1957: Ben Enwonwu at his studio in Hampstead 1957

Benedict Chuka Enwonwu (14 July 1917 – 5 February 1994), was an Igbo Nigerian painter and sculptor.

He was the leading light in Nigeria’s rich aggregation of contemporary artists. His sculptures and paintings can be found in private and public collections the world over.

‘He was a pan-Africanist,’ said Paul Chike Dike, Director of the Nigerian Gallery of Modern Art, ‘a national and international figure who represented renaissance Africa in terms of his ideals and achievements. He was a man who made a mark that gave us pride that we are blacks, and confidence that in creativity we can equal other races of mankind.’

He was born a twin on 14 July 1917 into the noble family of Umueze-Aroli in Onitsha, Nigeria. His father, Omenka Odigwe Emeka Enwonwu, was a technician who worked with the Royal Niger Company; he was also a member of the Onitsha Council of Chiefs and a traditional sculptor of repute. His mother, Ilom was a successful cloth merchant.

From 1939, he was an art teacher in various schools, including Government College, Umuahia, mission school in Calabar Province (1940–41), and Edo College, Benin City (1941–43). He was art adviser to the Nigerian government from 1948. During the years following 1950, he toured and lectured in the United States, and executed many commissions as a freelance artist. He was a fellow of Lagos University, Lagos (1966–68), cultural advisor to the Nigeria government (1968–71), and visiting artist at the Institute of African Studies at Howard University, Washington, DC. He was appointed the first professor of Fine Arts at the University of Ife, Ile-Ife, from 1971 to 1975. He was also art consultant to the International Secretariat, Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC), Lagos, 1977.

Public declarations or the raising of dust were never Ben Enwonwu’s strongest points. But he was not always successful in keeping away from public attention as the media often wanted him to make pronouncements, if not on politics, at least about his art. He was interested in people appreciating his creative work but declared some of it to be beyond purchase. He told the story once of making a sale to an expatriate. ‘The following morning, I went to the airport, intercepted the man as he was about to board an aircraft. I took back my work and returned his money.’

On another occasion, Enwonwu expressed dissatisfaction with the state of preservation of art-works in Nigeria. He had to complain in the press before his 14ft bronze of Sango, the Yoruba god of thunder, was placed in front of the headquarters of the Electricity Authority and overlooking the Lagos Lagoon, where it would be shielded from the ravages of the elements.

But he was upset most when his statue of the Risen Christ, at the Chapel of the Resurrection, University of Ibadan, was torched in 1986, as a fallout of the religious intolerance still being promoted for selfish ends by unscrupulous politicians. When he made the work in the Fifties, he fasted for three days for spiritual guidance to merge with his innate skills. He restored the statue, after the same ritual of self-denial, without raising a voice in complaint.

He executed portraits of Nigerians as private commissions, and illustrated Amos Tutuola’s The Brave African Huntress. He maintained a studio in London and was a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London, and a member of Royal Academy of Arts, London.

The Queen sat for him for a statue which stood at the entrance of the Parliament Buildings in Lagos. ( I will include a video of this )

Enwonwu’s work is displayed in the National Gallery of Modern Art, Lagos.His works can also be viewed at the Virtual Museum of Modern Nigerian Art.

*The Enwonwu crater on the planet Mercury is named in his honour.

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