Demas Nwoko: Renaissance Man
by Moni Agbedeh
Demas Nwoko like his creations, is an enigma preferring to work as an architect rather than the painter, sculptor, actor and stage designer he is. Trotting behind a much-admired father as a boy, Nwoko quickly fell in love with architecture. He was naturally gifted at art, a medium he used as a means of achieving his dream, which was to design and build. A founding member of the group, Zaria Art Society, Nwoko’s distinctive style of architecture finds root in rich artistic traditions while imbibing the finest in contemporary building techniques. Back home in Idumuje, he shares his story with Moni Agbedeh.
What was childhood like for you?
I was born in Idumuje here, and I grew up all over Nigeria. At five, I left with my maternal uncle to Calabar. He worked as a postal clerk, so he was usually transferred from place to place. I started elementary school in Calabar but we never stayed in one place for more than two years. We left Calabar for Uzoakoli, which is near Umuahia and from there we moved to Enugu. Because we were moving around so much, I stayed longer in Enugu with another uncle. I was there till 1947. Then my uncle moved west to Obiahia. I remained with him from 1947 to 1948 after which he was sent to Kano. It was at that point that my mother said it was enough, and ordered me to come back home! So I came back to Idumuje in 1949 to finish my standard five and six education. In 1951, I started secondary school in Benin. After a year, I moved to the east, to a school called, Merchants of Light in Oba. That was where I finished my secondary school education before moving to Ibadan, which was the regional capital of the west. While there, I made plans to go to Zaria to study Architecture because all through my childhood, I played with the idea of building a career in architecture.
You said you loved architecture early in life, why did you pursue your interest in art ahead of architecture?
Well it’s good to know that architecture is art because without the building you won’t find walls to paint on anywhere in the world. I had a natural inclination towards architecture because of my father’s influence. What he did was low-key; he used his walking stick to draw out the buildings and anybody who wanted to build in town would set it up. If you drive round this town, you’ll discover that it is well laid out like ancient Benin. We have avenues and streets – people build in line; every house is built fifty feet from the road. If you see any house that is near the road, it was just the recent rascals who came from Lagos
to ask why are you wasting space? They say that in Lagos, the buildings are on the road. I used to follow my father to where he was laying out foundations for people, so I just knew that I would build. As for fine art, drawing and painting, we had art teachers in secondary schools and I found out that I could naturally do all that, and enjoyed studying it. But I still believed I would be an architect. After secondary school, I went to Ibadan to work in the ministry of works because architects were trained by the ministry on scholarship. First you go to Zaria, and then you come back for your practicals. So I was at the Ministry of Works, Ibadan, preparing to go to Zaria to study Architecture. Meanwhile, in that first year, I met some of the students who came from Zaria to do their practicals. I was interested in what they were doing, so I got close to them. I had been reading at the British Council, as well as the Art Council on my own. I was gaining knowledge from all over the world and preparing myself to study Architecture. I noticed some differences in what I had read about architecture and what I saw the students doing. So I concluded the training they were receiving must be limited. They were more interested in technical craftsmanship, which wasn’t my idea of architecture. A craftsman can be trained; it didn’t require five to seven years to study. I believed it was important to do the creative aspect of designing buildings, which was why I decided to go and study Fine Art. Not to end up as an artist but still as an architect. I told myself that when I finish I can then go to study Architecture.
Full interview published in Omenka magazine Volume I issue IV
April 01, 2021
March 25, 2021