Architect, sculptor, designer, writer, set designer, critic, and historian, “Demas Nwoko is all these things at once. When asked, he refers to himself as an artist-designer, which speaks volumes about the polyglot nature of his talent and work, and the rather narrow interpretation of the word architect, which has arguably kept his name out of the annals.” Lesley Lokko, curator of the 18th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, has awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement to this multifaceted figure, born in 1935 in Nigeria, recognizing, among other things, his ability to introduce innovative techniques to architecture and set design, as well as incorporating African themes into most of his work.
“One of the central themes of the 18th International Architecture Exhibition is approaching architecture as an ‘expanded’ field of endeavors, encompassing both the material and immaterial worlds – says Lokko –, a space in which ideas are as important as artefacts, 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”.
Nothing could be more true of Nwoko’s work and career, which now has a new prestige thanks to the curator of the 2023 edition of the exhibition. Not surprisingly, in Lokko’s recent presentation of the event, which this year has been dubbed The Laboratory of the Future, she reiterated how the history of architecture, although not wrong, has long been incomplete. Exhibitions in general, but also this award, need to move towards greater openness and completeness: “They represent a unique opportunity to add to, change, or retell a story, whose audience and whose impact extend far beyond the walls and physical spaces that contain them. What we say publicly is fundamental, because it forms the foundation on which change is built, both in small and large steps.”
Demas Nwoko grew up in Idumuje-Ugboko. One of the most successful exponents of the modern art movement in his country, he was inspired in his early career by the most modern examples of architecture in his city and by the palace of the Obi (king), designed by his grandfather. Indicative of his multifaceted character, which extends beyond the usual definition of architect, during the course of his long career he established various cultural and artistic centers, such as Mbari Writers and the Artists Club, both exemplifying a new artform that combines African and Western modernist aesthetics, forms, and processes while reflecting on the spirit of political independence.
His deep desire for a fusion of various disciplines is at the heart of his vision and philosophy. This has seen him gradually become an increasingly unique and non-conformist figure, including towards politics:
“He was one of the first Nigerian creators 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 – added Lokko –. Although relatively few, Nwoko’s buildings in Nigeria fulfil 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.'”
The awards ceremony and inauguration of the 2023 Architecture Biennale will be held on Saturday, May 20, 2023 at Ca’ Giustinian, the headquarters of the Venice Biennale.
All images courtesy of Biennale Venezia