture. His work for the theatre, his pictures and his notable architecture, show a constant interest in developing a modern language of form from traditional Nigerian art.
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As an actor, an architect and a painter Demas Nwoko is one of Nigeria´s best known artists. He was also among the Nigerians who, like his fellow painter Uche Okeke, the writer Chinua Achebe and the Nobel Prize Winner Wole Soynika, thought intensively and successfully at the start of the 60s about new, up-to-date and thus genuine Nigerian aesthetics in image and word. But Nwoko has gained an international reputation not only through art but also by contributing to the Nigerian movement for independence.
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Demas Nwoko began his career in the arts in 1957 by studying art at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology in Zaria. While there he created one of the cells of the Nigerian avant-garde – the Zaria Art Society – together with Uche Okeke and Bruce Onobrapkeya. After studying in Zaria, he went to Paris in 1961 then to Japan, to learn stage-design.

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He not only continued painting but also contributed intensively to the stage, as reflected in his teaching activities. From 1963-78 he taught theatre arts at the University of Ibadan and in 1966 staged Amos Tutuola´s play “Palm Wine Drinkard” at the first Negro Arts Festival in Dakar. He was also a member of the Mbari artists´ and writers´ club in Ibadan and worked at the end of the 70s as the editor and co-publisher of the magazine New Culture: a Review of Contemporary African Arts.
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In his work for the theatre, Nwoko was close to the Orisun movement, in referring to actual events and political blunders in a manner recalling European cabaret with its mixture of scenic presentation, songs and comic texts. The members of the Orisun movement understood drama as being “a process in which improvisation is essential”, as the Nigerian Nobel Prize Winner Wole Soynika wrote in his essay “From Ghetto to Garrison: a Chronic Case of Orisun”. Within the framework of his work in the Mbari/Orisun circle, Demas Nwoko also held workshops in painting and drawing, as Soyinka recalls.
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Nwoko´s style of painting may be said to be lyrical and figurative. As in “The Adam and Eve Series” (1963-65), his compositions are often organised less in terms of space than in terms of symmetrical ornamentation. Sometimes the persons and accessories are simplified to the point of being emblems. Attention is meant to be drawn to the symbolically shown message, so it might be misleading to call his art, verging at times on abstraction, realistic.

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The motifs which Nwoko chooses for his pictures are often taken from the Bible, and his commitment to the Christian religion is also shown by his architecture. In the course of his career he has designed several buildings, mostly for the catholic church, like one of his main works, the Dominican Abbey in Ibadan (1966-70). Here, too, he has been concerned to bring design up-to-date, trying on the one hand to show traditional roots and on the other hand a new identity. For this abbey and the church beside it, Nwoko used burnt tiles and a wedge-shaped almost expressionistic bell-tower rising to a point, and decked the whole with large-scale abstract mosaics in full colour. The result is an architectural masterpiece whose meaning and rank are much more than national.9bf636af15f2eefeca50035a87a91f85

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