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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ABANDONED HERITAGE


The four pictures above are of the same piece of work “Queen Elizabeth II ” by the famous painter and sculpter Ben Enwonwu (1956)

The first picture is of the day in 1956 it was unveiled in The London Tate Gallery.

The second picture is of it’s showing with great fan fare, outside the House of Representatives in Nigeria of the same year, which remained its home for the next four decades. 

The third and fourth pictures are of it’s new home.

I was given these picture anonymously with details of where it is located, which I will leave nameless….for now. With a few calls I have verified it’s authenticity.

Ben Enwonwu, was the leading light in Nigeria’s rich aggregation of artists. He sculpted this piece of art in 1956. 
With this accomplishment, he had “arrived” but in 50s England a black man from Africa sculpting a British Queen didn’t go down well with everybody and it was received with mixed feelings.  
Subsequently, its commissioning received little attention from the British press. The Times of London wrote only five lines about this pioneering feat, but regardless of the controversy, it still received the royal stamp of approval !!

In his time Ben Enwonwu was associated with excellence, prestige, and was a pioneer in every sense of the word. The Enwonwu crater on the planet Mercury was named in his honour. 
So why on Gods good earth is this globally (even galaxally 🙂 ) celebrated artist’s most famous breakthrough so disrespected in Nigeria? 

Now I have to ask, how did we get like this? At what point did we have total disregard for everything to do with our culture, traditions and history, even, to the point of the subject being withdrawn from the traditional curriculm in schools? Why?!

We all need to accept responsibility for this. We as a nation have a bad track record in maintaing our history and as people we have little or no maintenance culture. 

The sad thing is Nigeria possesses some of the brightest, most creative erudite minds. 
Minds, that have the capacity to design, build and invent, but we have fallen short of long term plans to consistently keep them in good shape. Plans to let future generations appreciate what has come before.

It’s not just this piece of art it’s other works, sites and documents of historical significance, these items tell stories of events from our past and have captured and encapsulated both our cultural history and human emotions.
They serve as time capsules, heavy with information from the moment they were created brimming with historical significance. It is of the upmost importance to preserve and maintain pieces of art, sites, documents, images for future generations. 
As Marcus Garvey once said “A people without the knowledge of their history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”. So, we must endeavour to maintain our heritage to inform the future.

Cultural heritage should be based on the aspects of our past that we cherish, want to keep and pass on to future generations and the outside world. 

Today efforts to preserve cultural heritage has gained new momentum throughout the world. Nigeria is still trying to catch up. I still have hope, because protectin our heritage should be an essential part of our national identity. While cultural heritage preservation has not yet become firmly rooted in the Nigerian consciousness, a great number of people and organisations see cultural resources as critical to the nation’s economic development in areas such as tourism. We need to do more!

Ironically, Ben Enwonwu also expressed dissatisfaction of our preservation culture in Nigeria, most especially his own 14ft bronze sculpture of Sango, the Yoruba god of thunder, and conditions it was kept. Little did he know another famed pieced would eventually be used as a makeshift bed abandoned in a “warehouse”.

I believe he will be rolling in his grave with where one of his greatest achievements calls home. 


Art: Out of Africa (TIME Magazine Monday, Sept. 04, 1950)

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.