Ben Enwonwu, Nigerian painter and sculptor, was born 14 July 1917 in Onitsha in Nigeria to a sculptor father and a successful merchant mother, Enwonwu had a gift for the arts from a young age. At the age of 17, he enrolled at Government College, Ibadan, where he studied fine art under the supervision of art tutor Kenneth C Murray. Two years later, he received a scholarship to study at the Slade School of Fine Art at the University of London, UK. Enwonwu also studied at Goldsmiths and Oxford and later completed postgraduate work in social anthropology at the London School of Economics. His decision to study anthropology was partly fuelled by his encounters with racism in London.
In 1956, the young artist was commissioned to do an official portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, becoming the first African artist ever to produce an official portrait of any European monarch. Enwonwu took creative liberty with the Queen’s lips and made them fuller, creating controversy in the British art world.
Although the Queen publicly endorsed the sculpture, Enwonwu was criticised in some quarters for “Africanising” the Queen. Creating a sculpture of the Queen was a great opportunity and Enwonwu naturally stood to gain professionally, but there were many who viewed him as “seeking validation from colonial masters” at a time when Nigeria was on the brink of independence, according to Professor Nkiru Nzegwu.
The Ben Enwonwu Foundation, founded by Enwonwu’s son Oliver, says this about the late master: “He is credited with inventing a Nigerian national aesthetic by fusing indigenous traditions with Western techniques and modes of representation.”
Odinigwe Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu Biography
Ben Enwonwu MBE was a pioneer of African modernism. He was born in 1917 in Onitsha, eastern Nigeria, to a mother who ran a successful textile business and a father who was a retired technical assistant and reputable sculptor, from whom the artist learned his early carving skills. Despite being widely celebrated as a painter and sculptor, Enwonwu was also a distinguished writer and art critic.
Ben Enwonwu studied fine arts at the Government College in 1934, before receiving a scholarship to study in the UK in 1944, where he attended Goldsmiths College, Ruskin College Oxford, and the Slade School of Fine Arts. During this time he studied European art movements such as Symbolism and Fauvism. Throughout his oeuvre, Enwonwu demonstrates his ability to combine European techniques studied in school with his early training in traditional Igbo aesthetics.
Enwonwu returned to Nigeria in 1948 to begin his federally appointed position of Art Supervisor of the Colonial Office. The artist continued his practice in Nigeria and in 1949 was declared by Time magazine as ‘Africa’s greatest artist’. Among his many accolades, Enwonwu was awarded an MBE in 1955 by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to the arts. The following year he became the first African artist to receive a royal commission when The Queen sat for a bronze sculpture, positioned at the entrance of the Lagos Parliament Buildings. In 1980 Enwonwu was awarded the National Order of Merit by the Nigerian government for his invaluable contribution to the country’s arts and culture scene.
Spanning close to 60 years, Ben Enwonwu’s artistic career followed one of the most important periods of Modern Nigerian history; the journey from a British colony to a newly independent African nation. Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom on 1 October 1960, and with it the country was in search of a new post-colonial identity. Ben Enwonwu became an advocate for a new Nigerian national culture and in 1968 the artist became the cultural advisor to the newly formed Nigerian government. Enwonwu’s reputation reached far and wide as the artist’s works were even used to support Black liberation movements in Africa, Europe and the US.
Enwonwu exhibited alongside prominent European modernists at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris and started to attract international attention after participating in an exhibition at London’s Berkley Galleries in 1947. This was followed by a series of shows in New York, Boston and Howard University in Washington DC in 1950, and in the same year the artist held a major exhibition at Gallery Apollinaire in Milan. Enwonwu’s works have also been included in exhibitions of prominent museums such as the Tate, National Gallery of Lagos and Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in D.C.
Race and colonialism
Enwonwu’s relationship with the Western world was complicated. As arguably the most decorated African artist in the 1950s and 1960s, he benefitted directly from his close ties to the Western art world. But as an African, he felt undervalued.
“I will not accept inferior position in the art world. Nor have my art called ‘African’ because I have not correctly and properly given expression to my reality,” he said in an interview with the BBC in 1958.
Two years earlier, he gave a passionate speech to the First International Conference of Negro Writers and Artists in Paris, in which he talked about race, pan-Africanism and colonialism.
“I know that when a country is suppressed by another politically, the native traditions of the art of the suppressed begin to die out. Then the artists also begin to lose their individual and the values of their own artistic idiom. Art, under this situation, is doomed,” he said in the speech.
London-based curator Bea Gassmann De Sousa writes that Enwonwu saw colonialism as a force that “limits or impedes artistic creativity”. Enwonwu supported the Negritude movement – an anti-colonial cultural and political movement founded by a group of African and Caribbean students in Paris in the 1930s – and created a series of paintings and sculptures of the same name, celebrating Africa and blackness.
“While Europe can be proud to possess some of the very best sculptures from Africa among museums and private collectors, Africa can only be given the poorest examples of English Art particularly, and the second-rate of other works of art from Europe,” he said in his speech in 1956. His speech was later published in Présence Africaine, a Paris-based pan-African quarterly magazine.
Enwonwu died in Lagos, Nigeria in 1994, aged 77. Unlike many great artists, he managed to acquire success and fame in his lifetime. His work has undoubtedly influenced many contemporary African artists. Enwonwu’s dream of a world where African art was celebrated still lives on, and with the recent surge of international interest in contemporary African art, it is closer than ever.
Odinigwe Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu Biography and Profile