Demas Nwoko: The imperative quest for ‘Concrete Thinking’

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By Ayodele Arigbabu

DEMAS Nwoko should need no introduction – a consummate artist, cultural producer and designer, whose life mission has been for real independence in Nigeria’s journey as a nation state, as expressed in the definition and redefinition of her national orientation through her cultural output. Nwoko’s generation it was who were handed the nation as young adults and had the first go at shaping her as they deemed fit right from the decade of the nation’s independence from colonial rule.

From his trajectory through the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, Zaria (now Ahmadu Bello University) where he studied Fine Art and contributed as a leading light in one of the most significant art movements in Nigeria’s art history – the Natural Synthesis movement – driven by the so-called Zaria Rebellion, to his illustrious multidisciplinary career as a painter, sculptor, set designer, lecturer in Dramatic Arts at the University of Ibadan, and subsequent robust output as an architect and builder, his contributions to nation building through his creative output and his philosophies, as concretized in his signature philosophy and practice under the New Culture brand, has been well documented over the years in journals, magazines and festschrifts, and has now been brought together in a comprehensive tome, for the first time, in Concrete Thinking.

In Concrete Thinking, the author writes with measured language that is at once accessible and clear in intent. This clarity serves his purpose of universal understanding in pursuit of wide adoption of his ideas and recommendations. Concrete Thinking is unapologetically didactic. Nwoko is a teacher and social reformer and nowhere is this manifested as forcefully as in this book that encapsulates the cogent lines of thought validated and refined over decades. Concrete Thinking is also unapologetically repetitive. With twenty essays aggregated over seven decades advocating on essentially the same subject, this repetition is as inevitable as it is intentional, repetition after all, is one of the key aids to learning. The repetition, however, lies in the central thesis that underpins the entire book, which each essay buttresses from different perspectives. Concrete Thinking therefore remains nonetheless effervescent with the author’s ability as a natural story teller to marshall his thoughts in compelling ways.

tWhat then is the central theme that the book is concerned with? In my estimation, it is an amalgam of three main interconnected considerations that underpin Nwoko’s worldview and that have driven his work. We shall have the author guide us copiously in his own words as we delve in.

Concrete thinking,” he writes, “like other thought processes, is generally a creative proposition that emanates from the natural wondering of the mind which is harnessed and developed for application in real life. More often than not, most thoughts do not mature to a stage that metamorphose into actual realities, because as we will say, they are not ‘thought-through.’ There lies the difference between general thinking and concrete thinking, because concrete thinking is a thought process that must end in practical reality, be it physical or philosophical. This is what I refer to in my New Culture Philosophy as one process that amalgamates ‘thinking and tinkering’ to qualify as thinking that is thought-through, which generates viable human development.”

In the author’s characteristic manner of maintaining consistency between thought and action, he reveals that “…most of my essays were written to provide cultural background studies to the subject, usually delivered to my potential clients to intimate them with the idiomatic language of the project, often citing universal precedence to assure them that they are on familiar ground of cultural continuity. Example was the case with the paper ‘Art in Religion’ which preceded the Dominican Monastery Project, and ‘The Search for an African Theatre’ which gave birth to Benin Culture Centre and my Performing Arts Project. It is this approach that typifies concrete thinking. This is a thought pattern that does not end up in the realm of fantasies but is advanced to a point at which they become physical realities. This means that a graphic design cannot metamorphose into physical existence until it is built.”

If thinking and tinkering describe two of the pillars that define Nwoko’s worldview, the third would be cultural alignment. The three work tightly together, with cultural alignment defining the context within which thinking needs to happen, thinking defining what tinkering needs to happen and tinkering in turn affecting and feeding back into cultural alignment and thinking, the three spokes keeping the wheel Nwoko aptly named New Culture spinning.

Every compelling story has its central conflict, and in Concrete Thinking, the central conflict is made manifest in clear terms in the introduction: “Trouble started with the invasion of one culture on another,” writes Nwoko, “….The colonial education system which was situated away from the traditional home environment, thus alienated from its cultural essence, became out of reach to the entire society.”

This disconnect frames the entirety of the conflict the author tries to resolve throughout the three sections of Concrete Thinking, by advocating for culturally aligned thinking and tinkering, starting with the first chapter of the first section, which begins with a broad exploration of the dynamics of artistic production and the socio-cultural and economic influences and effects thereof, from the pre-colonial to the post-colonial era, taking us briskly through how decorated household utensils and family totems ceded ground to touristic art as artists sought new ways to earn a living in the face of the cultural and economic upheavals that came with the colonial experience.

Nwoko writes as someone who is deeply involved in the subject he discusses and aptly illustrates with examples from his own practice on how he approached art production within the economic, technological and social constraints of his time and era, while staying true to his firmly held beliefs in the need for art to be primarily driven by indigenous cultural, social and ecological dynamics. This bias rings through in subsequent chapters that dwell on art in religion, African theatre, art as a driver of the national economy and national development, art in architecture and design and children’s art; undertaking fairly elaborate treatises on each subject and extolling in each chapter the need for thinking and building from first principles, as the sure bet route to self-reliance and national development.

Ever critical, however, of lost opportunities and stifled national growth that he finds traceable to the faltering early and subsequent steps in art education as symptomatic of the larger malaise that has plagued the Nigerian state, Nwoko takes a self-critical look at his own generation, acknowledging the opportunities they had, the chances they missed and the role they played in the evolving Nigerian story.

Beyond the aforementioned central conflict of cultural imperialism, Concrete Thinking also emphasizes the need for creative thinking to be applied in production rather than only in theoretical expressions – the aforementioned thinking and tinkering. In the author’s words, “If as a country, we are of ancient civilization….. and we acquired good world education, then came the oil boom and money was no problem, why did we fail to develop? There is an ability missing and that missing link is applied creativity.”

In the same vein, he goes on to warn: “Our industries will remain in the woods until it admits the activities of indigenous creative designers into its product development process. Production industries based on foreign designs and licenses, leave us in the economic trap of the industrially developed world.”

He further advocates: “We should carry away with us a New Culture slogan which says: ‘For our survival, create something today, anything’! If your inventions look like the product of an eccentric dream today, take heart, for it might turn out to be the life-line of tomorrow.”

As simplistic as this may seem, it is this mindset that has manifested in Nwoko’s long-established career of thinking and tinkering in multiple spheres of creative pursuit.

At the tail end of his 9th decade, Nwoko has presented future generations with a comprehensive love letter in Concrete Thinking. The collection of essays will prove an invaluable compass to different generations of practicing artists, designers, educators, cultural policy formulators, art historians, students in the creative industries, and other culture workers desirous of charting a sustainable and impactful course in their endeavours. I therefore heartily commend the book to one and all even as I salute Pa Demas for his fortitude and unwavering intellectual vision, and for standing as a bastion for all these decades, for the revitalization of our creative and national spheres through solid concrete thinking and tinkering.

And he is not done yet, Concrete Thinking is only the first horse in a new set of books to bolt out of his stables, to be closely followed by his autobiography, his book of design parameters for the field of architecture and building construction and his book on African theatre production. The phenomenon called Nwoko is indeed a gift that keeps on giving.

* Arigbabu, an architect, designer, artist, writer, is the editor of futuristic short stories, Lagos 2060

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