Ben Enwonwu’s impact on post-colonial African Art was nothing short of revolutionary. His life and work were a bridge between traditional conceptions of African art, and contemporary interpretations of what it means to be an African artist within a global community.
It was an exclusive exhibition of the Royal Society of British Artists in London in November of 1957 and a bushy-haired man from the Colony of Nigeria was showing Queen Elizabeth II around a larger-than-life bronze statue of her. This was an unusual sight in the 1950s: the young English queen and an African talking closely about a large piece of art—the queen herself cast in immutable bronze. What could have brought them together?
The journey to the event of the unveiling of that bronze sculpture began in 1956 when the queen visited Nigeria, then a British colony. On the request of the Nigerian government, she commissioned a sculpture from the leading African artist of the time, Ben Enwonwu. Before then, no African artist had ever received such a commission; it was seen as the final act of goodwill and solidarity between the queen and the people of Nigeria. Enwonwu, whose reputation had risen astronomically through the 1940s and 1950s, built on a novel fusion of European and African artistic techniques, took to the task with seriousness. Here was a chance to express the thoughts and feelings of the Nigerian people on the most recognizable figure of British imperialism.
From March 1957, the queen sat for Enwonwu at a studio inside Buckingham Palace. He spent an hour everyday sketching and modeling with clay in the studio. As the work matured, he moved to a studio in Maida Vale, West London, owned by William Reid Dick, the ‘sculptor in ordinary’ for Scotland. In this new studio, the queen sat on four more occasions before the work was completed. The completed sculpture captured the queen in a regal posture; the sculptor moved away from the standard European academicism; he left the folds of the figure’s flared garments vague, for instance, but infused the face with a beatific expression marked by subtle African features. In the view of Enwonwu’s biographer, Sylvester Ogbechie, ‘[Enwonwu] reworked the queen’s physical features using forms derived from his experiments in sculpture.’
The sculpture was unveiled in Nigeria on the 5th of November 1959 at the fifth session of the parliament. For the then governor-general, James Robertson, and the colonial authorities in Nigeria, it was a mark of British dominance and civilizing power. For both Ben Enwonwu and Africa, it was the culmination of a moment in which power was being returned to those from whom it had been taken—power of representation, of self-expression, of independence.
BIRTH OF A VIRTUOSO
Odinigwemmadu Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu was born on the 14th of July, 1917 into the family of a high chief and royal artisan in Onitsha, a riverside town of people who had returned from the ancient Benin Empire centuries before. His father, embracing a spiritual obligation that trailed the family lineage, carved drums, wooden staffs, and figurines for the shrines at Ojedi and Ite Ofe. As a child, Enwonwu’s knowledge of his father’s craft was vague, but he was always self-absorbed when he played in the sand, making patterned scratches that, on closer look, became pictorial representations of the natural world around him. His father’s sudden death when he was only four brought Enwonwu closer to the artistic heritage that surrounded him. He took up his father’s tools and, with a natural skill that belied his age, began to make his own carvings.
Enwonwu’s primary education was itinerant and spent between Onitsha, Umuahia, Port Harcourt, and Ibusa. In 1933, he enrolled in Government College, Ibadan, where he met Kenneth C. Murray. Murray, who had come to Nigeria in 1927 as an art instructor (he would later become Nigeria’s first surveyor of antiquities, a position now known as Director General of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Antiquities) would play a significant role in Enwonwu’s artistic development. He taught Enwonwu at Government College, Ibadan, and later at Government College, Umuahia, where Enwonwu completed his secondary schooling in 1937.
