Modern artists from Picasso to Jacob Epstein have found inspiration in carved African idols, masks and fetishes. Last week a London gallery was showing the works of bearded Ben Enwonwu, an African carver who reversed the process.
Born 29 years ago in Nigeria, Enwonwu carved his own toys as a child. He was teaching art at 18, and five years later the
N’gerian government sent him abroad for further study. Since then he has won a Diploma of Fine Art from the University of London, has been made a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and has become more European than African in his approach to art.
Enwonwu’s ancestors carved for magic purposes, not for exhibition. They gave force to their whittled gods by using many of the tricks of modern art: violent distortion of figures into angular cubistic shapes, mingling of naturalistic features with wholly abstract ones, the surrealist shock-value of giving vaguely human figures some of the attributes of animals and birds. The results struck at least one art historian, Roger Fry, as “great sculpture—greater, I believe, than any we have made . . .”
Enwonwu has broken from the faith of his fathers: like most European artists since the Renaissance, he works to express human emotions, not to hint at supernatural forces. Suffering, supplication, exuberance were typical themes of his London show—themes ill-suited to violent distortion. Enwonwu sometimes let the shape and grain of the wood guide his chisel, to produce partial abstractions that merely pleased the eye. “Sometimes,” he told admirers at the show’s opening, “I see the form in my mind and it grows and grows as I work. I am happy when I am hacking out; I never want to stop.” Smoothing the thigh of his Dancing Figure with a pink-palmed hand, he sighed and added: “But when I must finish off my work, smooth the surface and polish—then I get bored. The creation is gone.”
London Sunday Times Critic Eric Newton decided that “only when hand and chisel and imagination are in complete harmony can such confidence [as Enwonwu’s] occur.” If the’same harmony existed between his African heritage and his European training, Enwonwu’s art might have had punch to match its polish.