In 1949 Time Magazine named Ben Enwonwu “Africa’s greatest contemporary artist.” His works drew the admiration of world leaders and caused art critics to swoon. One of his bronze sculptures graces the lobby of the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Yet for decades, Enwonwu’s genius was ignored and his works gathered dust in storerooms around the world. What happened? And how did the modern art world ensure that his reputation would, once again, become a shining light just like an Intertops casino bonus?
Ben Enwonsu, born Odinigwe Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu, was born July 14, 1917. He was born into the royal Umueze-Aroli Nigerian family and, as a youngster, used his father’s tools to learn to carve in the style of the indigenous Igbo tribe. In college, he became a part of the “Murray Group,” headed by colonial officer Kenneth C. Murray where he was recognized as the group’s most gifted and technologically proficient member.
He studied Art and Anthropology in London. His interest in anthropology was inspired by the racist atmosphere that he encountered in England and he decided to study the races along with their customs, social relationships, and physical and mental characteristics. Back in Nigeria, he served as an art teacher and art advisor to the government while executing commissions as a freelance artist.
Enwonwu held art exhibitions in Europe and the United States. Queen Elizabeth sat for a portrait sculpture with him and he served as professor of Fine Arts at the University of Ile-Ife and as an art consultant to the International Secretariat of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. He was a member of the London Royal Academy of Arts. Enwonwu’s art is regarded as “African modernism" whose artistic identity is uniquely African and does not copy European modernist practice.
Enwonwu’s unique style and vision were recognized around the world. The United Nations commissioned him to create the Anyanwu/Awakening bronze sculpture of the Igbo earth-goddess Ani for their New York Headquarters which celebrates African independence and world peace.
In the ‘50s and the ‘60s, he was heralded as Africa’s pioneer modernist artist and acknowledged as one of the greatest sculptors in the world. Critics credited him with leading the way in fusing indigenous aesthetics and traditions with Western techniques to lay contemporary African art’s philosophical foundations.
By the 1980s Enwonwu’s influence on the world-wide art scene seemed to diminish but in recent years, recognition of his ground-breaking advances and contributions is bringing his work to global attention. Young African artists are studying Enwonwu again and collectors are snapping up pieces that went unnoticed until recently.
Ben Enwonwu died in 1994. His son Oliver, who is also an artist, is the founder of the Ben Enwonwu Foundation. “Every Nigerian family wants a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, but my father showed them that also an artist can be successful,” Oliver Enwonwu said. “I believe that quite a few Nigerians got into the field because of him.”
Enwonwu was widely celebrated as both a sculptor and a painter. He also was well-regarded as an art critic and a writer. He wrote that, in his opinion, the works of African contemporary artists were ignored when compared to Western art. “I will not accept an inferior position in the art world,” he wrote. “European artists like Picasso, Braque, and Vlaminck were influenced by African art. Everybody sees that and is not opposed to it. But when they see African artists who are influenced by their European training and technique, they expect that African to stick to their traditional forms even if he bends down to copying them.”
Enwonwu established a name as a painter and a sculptor who fused western conventions and techniques with indigenous traditions and aesthetics. While this art form gained him recognition globally, it was also used by other African-centric artists and critics to question his authenticity and “Africanness.” When African nations gained their independence in the ‘60s, Oliver Enwonsu explains, “The West wanted to downplay the important role that modernists such as my father had played, by limiting their impact to mimicry.”
Yet Enwonsu’s entire life story testifies to his Afro-centric worldview. He learned carving at the Government College Umuahia in Nigeria and studied anthropology with an eye to using his studies to enhance his art in a way that could highlight African culture. His work focused on traditional Nigerian culture including Christian and Islam influences alongside traditional African belief systems.
Supporters of Enwonsu’s work point out that, by including Western influences, it was easy for Enwonsu’s detractors to brand his art “imitation.” Yet Western modernists have been drawing inspiration from African work for many years without giving it proper credit so as not to have it labeled “unsophisticated.” Picasso’s cubism is now recognized as having been inspired by African art forms. In fact, the African techniques that Picasso used, including his use of convex and concave lines in a figure or a face which he later reduced to geometric shapes, were a direct precursor of cubism.
In recent years, Enwonwu’s legacy and fame have begun to rise again. His TuTu sold in 2018 at $1.6 million. Art critics who specialize in African art believe that part of the reason is the world’s new fascination with African art. The growing African art scene also plays a part as do the roles of social media and the Internet. Thanks to this type of communication technology, recent Enwonwu works that were found hidden away were able to be identified and placed for auction.
Today the Enwonwu Foundation perpetuated Ben Enwonwu’s legacy. African artists receive assistance with creating shows, writing business plans, applying for funding, and applying for fellowships. Oliver Enwonwu says, “Now more than ever, it is important for artists to reclaim their roles as those who enlighten society. For example, most of Lagos will be underwater by 2050 if we don’t think of environmental sustainability. Artists should be social critics in the same way my father was.”