Alongside Enwonwu, Murray nurtured a set of gifted students, including C.C Ibeto, A.P. Umana, D.L. Nnachi, and. M. Teze—The Murray Group,’ Ogbechie calls them in his biography. Murray introduced Enwonwu to the European technique of visual representation. Enwonwu studied the different European ideological art movements, trying out styles and receiving feedback. Occasionally, Murray would organize mini exhibitions in which he displayed some of students’ best works. Murray held an exhibition at the Zwemmer Gallery in London in 1937, where Enwonwu’s work was singled out for praise by the viewers and artists. Critics thought the work of the unknown artist were accomplished studies in the expressionist mode. Murray’s exhibition—perhaps the first real public approbation of an artistic talent he himself had acknowledged with some scruples—affirmed Enwonwu’s belief in the path he had chosen for himself. Those were perhaps the same scruples that caused Murray to resign from his post at the Government College Umuahia, after Enwonwu, still only 20 years old, was offered a post as art instructor at the school and placed on the same salary as his more experienced colleagues. Murray protested what he considered a rash decision and, upon being ignored, resigned his post.
Enwonwu moved from Umuahia to other government schools in Calabar, Ikot Ekpene, and Benin City between 1937 and 1944. The peripatetic life he found himself living as an art teacher under the colonial administration was something of a boon to him, for he often found himself face to face with physical and cultural novelties. He studied the cultures he came across with an artist’s eye for the unusual. In Benin, where he taught at Edo College, he was fascinated by the bronze sculptures in the town and festivals around the royal palace (which he would later capture in his painting The Court of the Oba of Benin); he noted the baroque details of the bronze heads and the heavy clear-cut lines of the miniatures. During the day he apprenticed himself to the bronze artisans in the town; in his spare time, he worked on a number of paintings. By 1944, Enwonwu had made enough new works for an exhibition that was held in Lagos. It was his first solo exhibition and not only introduced him to an enthusiastic new audience, but resulted in his being awarded a scholarship to the Slade School of Fine Arts in London.
THE ARTIST’S RESISTANCE
In 1944, three years after the blitz of World War II, London was a shadow. Terrors plagued the city night and day. There were concrete ruins, makeshift hospitals,￼￼ prone and agile soldiers, top-heavy skies droning endlessly with aircraft, incessant rocket attacks, constant war news, and hordes of petrified people clutching at hope with desperation. Enwonwu went to school during the day; at night he cowered and tossed in bed, his sleep broken by the thunder of rockets falling ever-so-often on vulnerable London.
He was relieved when the Slade School of Fine Arts moved to the Ruskin School, University of Oxford in 1945. In Oxford he was freer to walk the streets. In the aftermath of World War II, he had often found himself in unpleasant situations with white people. According to Nkiru Nzegwu, the Black people he met moved with the slow, deliberate, inoffensive steps of the emasculated. He began work on a wood sculpture titled, Boy, in which he tried to recreate the moody face of an African boy, his hopes and aspirations etched on the coarse features of the face. The sculpture was Enwonwu’s defiant reaction to the white hostility he encountered daily. He graduated from Slade with a first-class diploma in 1947 and spent the next year doing postgraduate work in anthropology, with a focus on West African Ethnography.
Upon his return to Nigeria in 1948, Enwonwu took on the role of art adviser to the Nigerian government, a position that transmuted to the role of cultural adviser in the 1960s. The late 1940s to the 1950s was a whirlwind period of activities and engagement for Enwonwu. Apart from numerous private commissions, Enwonwu held exhibitions in New York, London, Milan, Lagos, Washington DC and other cities across Europe and America. His rising fame and acclaim as an artist of international repute culminated in his being awarded the Nigerian National Merit award in 1954 and the British MBE in 1958.
As Nigeria’s independence approached, Enwonwu began to forge a worldview that centralized the beauty of African culture, devising a new visual language that reflected his wide and variegated influences. In the body of the African women he drew, he espoused a love for the black race buoyed by Négritude (several of his paintings in the Negritude series are so inspired); what he saw in Africa was a renascent race, filled with brio and optimism, in charge of its own starling destiny. His paintings in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s were expressions of this optimism. Nigerian Symphony, his 1964 painting, expresses these feelings in its capturing of Nigeria’s diverse ethnic faces in contiguous white and yellow brushes of unity and hope.
