Standing face to face with the works of one Nigeria’s art icons, the word that readily comes to mind is “amazing”. The National Gallery of Art (NGA) once again celebrated Nigeria’s art legacy by honouring one of its finest artists in the person of Demas Nwoko. This was done through a publication of a book on him and an exhibition of some of his works. The event took place on July 26 at the Exhibition Pavilion in Abuja.
The works on exhibit were 44 in total. Though, most of the works exhibited were not originals of the artist’s works but images of his creations, Acting Director General, National Gallery of Art, Dr. Simon Ikpakronyi assured all that an exhibition of Nwoko’s original works will be held at a future date in his home state, Delta. In spite of the fact that the works were images, their beauty glowed overwhelmingly that many in the audience were in awe of what they saw. The kaleidoscope of vibrant colours was just as engrossing as the interesting shapes and forms in his creations.
His stylised images created such enchanting narratives that one could not but be curious about how the story in each painting ended for the characters involved. Nwoko captured life from both home and abroad. There were images reflecting life in India, Senegal, and Europe. The stories were as ordinary as commuters in a tram or as interesting as vibrant dance scenes. A mixture of terra-cotta and paintings, the images left no doubt that these are the works of a multi-talented artist. Perhaps a bit shockingly, there were quite a number of works with nude figures. This included a painting, titled “Bathing Woman”, showing a number of naked women bathing at a stream. Also a terra-cotta work, titled “Dance Series”, shows a half-naked couple in a dance pose. Being that the NGA hardly displays unclad images at its exhibitions, it is curious that the curator of this event chose some of these. One can imagine the artist’s grandchildren running around his works sniggering at the show of nudity which the artist appears so comfortable with.
Perhaps, the most endearing piece of all to this writer is a work, titled “Nigeria in 1959”. It is an oil on board painting produced in 1960 depicting three colonial rulers sitting on chairs looking weary while a number of Africans stood behind them, looking down at them daringly. This a perfect recapturing of what perhaps may have been the emotional state of the key players involved in the hand-over of Nigeria from the British to Nigerians. One can only wonder what cheeky thoughts went through Nwoko’s mind as he painted that picture as a young fine art student at Nigeria College of Art, Science and Technology, Zaria at the time.
Professor of painting from Ahmadu Bello University, Jerry Buhari, while reading the tribute to Nwoko, as written by Prof. John Godwin, took a brief moment to give his opinion about Nwoko’s paintings. He said: “Nwoko’s paintings make no pretence about his impatience with academic traditions; in his paintings realism is idealised, imbuing his works with intense content and essence.”
Professor Godwin’s tribute did not lay emphasis on Nwoko’s work as an artist but more on his work as an architect comparing him to the likes of Michelangelo, artists/architects who intermingled so easily between the worlds of architecture and painting; gaining mastery in both and receiving critical acclaim for their creations.
Clearly a teacher at heart, Nwoko when given the opportunity to speak did not dwell too much on himself or his works. Rather, he expressed concern over the state of Nigerian art and how master pieces were not being taken care of by the government. He encouraged the NGA to pay special attention to and care for the precious Nigerian art works all around the nation in order to preserve our history as a nation.
The book titled: Demas Nwoko – Pre-eminent Artist, Outstanding Architect, was presented by the Obi of Onitsha. In his speech, the monarch represented by Chief Chuka Oboli expressed pride in the works of Nwoko not only for their brilliance but also for their rich cultural content. The book was written by the Acting DG of the NGA, Dr. Simon Odey Ikpakronyi. It is one of many books he has written on members of the former Zaria Art Society.
Nwoko, a man of many talents – artist, architect, stage designer, furniture maker, playwright, actor, dancer and more – was described in glowing words by all who spoke at the event. It was a beautiful gathering of artists, art scholars, art administrators, high ranking government officials, family and friends. Among those present were: Head of the Civil Service of the Federation, Mrs Winifred Ekanem Oyo-Ita, represented by Olusoji Olowofoyekun, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Culture, Deaconess Grace Isu Gekpe, represented Ralph Wilcox; the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Nnaemeka Alfred Achebe, represented by Chief Chuka Oboli; Chairman Governing Board of the NGA, Amb. Umaru Azores Sulaiman, represented by Mrs Finney David; Director General (DG) of the National Council for Art and Culture, Otunba Olusegun Runsewe; representatives of different government agencies and a number of senior staff of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU). Gekpe, Sulaiman and Azores all commended Demas Nwoko for his humongous contribution to Nigerian art.
––Byoma writes from Abuja