Demas Nwoko (Nigerian, born 1935) Metro Ride

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Lot 40*
Demas Nwoko
(Nigerian, born 1935)
Metro Ride

Sold for £ 81,250 (US$ 99,381) inc. premium
Demas Nwoko (Nigerian, born 1935)
Metro Ride
signed and dated 'Demas Nwoko/ 20/4/62' (lower right)
oil on canvas
133 x 98cm (52 3/8 x 38 9/16in).


  • Literature
    C.Okeke-Agulu, Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria, (Durham, 2015), illustrated p.199.

    Demas Nwoko (b. 1935), a leading figure in Nigerian modernism, is best known as a founding member of the Zaria Art Society, a student group at the Nigerian College of Art, Science and Technology, Zaria that became key players in the development of postcolonial modernism in Nigeria in the early 1960s. The group's significance lies in its insistence on developing a new art based on Nigerian and African traditional aesthetics, forms and processes, but with a modernist sensibility similar to that of the European avant-garde. This idea, theorized by his friend Uche Okeke as Natural Synthesis, defined Nwoko's work as a painter, sculptor, teacher, theatre director and designer, and architect. In the late 1970s when he founded the journal New Culture and as the presidential candidate of his own national political party in 1992, Nwoko continued to espouse the centrality of indigenous African cultural and socio-political systems in the making of modern, progressive society.

    As an art student, Nwoko developed a painting style based in part on his adaptation of the palette and colour attitude of the Parisian avant-garde, especially the Fauves, and an idiosyncratic, expressive figuration. By selective disfiguring of facial features, as well as hands and feet, his human figures frequently seem like caricatures and convey a sense of wicked humour, regardless of his subject matter (Beggars on a Train, 1959; Nigeria in 1959, 1960). But unlike in his sculpture (in wood and, more famously, terracotta) and architecture where, in the spirit of natural synthesis, he systematically explored and reinterpreted stylistic elements of Igbo, Edo and ancient Nok art and design, his painting had no such definitive commitment to any particular African artistic tradition. That is, whereas in sculpture he successfully articulated a postcolonial modernist style with an undeniable connection to indigenous Nigerian artistic heritage, in painting his primary concern was the development of a unique mode of pictorial satire.

    On graduating from Zaria in 1961, Nwoko received a nine-month scholarship to study scenography and fresco painting in France. Besides creating stage design for a Mozart piece at the Theatre Lyrique in Vichy, he produced several paintings that were presented in a joint exhibition with Uche Okeke at the Galerie Lambert on Rue Saint-Louis en I'Ile, Paris in May 1962. Among these is the Adam and Eve series, consisting of three paintings featuring a naked black couple surrounded by tropical flora and fauna; and at least two others, including this present work, depicting a European couple in an urban setting. While the first three are ostensibly his version of the biblical Adam and Eve in the primordial garden, the figures are reminiscent Igbo ritual sculpture. Nwoko thus conflates the Judeo-Christian narrative and a figural style associated with Igbo cosmology and aesthetics. In this sense, these paintings—lost since they were shown at the 1966 Festival of Negro Arts, in Dakar—reflect the complex transculturalism implied by the theory of natural synthesis.

    The subject matter of the other two paintings in the Adam and Eve series, one of which is presented here, is quite different. Where the other three might be said to be about the Western and indigenous African contexts of postcolonial subjectivity, this painting is the artist's reflection on his first direct encounter with European urban life. At the middle of the painting Nwoko has placed a fashionably dressed couple in full embrace, the man's right hand disappearing into the woman's coat, their legs entangled, their lips locked, and eyes closed. To their sides are two old androgynous figures, perhaps also a couple, one reading, the other with clasped hands, both seemingly lost in their private worlds. In front, a timorous child clutches a bag, her cold gaze trained on the viewer. These five figures are set against a large wrinkled head with strangely multiple eyes, complicating further any straightforward interpretation of the scene.

    Is this a mere genre scene about life in postwar Paris? Or is it an African visitor's opinionated statement about the paradox of public display of passionate affection and individualist ethos of western urban society? This work, in many ways, is an expression of manifest otherness, a visual commentary on the strange lifeways of the Europeans, and an instantiation of the postcolonial gaze. Here, Nwoko uses a modernist pictorial language to contribute to the widespread folk and popular archive of African representation and imaginings of Europeans, with their "strange" cultures, practices and ideas about community.

    The Adam and Eve series is, arguably, the most consequential set of paintings Nwoko painted as a professional artist. Upon return from Paris in 1962 he focused his energy on wood sculpture and the terracotta works of 1965-1968, with a few paintings in between. By the late 1960s, he turned his attention to architecture for which he would earn international acclaim, effectively ending his already successful painting career.

    We would like to thank Professor Chika O. Okeke-Agulu, Princeton University, for authoring this catalogue entry.
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