Enwonwu’s interest in African and Igbo spirituality began to exert an influence on his art from the early 1940s with his painting Moonlight Masquerade (1943), which shows the midnight emergence of Igbo masquerades. The tone of the painting is generally macabre, evoking the fear that attends such events (Achebe captures this ambiance in the tenth chapter of Things Fall Apart, in which egwugwu masquerades of Umuofia emerge at night to sit as arbiters of the law). Enwonwu painted in series, replicating the same themes over the years. His Agbogho Mmuo series featured bold depictions of a world at once removed from what was considered modernity; it spoke of traditions, ancient beliefs, and an Igbo worldview that catered to the veneration of ancestral spirits. The figurative language of the paintings of Agbogho Mmuo (maiden masquerade) in different dancing postures shows the nature of masquerades in Igbo cosmology and their link to spirit possession. The stylized states of the figures—with paint brushes showing movement and mild levitation—appears to be in conversation with his paintings in the Africa Dances series.
Enwonwu’s project seems to have been a quest to find a middle point in which the European techniques he had learned could meet with his beliefs and identity as an African. He sought to plumb the unknown African spiritual realm. Ogbanje, the Ghosts of Tradition (1976) and the Ogolo series, which he painted into the 1980s and 1990s, are other depictions of Igbo cosmology. His interest in traditional African religious beliefs reached its peak in the painting, Crucified Gods Galore (1968), which seems to merge bizarre surrealist symbolism with bold expressionism—a daring work in a long oeuvre littered with such blatant exhibitions of the African world. According to Enwonwu, the inspiration for this kind of art comes from:
the spiritual realm of African art, the hierarchy of the gods, the psychic significance and the veneration, the way we carve images in order to express our hopes and personify our desires in terms of sculpture, the mystical awareness of the carver, the spiritual world of the trees and animals, and the belief in the existence of a soul in inanimate objects.
In 1954, Enwonwu began work on Anyanwu, one of the most defining sculptures of his career and the ultimate statement in his desire to show the symbols of the Igbo spirituality in which he was brought up. Anyanwu shows the Igbo earth goddess, Ani, rising from the earth towards the sun, in a movement that symbolized the awakening of Africa on the brink of independence from colonial powers. On the symbol, Enwonwu said, ‘In our rising nation, I see the forces embodied in womanhood; the beginning, and then, the development and flowering into the fullest stature of a nation.’ He further described the sculpture as ‘spiritual in conception, rhythmical in movement and three dimensional . . . these qualities are characteristic of the sculpture of my ancestors.’ The original sculpture was used to mark the opening of the National Museum in Lagos in 1956. Further versions created by Enwonwu were donated by Nigeria in 1966 to the United Nations in New York, where it still stands, and to Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh by President Shehu Shagari in 1981.
Enwonwu’s sculptures from the late 1970s through the 1980s were also influenced by spirituality and womanhood—figures with bodies twisted into sinuous trancelike shapes showing motion and suspended activity. His sculptures were powerful depictions of selfhood, spirituality, Black pride and hope. Enwonwu’s sculpted human figures exhibit the corporeality of mutable life; the spirits figures were nondescript and formless in the way that only spirits can be. The sculpture, Nkatamuo, expresses a fusion of the Igbo concept of chi and ikenga; the chi is the guardian spirit of an individual and the ikenga is the power of manhood. Enwonwu’s intent here seems to be human survival, for in Igbo cosmology no man can survive the onslaught of the cruel world without his chi and ikenga.
Enwonwu had a wide range of influences across the modernist art world. In some of his paintings, there is an intimation of Christopher Wood, Paul Cezanne and Edouard Manet; in others there is a bold representation of African traditional art and culture, its depth, its character, and its spirituality. His paintings of landscapes seem to follow directly from his interest in the rustic way of life in the African hinterlands. Many of those outdoor paintings of forests and village life, landscapes, and scenes—including Nekede Village Market Owerri (1949), Waterside Scene (1950), Owo Market (1949), Cotton Trees (1949), Woman on a Forest Path (1949), Forest Path (1951), A Path Through the Forest (1943), Fishermen (1944)—were done in the tradition of impressionism, expressing general moods, weather, and ambiance by focusing on little details in the play of light and the evanescent glow of vibrant colors. Fishermen is particularly arresting in how Enwonwu managed to capture the busyness of a scene on an African beach and the grueling life of fishermen.
