Joel Benson Brings Demas Nwoko’s Legacy to Life in New VR Documentary

Guests watching Benson’s VR film at Art X Festival.

Vanessa Obioha

At the just concluded ART X Festival, award-winning virtual reality documentary filmmaker Joel Benson screened his latest efforts, ’The Realities of Demas’.

Based on the works of renowned Nigerian artist and architect Demas Nwoko, the seven-minute long film explores two of the architect’s most iconic works, which are located in Ibadan – the New Culture Studio and the Dominican Chapel.

Through the film, viewers are taken on a virtual tour of Demas’ New Culture Studio, a sprawling building that is situated on a hill close to the University of Ibadan, and was built in the late 70s. The studio boasts an amphitheatre space, which was inspired by the Greek Coliseums, and offers thespians a rehearsal ground for their theatrical productions.

Inside the Dominican Chapel, viewers are immersed in this unique space that was designed with a fusion of Catholicism and African culture. The soundtrack to this scene is the near-hypnotic chant of the monks, who surround the viewer, while they make their evening supplications.

Most of Demas Nwoko’s designs incorporate modern techniques while still reflecting the African roots. For instance, there are buildings that he built with local materials such as clay and laterite.

Like an architecture student from the University of Lagos Orinayo Odubawo rightly observed, it is an immersive experience that captures the work of the artist in a new dimension.

“I have read about the New Culture Studio a lot. I went to Ibadan last year because I was designing something similar but I didn’t have the opportunity to visit it. But watching this in VR is a whole new experience. I danced when I started watching it and people around thought I was crazy but they didn’t understand,” she said excitedly.

“I felt I was inside the space. There was a rehearsal going on and I felt I was part of it. I could actually see everything. You could see the stone walls. When you visit the studio physically, there are some things you cannot really see because it is an amphitheatre. You cannot capture everything at once.”

The film was made possible through the support of ART X and Guardian Studios, and marks the first time the artist’s work is captured using virtual reality technology. Benson, who is recognised as one of the pioneering filmmakers in VR, spent two weeks putting the footage together. He described the film as an educational tool for every architecture student. A point that Odubawo readily concurred to.

“Presenting works of art through this medium is very commendable. Our job requires us to do case studies which involves travelling a lot. You can’t just take pictures or download it from the internet. You have to be there to see every intricate detail. But with VR, you can actually carry out a virtual tour and get your facts. It places you inside the space without having to go there. It saves you a lot of time,” she said.

Presently, Benson is exploring the idea of documenting Nigerian modern art in 360, and making the content available to educational institutions.

“I think virtual reality can serve as a great educational tool for our institutions. Students don’t have to break their heads to get information about their research products. It is also an innovative way to archive our heritage,” he said.

Benson emerged the first African to win the prestigious Virtual Reality Award at the Venice International Film Festival this year. That accolade has put him in the spotlight and though he admits it is sometimes overwhelming, he says he is grateful for the opportunities it has created for him to collaborate with international VR filmmakers and continues to push the envelope of storytelling.

His winning film ‘Daughters of Chibok’ is still a hot topic, and continues to tour film festivals across the globe.