Demas Nwoko (Nigerian, born 1935) Children on Cycles

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Lot 6
Demas Nwoko
(Nigerian, born 1935)
Children on Cycles

Sold for US$ 225,075 inc. premium
Demas Nwoko (Nigerian, born 1935)
Children on Cycles
signed twice 'NWOKO D NWOKO DEMAS' (verso)
oil on board
121.9 x 91.4cm (48 x 36in).


  • Provenance
    Acquired at the Mbari Exhibition in Nigeria by J. Donald Kingsley (Head of the Ford Foundation's program in Africa), circa 1961;
    By direct descent;
    A Private Collection, USA.

    Mbari Arts Festival, Lagos, 1961.

    The influential Nigerian painter, sculptor, architect and designer, Demas Nwoko (b. 1935), was a leading member of the Art Society, established by students in the art program of the Nigerian College of Art, Science and Technology, Zaria (1958-61). This group, along with their peers in literature, theatre, music constituted a postcolonial modernist vanguard in Nigeria in the early 1960s. Convinced that a new art appropriate for Nigerian and African political independence must combine indigenous and western modernist aesthetics, forms and processes, this generation of artists set about creating spaces—such as the now-legendary journal Black Orpheus and the Mbari Writers and Artists Club, Ibadan—for the production and discourse of Nigerian and African modernism. After Zaria and Mbari, Nwoko established his own New Culture Studios in Ibadan, and the late 1970s founded the journal New Culture, which he dedicated to the promotion of African cultural and socio-political systems as the bases of modern, progressive society. When in 1992 he became presidential candidate of his own national political party, and ran on the platform of culture as foundation for national development.

    Nwoko's protean imagination found expression across many artistic genres. Besides making his mark as a painter, his sculpture in wood in the early 1960s and terracotta (1965-68) earned him critical acclaim. After studying scenography and theatre design in France and Japan between 1961 and 1963, he established the theatre arts program at the University of Ibadan, and designed stage sets for important plays by Wole Soyinka, J. P. Clark and other leading Nigerian dramatists; and in 1967 he designed and began construction of his New Culture Studios, the first of his many buildings now recognized as international architectural landmarks. However, his career as a painter and sculptor effectively ended in the late 1960s, overtaken by his turn to architecture, design and publishing. As a result, compared to his Zaria peers—Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya and Jimo Akolo, and Yusuf Grillo—his painting corpus is limited to a few dozen works.

    As an art student, Nwoko developed a painting style based in part on his adaptation of the palette and colour attitudes of the Parisian avant-garde, especially les fauves, and an idiosyncratic, expressive figuration. The quirky rendering of disfigured facial features and limbs, make his human figures frequently seem like caricatures and convey a sense of wicked humour, whether or not he takes on political subject matter (Nigeria in 1959, 1960) or genre themes (Adam and Eve / Metro Ride, 1962). But unlike in his sculpture and architecture where he systematically explored and reinterpreted stylistic elements of Igbo, Edo and ancient Nok art and design, his painting had no such sympathy or commitment to any specific Nigerian or African artistic tradition. Whereas in sculpture he developed 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.

    Children on Cycles is arguably one of Nwoko's finest paintings. Produced in his last year at Zaria, when he painted some of his most memorable work, it was featured in the artist's joint exhibition with his close friend and Art Society colleague Uche Okeke at Mbari in July 1961. Organized by the influential critic and Black Orpheus founder Ulli Beier, the exhibition was historic being the first of many notable shows by Beier presenting important modern international artists, including Ibrahim El Salahi, Susanne Wenger, Skunder Boghossian, Malangatana Ngwenya, Jacob Lawrence, William H. Johnson, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Naoko Matsubara. J. Donald Kingsley, then of the Ford Foundation, bought this painting from that Ibadan exhibition.

    Children on Cycles captures the distinctive qualities of Nwoko's early 1960s pictorial style and thematic focus. During his last years in Zaria, he seemed to have turned from an expressive, painterly style represented by Beggars on a Train (1959) toward an increasingly flat, highly stylized figurative mode (White Fraternity, 1960). But even as he worked out these painting problems, he and his classmates, Okeke and Onobrakpeya, seemed to have settled, in their final year, on painting scenes with a remarkably similar color sensibility. Children on Cycles for instance shares with Okeke's Jumaa (1961) the same limited palette dominated by a featureless and non-perspectival red field in which the drama of quotidian life plays out.

    A keen observer of ordinary life and unremarkable events, Nwoko here depicts three girls out in the street with their bicycles. Typical of his sense caustic of humour, the girls seem to walk rather than ride their cycles; even the girl to the left pushes hers forward with a playmate firmly seated at the back. They might be kids on the move, but they seem to go nowhere, their path blocked by a dark truck the front grill of which resembles the teeth of a menacing beast. Nwoko here juxtaposes the children's carefree play with perilous confrontation of machine and life; but with the bodies of the girls fused and entwined with the cycles' strangely anthropomorphic frames, he also insinuates the human dependence on technology.

    We are grateful to Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu for his assistance in the preparation of the above catalogue entry.
Demas Nwoko (Nigerian, born 1935) Children on Cycles
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