WAR AND NEGRITUDE
During the Biafran War, and immediately after, Enwonwu’s paintings took on a hopeful or gloomy tone as his moods vacillated, chronicling the dark and the beautiful in a compressed and cruel world of war and pain. He captured the sadness he experienced during the war in the imagery of weather. Ututu: Morning Meeting of Chiefs at Old Asaba (1970) shows a remote Biafran village moving about their normal life shielded by huge trees; there are titled men in red caps, women and children in the background; the weather is bright and light filters through the cocoon of trees. There is no sign of war anywhere. Storm over Biafra (1972) illustrates the intractable grimness of those desperate times. In the background of the painting, a storm rages with violence; the weather is dark and foreboding. In the foreground, nothing is definite except the crucible of pain and destruction.
In the 1970s, after the end of the war, Enwonwu held a number of public positions. He was a visiting artist at the Institute of African Studies, Howard University, in 1971, and became the first professor of Fine Arts at the University of Ife, Ile-Ife, (now Obafemi Awolowo University), holding the position until 1975. In 1977, he was the art consultant to the international secretariat of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Lagos. These positions, and others, allowed him to exert his influence on Nigerian and African art. A veritable aspect of Enwonwu’s artistic sensibility is his insistence on the organic aspects of African life; ergo, his preference for painting scenes of life far removed from urban drudgery.
A good part of Enwonwu’s philosophy was marked by the Negritude Movement. The series of paintings titled Negritude were direct results of this sensibility. On how he incorporated Negritude into his art, Enwonwu said:
We, the artists, more or less drank from the fruits . . . I went to my home at Onitsha and began to use some of the traditional dances—particularly the dance movements and the colors—as a basis for representation. The essence of my own Negritude was particularly characterized in the movement of dancing figures . . . in the beauty of black women. My Negritude is shown in Black forms because at that time in London, Black beauty was an essential and recognized image of the movement.
There is Princes of Mali, which he painted in 1976. The ‘princes’ in the painting are symbols for chivalrous African ancestors, same as Senghor’s ‘princes of Elissa.’ In Enwonwu’s painting, the elongated limbs of the male figures, interlinked as they were in freedom and brotherhood, projects a pan-African worldview.
Enwonwu’s Africa Dances series and his single portraits are the physical projections of his interest in celebrating African culture and womanhood. In the mid-1940s, while still a student in England, he had picked up a book by Geoffery Gorer titled Africa Dances. After reading the book, he set up his easel and started painting dancing figures. In the dance paintings, he sought to capture the spirit rather than substance of dance—a recourse to the heady essence of African dance as a communion between the living and the dead, which explains why some of the figures appear in abstracted forms. The physical dimensions of these paintings merged muted hues and lustrous colors. Enwonwu’s individual portraits of real-life models continue the celebration of beauty and mysticism. In the head paintings, there seems to be a kind of cultural chronicle—a way to capture both the time and the cultural countenance of the figures. The best ones—Hausa Boy (1949), Fulani Girl (1962), Girls in Waiting (1959)—show these features and more. Others such as Regina (1953), Sefi (1953), Girl with Blue Headscarf (1953) are veritable sleights of hand—triumphs of proportion, color, and mood.
Enwonwu’s Negritude has received criticism from some quarters, most significantly from renowned American artist of Igbo origin, Olu Oguibe, in his 1989 thesis, ‘The Image of Woman in Contemporary Nigerian Art.’ Oguibe’s argument was that ‘Enwonwu’s “celebration” of the female figure (or indeed the female) was very much in the romantic tradition of celebrating or deifying women and womanhood while at the same time ignoring the reality of women’s lives in an increasingly repressive and violent patriarchal society.’ It is interesting, Oguibe tells me, that Enwonwu was the odd proponent of Negritude among Anglophone African intellectuals of the mid-to-late 20th century.
