Credits: Folu Oyefeso.

New Culture Studio: A Renaissance for Art and Literature in Ibadan

By: Favour Bamijoko

John Pepper Clark, in his poem, “Ibadan”, described the city as a “running splash of rust and gold-flung and scattered among seven hills like broken China in the sun”. But beyond and beneath the relentless plains of rusty, dusty, corrugated iron sheets and the seven hills of Ibadan, is an immersive culture of arts and literature. In fact, for the movement of art and literature in Nigeria, Ibadan is the nucleus. It was from Ibadan that the flame of art and literature — carried by the finest prometheans and proponents of the form who cut their teeth on the stalk of literature, like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo, Kole Omotoso, J.P Clark —  engulfed every other part of the country.

In his piece, Ibadan: The Cultural Stalk of Literature in Nigeria, Michael Chiedoziem writes, “the point of great occurrences in history have often been named centres of pilgrimage. It is this place of pilgrimage that Ibadan holds, first as one of the centres of modern urbanisation of the Yorùbá nation, and secondly as the stalk of the literati from Nigeria who shaped Africa’s image to the world.”

The exegesis behind the emergence of Ibadan as the forerunner city of Nigeria’s arts and literature is simple. According to diverse accounts, the emergence of Ibadan as a melting pot that pooled together heterogeneous indigenes cutting across different cultural nations is due to the town’s significance as a defence fortress. Many people from across the western part of Nigeria sought refuge within the town. This naturally socialized people from different sociocultural backgrounds, making Ibadan culturally a cross-dimensional cosmopolitan town.

However, the most significant impact benefited from the sitting of the University College, Ibadan, in 1948, which would later become the University of Ibadan, the first university in Nigeria. The impact of this is profound — enterprising individuals from far and near would combine to create a highly intellectual and literary fabric within the city. Amongst these individuals were Ulli Beier, husband to the famous Susanne Wenger, Frank Speed, Ben Enwowu, Isola Ogunsola, Demas Nwoko, to mention a few. And these individuals contributed, in one or many ways, their own quota towards knitting Ibadan into the tenuous fabric of art that it came to be.

From the Black Orpheus, a African-based magazine founded in 1957 by Uliel Beier, to the Mbari theatre troupe founded in 1961 by a venerable posse that consisted of Uliel, Soyinka, Achebe, Okigbo, Bruce Onabrakpeya, Mabel Segun and a significant others, to the Unibadan Masks, Ibadan, as the heartbeat of literary movement, reverberated with artistic force and venues like the New Culture Studio, the Liberty Stadium, the British Library Council Hall and the Cultural Centre, Ibadan and so on, were alive with numerous performances. However, in recent times, the once gushing literary stream, flowing from the heart of Ibadan, has thinned into trickles. Socioeconomic factors, poor management, emigration, poor funding and more have, in connivance, petered out the vibrancy of the artistic force of the town.

However, few enduring institutions and structures from the literary explosion of the middle and late twentieth century in Ibadan still hold out hopes of revival. One of such structural institutions is the New Culture Studio, Ibadan.

Demas Nkwoko: The Protean Artist, Architect and Stage Designer 

Perched at the Mokola hilltop, no. 34, Adeola, Latinwo Close, is the New Culture Studio. Its construction began in 1967, and it was designed by Demas Nwoko, artist, architect and builder.

Born in 1935, in Idumuje Ugboko, Demas Nwoko grew to be a promethean artist. According to him, as at three, he already had a knack and fondness for building structures and architectures. He studied fine arts in Zaria, before he would later move to France, to study theater and stage design.

Demas Nwoko’s style is rooted heavily in the Pan-Africanist approach, although it draws from “modern influence of European art.” Through a combination of diverse African forms, tools and techniques, Nwoko creates and designs artworks that promote ancient African art, particularly the terracotta Nok art. His approach, alongside that of his contemporaries who share similar views, is termed, by himself and his peers, “Natural Synthesis”. His architectural pieces were, on the other hand, equally, a combination of local tools with foreign ideas and influences. For example, his design of Benin City’s Oba Akenzua Theatre, draws profoundly from the Greek and Japanese designs, while still employing traditional forms of local red clay.

A number of architectural and artistic works lie in the trail of this living legend. Some of them are worth mentioning; The Dominican Chapel, Ibadan, the Benedictine Monastery Ewu, Culture Centre, Ibadan, New Culture Studio, Ibadan; while some of his art works include the philosopher, Soja Come Soja Go, Adam and Eve, Mama Tedder, a mural in Tedder Hall, University of Ibadan, amongst others. He is equally a gifted writer with  number of books to his credit. Interestingly, he founded the New Culture Magazine.

