A new master’s house: The architect decolonising Nigerian design

In the Igbo town of Idumuje-Ugboko in southeast Nigeria, artist and architect Demas Nwoko reports to his home office Monday through Friday.

The room is cool, softly lit and furnished with his own hand-built wooden desks, tables and chairs. A selection of Nwoko’s terracotta sculptures is displayed on shelves. Throughout the day, the 84-year-old meets one-on-one with his two young interns, recent architecture school graduates who assist with the logistics of his latest building projects. His feedback and direction are those of an exacting perfectionist, but his serious tone is softened by an easy chuckle.

Outside his two-storey mud-brick home is the community’s only paved road, connecting the town to the capital Abuja in the north and Lagos in the west. A slow but steady stream of residents patronises nearby shops, buying mostly basic food provisions. The farm-based economy here is bolstered by work in Lagos and remittances from abroad.

The African Designs Development Centre, Nwoko’s factory, is the sole industrial venture in town and is under the direction of Nwoko’s son, 54-year-old Ashim, an architect and building contractor. The family hopes to eventually employ workers from the area to manufacture furniture and building components from locally sourced materials to be sold across the country. For now, the workshop is used to build custom parts to supply Demas Nwoko’s building commissions.

Today, Nwoko’s attention is focused on a recent government commission to design the new National Gallery, 415km (258 miles) away in Abuja. His laptop sits next to stacks of notes for his autobiography and a manuscript about his architectural philosophy. His wife beckons repeatedly until he finally allows his work to be interrupted for lunch.

“I’m a realist, a concrete thinker, allergic to wasting effort,” Nwoko says, gazing into the distance as he speaks, as if seeing his vision before him. His now-white beard and afro echo the pattern of white circles on his indigo tie-dye top. He is still a man with much to do as he follows his plan to “keep pushing in my own small corner at what is positive and viable”.

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