Demas Nwoko (Nigerian, born 1935) Children on Cycles

Cycle of life

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 58, Spring 2019

Page 33

In 2018, a lost African masterpiece was found under a bed in Boston. Ben Okri welcomes a new entry to the history of world art

It says something about the state of modern Nigerian art that its masterpieces are emerging from their neglected places, like archeological discoveries. Last year it was Ben Enwonwu's Tutu, now famous as the 'African Mona Lisa'. The painting hadn't been seen in nearly 50 years, and was presumed permanently lost, until it was found in England, in a north London flat, its value unknown by its possessor.

It went on to stun the art world, achieving £1,208,750 at auction at Bonhams – the highest amount paid for an African work of art.

Now another lost masterpiece has been unearthed. Called The Bicyclists, it is by the Nigerian artist Demas Nwoko, and is offered by Bonhams at its first New York sale of Modern and Contemporary African Art in May. This time, it is an American story: the discovery was made in Boston, Massachusetts, and the painting was found, of all unlikely places, under a bed. It was unsigned. It had not been seen since 1961, when it was first exhibited at the Mbari arts festival in Lagos, and the painting now holds a special place in the history of modern African art.

Demas Nwoko is one of the most important of that great generation of artists who played a significant role in the fight for Nigerian independence. But, intriguingly, there is little known about his life. He is reclusive, something of a Salinger figure in African art. To many who know his work, it comes as a surprise to discover that Nwoko is still alive. He left his post as a professor at the University of Ibadan in 1978 to return to his village, and has been there ever since. It was here that I tracked him down. "I spend over a year working on each painting," Nwoko said, when I spoke to him over the phone. "That painting is a draft of my childhood memories. I want to project the aesthetic philosophy of African art."

Demas Nwoko was born in 1935, in Idumuje-Ugboko in Igboland, eastern Nigeria, son of the king of the Idumuje people. He studied art at the College of Art, Science and Technology, which soon became the Zaria School of Art (since incorporated into the Ahmadu Bello University). Along with Uche and Simon Okeke, he was a founding member of the Zaria Art Society. The work that came from these artists is known as the Zaria School, and it gave rise to one of the distinctive movements in modern African art. It emphasized drawing inspiration from the richness of African artistic traditions, while at the same time being aware of and absorbing trends in European modernism. This gave rise to what has been called 'natural synthesis', of which Demas Nwoko is an acknowledged master. The Bicyclists is a signal achievement of this school.

A scholarship took him to Paris, where he studied fresco painting and theater design, and began his fusion of African aesthetics and the French avant-garde.

It must be remembered that the 1950s and early '60s was a time of great flux: independence struggles in Africa, Matisse dead and Picasso in his late great phase, Abstract Expressionism in America, and the Cold War. It was felt by many artists that their art should be part of the historic struggle for independence, and this meant the dimming of Western influences in their work, foregrounding African aesthetics instead.

Nwoko's work fulfills this impulse, but goes far beyond it. The absorption of diverse strands of European modernism into a solid traditional African base gave his art both its particularity and its universality.

He is the Renaissance man among Nigerian artists. He founded the journal New Culture, stood as a presidential candidate, is a teacher, theater director and set designer, sculptor and architect.

There is a telling story of when Nwoko was young and needed a studio for his work. Having no funds by which to acquire one, he proceeded to build his studio using all the materials he could find – branches, stones, laterite, earth. The house he made swiftly gained a reputation and from it was born the architecture of African forms and found African materials.

Nwoko went on to design theaters, churches, cultural centers, plaques and even a scepter for the coronation of his brother, now the king. The startling efficacy of his theatrical imagination was first seen in his designs for Amos Tutuola's tall tale The Palm-Wine Drinkard, much admired by Dylan Thomas, and in A Dance of the Forests, an early great play by Wole Soyinka, the first African winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Nwoko's early sculpture received a magical impetus from archeology itself, having been consciously influenced by the then-recent discovery of the Iron Age Nok sculptures. This single fact alone earthed his sculptures in an ancient African tradition as mysterious as Etruscan art. This was a case of African art doing a Picasso on itself, the pelican feeding on its own bloodstream, effecting new nourishment.

The paintings of Demas Nwoko, however, are rare and few. There is the reverse exoticism of Adam and Eve, a series of paintings that shows a couple entwined in a conjugal moment, betraying nothing of its African origin. Other paintings show the range of his internationalism: Rickshaw Ride, with its magenta and ochres; Metro Ride, with its deflected hint of a Renaissance altarpiece, its diffuse blues, and the incidental figures of patriarchs on either side of the kissing couple; the brightly lit background of the gently Afro-Fauvist Indian Woman in Sari; Ambush, making its darkly sinister hints of war or some colonial exorcism; and the series called Senegalese Women, which more fruitfully conforms to the Pan-Africanist aesthetic that also defines that momentous generation. His paintings display a versatile eclecticism, distilled into a unique voice or tone. Yet among them, The Bicyclists has a special place.

It was discovered in the house of the descendants of David Kingsley. He was head of the Ford Foundation in Africa, and was called on to help set up the civil service in Nigeria between 1958 and 1962, so that the country could be run smoothly when the British left. Kingsley had a keen interest in African art, and acquired The Bicyclists in 1961 at the Mbari exhibition, bringing it back with him to Boston on completion of his epochal mission.

Here the story takes a turn that history loves. Going through items found under a bed in a room that hadn't been used for some time, David's family came upon a painting, and called in representatives from Bonhams. Now 83 years old and slightly deaf, the artist was contacted. Nwoko verified the painting as his masterpiece, missing since 1961.

The Bicyclists is a painting of magical detail, with a tragic penumbra. Against the background of an ochre road, four children on three bicycles ride into the swerve of an oncoming lorry. The children are seen from behind, from above, and only a portion of the bumper of the lorry is visible. The circle of the lorry's headlight mirrors the circle of the wheel of the bicycle that is beginning to turn away from an almost certain collision. This is a painting about the moment before, a still life of a smash just about to happen. If it weren't for its unmistakable tones, the curves, the radiant muddy color of the lorry's bumper, and the anonymity of the heads, it might almost summon up the ghost of de Chirico. This is a painting that has dissolved its African-ness into a universal figuration, without losing anything of the uniqueness of its origins.

But what is the nature of this prefigured collision? What is the grim parable of the crash foretold? The vehicle about to hit the children is faceless. No driver is seen. It is an implacable machine bent on an impending tragedy. The fragility of the children is emphasized by their anonymity and by the slender forms of their bicycles. Could this be the parable of the collision of modernity with tradition, was it a foreshadowing of the Nigerian Civil War, or is it an apotheosis of the myth of the road, whose thirst is appeased only by the blood of sacrifice? The ambiguity of the painting is part of its suspended tragic pathos.

The discovery of this painting under a bed in Boston – and of Tutu in a London flat – are themselves symbolic. For too long, the achievements of modern African art have not been given their rightful place in the art books and museums. There ought to be a new timeline of art, in which Tutu exists alongside Picasso's Seated Woman of 1960, and The Bicyclists dwells with Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. These new discoveries of African art are poised to alter the artistic landscape of our times.

Ben Okri's latest novel is The Freedom Artist (Head of Zeus, 2019).

Sale: Modern and Contemporary African Art
New York
Thursday 2 May at 2pm
Enquiries: Giles Peppiatt +44 (0) 20 7468 8355
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