The Architectural Intrigue of the New Culture Studio

From its proud height, the New Culture Studio elegantly overlooks the environment of the surrounding lowlands behind it. Behind the studio, the surrounding descends rather steeply into an undulating lowland, with houses densely packed together, within which a tall pentecostal building is located. The panoramic view from the studio pleasantly places the world before your very eyes — buildings, a brief expanse of lush land, network of roads, towering structures scattered here and there with pylons and masts dotting everywhere. This view stretches interminably, and only ends where the skyline embraces the crest of some other hills which you can equally see from where you stand at the studio.

According to Demas Nwoko, the Studio was originally intended as an “art space” and residence. Upon his return from France to Nigeria, to work with the University of Ibadan’s school of drama, he needed a studio for his personal workshop. He began its construction, using local means; clay, laterite and granite. However, the space would be improved and extended to encompass an amphitheatre to aid stage plays, especially for the Mbari troupe, rooms for teaching rooms and a workplace used as “film laboratory”. Asides from the stage plays, dance performances and other artistic works that occurred there, a publishing house which published the New Culture Magazine was also established. Essentially, the studio provided a nest for a sort of medley of art.

In his own words “I had added a film laboratory to the studio complex to facilitate cinematographic study and practice. Thus, over time and through a process of accretion the full complement of facilities needed to practice almost all the creative arts were built in this one location, creating a cultural synthesis among the practitioners of the different art disciplines, due to their continuous intimate interaction in a common work/study environment. I imagined this would eventually crystallize into a harmonious cultural aesthetic.”

The building is a brick-red dual structure that comprises a residential building on one side and the studio on the other side, both connected by a remarkable, tunnel-style bridge. Made of bricks and in some parts of, gravel and granite, it is a load-bearing masonry building. This invention promotes the traditional forms of building construction and, contrary to many beliefs, lends credence to the fact that traditional forms and means (in this context) are not ineffective.

Speaking about the studio, it consists of the amphitheater and other facilities. An amphitheatre is simply a structure that evolved from ancient Greco-Roman history in which a performance area or stage is surrounded by tiered concrete seats. Seats rise in ascending order, backwards. In relation to the New Culture Studio’s amphitheatre, the style is a half amphitheatre as the layered seats do not fully encircle the stage. The aim of an amphitheatre, like that of the New Culture Studio is simple — it allows for unimpeded flow of sound from the stage throughout the theatre. More so the amphitheatre is opened at the top, while the stage is proscenic.

Notably, a large part of the amphitheater is made of concrete and granite. The walls surrounding the amphitheater is a sort of two-storeyed building, giving a viewer a good view of the stage from a different perspective other than from the tiered seats. Although the bricked building is built to stand for decades, natural discoloration has turned some parts of the brick black. Spectacularly, certain sculptural works give an arty-crafty admiration to the environment. A sculpture of a woman kneeling, while nifty ironworks attached to a couple window frames are relics of the immense art invested into the construction of the studio.

It is this enduring structure that has given hope — a prelude of renaissance — to the trickles of art movement that spurts from time to time within the once vibrant town of Ibadan, the vibrancy that transformed it into the heart and epicenter of art movement in Nigeria. The unique architecture and the magnificent outlook of the studio’s environment have made it the fancy of some art or literary-oriented activity in Ibadan. To mention some of these events, the first edition of  Comic Con (Comicon 2023), LitFest 2023, SAO book review by Aremo Gemini, and a few others. In 2022, a Valentine’s Day play, Romeo and Juliet, enacted in Yoruba language was performed at the New Culture Studio, drawing one of the largest crowds ever recorded at the venue.

According to the Studio’s Instagram page, an array of events are scheduled to be held in the course of this month. They are: iThea Valentine Event (14th), Maze of Illusions (17th), IFÁ film screening (24th), Valentine Sitout (25th) and The Artsmith Project (28th).

So much exists within the annals of history of the walls of the New Culture Studio, and much more can be achieved. Undoubtedly, the structure holds out a potential for a more potent re-awakening of art forms and literature within the town. With adequate attention, funding, and support, from both public and private persons, the New Culture Studio will attain a venerable status as a sanctuary for art and artists of all forms and from all around the country. Although magnificent, the building still calls for support and development. For example, the restrooms need to be improved and made functional, the stage and the theatre arena could equally be roofed to give the place protection against the elements, making it viable throughout any season. More so, certain precarious spots around the studio need barricades here, a few replacements of louvers there and,  elsewhere, heavy paintings and more artworks like reliefs and so on. Importantly, the attention of the Oyo State Council for Arts and Culture and the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism should be called to the potentials that reside within the baked brick walls of the New Culture Studio.

Once again, you are standing on the platform outside of the studio; it is night time. you watched the Sun, few minutes ago, swallowed up beyond the horizon; millions of bats flitting overhead all around; glitterings in the night sky reveal stars, billions of miles away, singing their lights to you where you stand on the edge of the studio’s yard, even as you lose yourself in the panoramic glory that a view from the studio places before you.


Credits: Folu Oyefeso.


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