A Father of Modern African Art: Ben Enwonwu
Ben Enwonwu (b. 1917) was a Nigerian sculptor and painter, and a father of modern African art. Enwonwu gained international recognition by crafting his own visual language, which incorporated African sculpture techniques and figurative techniques in the European tradition. He was a powerful visual voice of his generation, bridging the gap between Nigeria’s colonial history and its future as an independent nation. “I elongate because of the feelings I have as a Nigerian, for Nigerians are aspiring to grow, in politics, in trade, in art, in every aspect of life.”
Credit: Ben Enwonwu Foundation
Ben Enwonwu was born in 1917 in Ontisha, Nigeria in what was then a center point for Igbo culture and British colonial rule. His father, Omenka, was a member of the Ontisha Council of Chiefs and worked as a technician for the Royal Niger Company. Enwonwu learned the art of indigenous Igbo sculpture from his father, who sculpted staffs, stools, decorative doors, and religious images for his tribe. Sadly, Omenka passed away in 1921 when Ben was only 4 years old. Enwonwu inherited his father’s tools and throughout his youth, perfected the art of traditional Igbo carving. At age 17, he enrolled at Government College where he was part of a notable group of artists who studied under art teacher Ken Murray. An exceptional student, Enwonwu was awarded a scholarship to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where he graduated in 1947.
Enwonwu then returned to Nigeria where he worked as an art advisor for the Nigerian government and as a freelance artist, completing commissions for Nigerian, British, and American patrons. His name began to circulate art circles in the United States in the early 1950s after he toured and lectured there.
In 1954, Enwonwu was commissioned by Nigerian government to sculpt a piece to mark the opening of the National Museum in Lagos. The result was a work titled Anyanwu or “The Awakening”. Of the piece, he said: “My aim was to symbolise our rising nation. I have tried to combine material, crafts, and tradition, to express a conception that is based on womanhood—woman, the mother and nourisher of man. 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—a people!”
Two years later, after a visit to Nigeria by Queen Elizabeth II, Enwonwu was commissioned to do a life-sized sculpture of the Queen. While the commission was a boon for his career, Enwonwu received some criticism as “seeking validation from colonial masters”. But Enwonwu had a clear stance on colonialism. He spoke of the damaging effect of colonialism on traditional African art, and the unequal cultural exchange between Africa and Europe.
In a speech from 1956, he said “It is a pity that while the historic influence of African Art on European aesthetic traditions and Art has created a healthy revitalization of decadent art-form and traditions of Europe and America, the influence of western ideas and technological system, as well as that of education has, politically speaking, not proved, and can never prove, the best means of keeping alive the native genius of the African peoples.”
Enwonwu developed a visual language that incorporated both African and European techniques. He is most known for sculptures and paintings featuring elongated forms. His work often glorifies the movement of dancing bodies and masqueraders, central elements of Ontisha-Igbo Culture. Throughout his career, Enwonwu produced a number of works as part of his Negritude series, which sought to capture the essence of the African spirit.
Watercolor and gouache on canvas
29 (h) x 21 (w) in
Ben Enwonwu passed away in 1994 after a successful career. His son, Oliver, currently manages his estate through the Ben Enwonwu foundation. After experiencing a lull over the past few decades, interest in Enwonwu’s work has picked up in the last few years. This is fueled by a general increase of interest in African Contemporary art and Enwonwu’s pivot role within its history. In 2018, Enwonwu’s work Tutu was sold at auction for $1.6M. The following year, a piece called Christine sold for $1.4M.
Tutu, 1974 Ben Enwonwu Oil on canvas 38 (h) x 26(w) in
Christine, 1971 Ben Enwonwu Oil on canvas 30 (h) x 24 (w) in
Enwonwu’s work is currently on view at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Washington, DC in an exhibition called Heroes: Principles of African Greatness.