Filmmaking is about creating an illusion and Nebo perfected the art of this illusion-making, ensuring the audiences embraced the make-believe. As a wide reader and an observer, he engulfed himself in learning cultures and histories from different parts of the world, all of which aided his world-class creations.
By Seyi Lasisi
The first set of people we meet in Oro, one of the episodes from the critically acclaimed ShowMax drama series, Crime and Justice Lagos (2022), were men performing a religious ritual ceremony. Clad in white cloth wound around their waist and pointed caps, these men, who held rods decorated with speckles of white, exuded the self-assurance of the Orò (a Yoruba deity) priests. For some unfathomable reason, I instinctively know that Pat Nebo is the production designer. Nebo’s work on film sets has a distinct identity which I can immediately recognise since watching the Kunle Afolayan-directed Figurine (2009). When Husseini Shaibu, Nigerian culture critic, announced, on 14, September 2023, the news of Nebo’s passing, after being bedridden for a while, I mourned. I mourned not because I had a personal relationship with him, but because of the realisation that Nigeria has lost its most prominent production designer, who was notable for creating iconic and unforgettable film sets, including ’76, October 1, Figurine, and Phone Swap.
Born in Enugu in 1961, the filmmaker spent his formative years in Italy where he had his formal education. In one interview, he revealed his biographical history detailing his education and career journey. Miles away from Nigeria, Nebo’s first foray into the arts, and appreciation for it came from Italy. At first, studying architecture was a top priority for him. But, during his university days, he segued into arts on the advice of a lecturer. He first built his craft as a painter with an interest in sculpting, and then gradually transitioned into production design. Painting and sculpting laid the foundation for his eventual settling as a production designer. After acquiring a Master’s degree in Decoration, he returned to Nigeria and was billed to start working in a museum or to teach at Yaba College of Technology, in Lagos. His encounter with Nigerian scenic designer Inyang Ema will lead him to begin his career path as a film set designer. Under Ema’s mentor-like tutorship, Nebo created an admirable portfolio working on production sets for television broadcast stations in Nigeria, most notably the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA).
Nebo was passionate about using Nigerian films as an archive of Nigerian history. The sets he created, – elevated with help from the art department – can best be described as a visual archive of Nigerian history. The post-colonial sets he built, such as in films like Izu Ojukwu’s ’76 (2016) and Kunle Afolayan’s October 1 (2014), were often detailed and steeped in the realities and nuances of that fleeting era. His film sets could pass as references for future generations of Nigerians, especially as there is little to no archive and minimal documentation of Nigeria’s history. What was more striking was Nebo’s ability to dominate a set, allowing it to accommodate the historical and cultural nuances of a story. Even with the exposure and influences modernity has had on Nigerian society, his set designs recreate the long-gone (and almost forgotten) cultural and historical details that a film’s setting demands.
While Nebo was prominent behind the scenes with building film sets, he occasionally left the backstage. In 1993, Pat Nebo started his acting stint in Tunde Kelani’s Ti Oluwa Ni Ile (1993) where he played the role of a supervisor on a building site. This role could perhaps have been a metaphor for his supervisory position not just as a production designer, but all through his career in filmmaking. In 2009, he played a marriage register in Kunle Afolayan’s Figurine. In recent memory, viewers of Izu Ojukwu-directed ’76 will recall Colonel Aliu played with admirable ease by Nebo. This short-lived but memorable acting career is an indication of Nebo’s creativity. And it reveals that beyond building film sets, he could act when the situation demands it.
Wilfred Okichie, Nigerian film critic, describes him as a legend. “Pat Nebo is an industry titan. A veteran production designer whose name is synonymous with a lot of productions that have come out of Nollywood in past decades”, Okichie said. Sharing similar admiration for the veteran art director and production designer, Anita Eboigbe, co-founder of In Nollywood, mentioned how passionate Nebo was about his craft and the growth of the Nigerian film industry. “Beyond building sets, you could genuinely feel that Pat Nebo cared about the growth of the Nigerian film industry and he contributed his quota. In situations where there were limited resources, he made sure that things worked”, Eboigbe told me.
During a webinar organised for film students of Pan Atlantic University, Nigeria, he responded to a question about what makes a good production designer. Patience, research, hard work, and leadership traits were qualities he mentioned. At a glance through Nebo’s filmography, it is easy to notice his embodiment of these qualities. His keen eye for minute details and his knack for recreating period drama sets with unsettling accuracy were skills that made him a beloved figure in the Nigerian film industry. Filmmaking is about creating an illusion and Nebo perfected the art of this illusion-making, ensuring the audiences embraced the make-believe. As a wide reader and an observer, he engulfed himself in learning cultures and histories from different parts of the world, all of which aided his world-class creations.
James Kalu Omokwe, director of Diiche (2022) recalls how he was unable to summon the courage to profess his admiration for Nebo’s work during their first encounter. Life will present him another opportunity not just to meet Nebo, but to have him work on Ojuri (2017), an epic short film Omokwe was working on at the time. “The moment we pitched the story to him, he was like a kid in a candy store. He was very excited. He worked with us for two days without payment”, Omokwe fondly recollects. This experience espouses how accommodating Nebo could be for projects he is passionate about.
“Uncle Pat was a very practical man,” Omokwe said, recounting Nebo’s approach to work. “He would always discuss his concepts and build miniature designs to illustrate them. He takes directors through his process. When he is on set, he has a penchant for details”, Omokwe said. Okichie further expands on Omokwe’s sentiment. ” Nebo was the go-to person to make your filmmaking vision possible. When you look at these films (Figurine, October 1, and ’76) you see the immense contribution Nebo has made to filmmaking in Nollywood”, Okichie concluded.
Eboigbe also spoke about Nebo’s long years working in the Nigerian film industry. “His influence and work is cross-generational. He had worked (in the film industry) when Nigeria had almost no investment to this point when there is now more investment and resources. He worked on the big-budget film (Black Book) soon to come out in Nigeria”, Eboigbe enunciates. Black Book, which will be streaming soon on Netflix, is amongst the list of unreleased projects Nebo worked on while alive. Motunrayo Ojo, one of Nollywood’s most passionate cinephiles, had this to say about him, “There was a period in Nigerian filmmaking where I had assumed that every location was sourced for as it looks. But then, Pat’s work always stood out to me. I started taking note of his name after I watched Agogo Eewo (2002). The sets he created looked genuine, lived in – alive. The sets did not look typically ‘staged’ or lazily put together.” Ojo concluded by stating “Say what you may about the stories or direction, but you know the production design stands out greatly.”
To honour Nebo’s passing, and contribution to the Editi Effiong directorial debut Black Book, Netflix released another trailer for the movie, with the words “You may never see me again” constantly surfacing in the trailer. These words capture the permanence of death. It reinforces how temporal humans are. However, great art has been known to defy death. While we may never see Nebo’s accommodating and smiling face again, the films in his portfolio will immortalise him. For filmmakers like Nebo, death is not the end. It’s a transitory phase.
Seyi Lasisi is a Nigerian student with an obsessive interest in Nigerian and African films as an art form. His film criticism aspires to engage the subtle and obvious politics, sentiments, and opinions of the filmmaker to see how it aligns with reality. He tweets @SeyiVortex.