Oguibe also points out what he believes is Enwonwu’s misrepresentation of the Anyanwu deity as a female figure, whereas the deity is male. He believes that Enwonwu’s art did not rise above the ‘genre category’ of his early teacher, Murray, because he mostly stuck to representations of village life. ‘Enwonwu’s later mythical sculptures like Shango and Anyanwu sought to rise above that,’ he says, though he was unsuccessful in Anyanwu. Perhaps there is something innovative in Enwonwu’s ‘misrepresentation.’ In his biography of Enwonwu, Ogbechie painstakingly explains Enwonwu’s motives and motifs, countering Oguibe’s critique.
In the early 1970s, Enwonwu painted a further series of female portraits, the most famous being Tutu, a three-portrait representation of an Ife princess named Tutu, noted for its quiet power and beauty. In the 2019, one of the portraits resurfaced after years of being lost and was sold for £1.2 million, which till date, remains the one of the biggest prizes fetched by a piece of African art. His 1971 painting of Christine (titled eponymously), the American wife of a Nigerian who lived in Lagos, is similar in style, countenance and construction to Tutu—capturing the face of a dignified and regal figure, with an enigmatic smile playing at the corners of the lips. Resurfacing years later in 2020, it would be sold for 1.4 million pounds. These auspicious sales, more than anything in recent memory, show how relevant and highly valued the artist’s work has remained.
ENWONWU AND MODERN AFRICAN ART
Though it must be noted that these recent record sales are not signs of belated recognition, as some might think, for in his time Enwonwu commanded widespread respect. In the years since his death in 1994, Enwonwu’s influence on modern African art has continued to spread, most tellingly in his homeland. In the words of artist and culture curator John Eni-Ibukun, Enwonwu ‘opened the door for modern African art to receive international recognition.’ Africa’s most influential artist of the twentieth century prevails in the abstract tableaux of modern art, where beauty and performance are subjective. At the vanguard of the subjective modern mind is the dilemma of functionality and all its related economic implications.
Expressing these concerns, Abayomi Folaranmi, postgraduate student of comparative literature and art history, says of Enwonwu: ‘He is a master of placing the human figure in archetypal situations, a master of reification.’ Folaranmi believes that Enwonwu’s best work is found in his sculptures. ‘His marvelous wood carvings constitute the perfect synthesis of his modernist sensibility with his initial training in classical Igbo wood sculpture. His carved and modeled heads are immaculate and refined. Nonetheless, his efforts in painting, compared to his genius sculpture, lacked luster. Maybe my distaste is influenced by the proliferation of his many inferior imitators in Nigeria.’ Folaranmi is also not convinced of the purpose of Enwonwu’s statue of Queen Elizabeth II: ‘he captured something of the resolve and grace in Elizabeth’s constitution, but I prefer to turn a blind eye to works in service of the Empire,’ Folaranmi told me.
The dilemma of the modern African artist, Folaranmi says, is that his legacy might become determined by questions of economics and purchasing power. ‘We must always be wary of that pesky cult of genius,’ he explains, ‘which may prevent us from engaging critically and productively with artworks and their creators, and the social and political contexts in which they were bodied forth. In Enwonwu’s case, there is a certain cynical feeling that his appeal to auctioneers, the reason he fetches big bucks and press attention, is that his works constitute period pieces; a nice safe way to signal an interest in non-antique African art and which conforms to Western liberalism. The worth of an African artist (or any artist) should not be determined by their cash value as estimated by auction houses.’ Luckily, Enwonwu’s legacy goes beyond the status symbol of wealthy collectors. What his art represents is a projection of the modern African identity.
Enwonwu’s world is an ideal of his beliefs and philosophies; in his artistic vision, the natural and the supernatural are complementary. To confront his paintings and sculptures is to confront beauty, movement, culture, and landscapes through a sensory awareness of the significance of shapes and colours. In his work, Enwonwu acknowledges that art is connected to history and identity. For Enwonwu, beauty is intertwined with womanhood and spirituality. Beauty is found in mystery and sacredness; in mystery there is the anticipation of glorious revelation; in sacredness, there is the awe of the divine. In dance, the divine is awakened and revealed in the frenzy of patterned movements. Enwonwu’s world of beauty stamps into the mind of the viewers of his art—it is a sure and certain world, they see, as they come away changed and, perhaps, altered⎈
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