Ben Enwonwu: 17 Facts You Need to Know About One of Africa's Most Important Artists

A look at the artist's representation of Africa to the world and his legacy.

Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, Pan-Atlantic University

Enwonwu Ben at workThe Centenary Project

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#1: One of Africa’s most influential artists

Odinigwemmadu Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu (MBE), simply known as Ben Enwonwu was one of Africa’s foremost artist to gain global recognition in the 20th century. His five decade long career was an extraordinary representation of African art and his work still inspires. 

Princes of Mali by Ben EnwonwuThe Centenary Project

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#2: His father introduced him to art

Born 1917 in Onitsha, Eastern Nigeria, Enwonwu was first exposed to art at a very young age by his father who was an Igbo traditional sculptor. 

Mae dancers by Ben EnwonwuThe Centenary Project

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#3: He trained under Kenneth C. Murray

In 1933, he began his formal art education at Government College, Ibadan and completed it at Government College, Umuahia in 1937 under the tutelage of Kenneth Crossworth Murray, a British art trainer of the colonial administration, in both schools. 

Ben Enwonwu, Kenneth Murray and students by Ben EnwonwuOriginal Source: ©Ben Enwonwu Foundation

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#4: He studied in London

Enwonwu was one of the first Nigerians to be trained in the European style and techniques of visual representation by the British government in the Murray School. His first solo exhibition in Lagos (1944) won him a scholarship to further his art education at the Slade School of Fine Arts in London, becoming the first African to graduate from the school. He finished with a first class diploma in sculpture in 1947.

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#5: He started as a sculptor

Prof. Enwonwu’s career kicked off, initially as a sculptor, with his successful participation in a group exhibition at the Zwemmer Gallery in London in 1937 under the auspices of his teacher, Kenneth Murray who loved showcasing the works of his students. His works stood out at the show, with a lot of praise from british artists and critics as extraordinary examples of modernist expressionism. 

Male Dancers (1992) by Ben EnwonwuOriginal Source: Yinka Fisher Collection

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#6: He was an art teacher in colonial Nigeria

Between 1937-44 he served as an art educator in the colonial administration and taught in various government schools and colleges in Umuahia, Calabar, Ikot Ekpene, and Benin City.

Princes of Mali by Ben EnwonwuThe Centenary Project

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#7: He was part of the Negritude movement

Despite his close ties to the Western world, Ben Enwonwu supported the Negritude movement, an anti-colonial cultural, political movement founded by a group of African and Caribbean students in Paris in the 1930s. He also created a series of works in which he promoted all things black and all things beautiful.

Negritude by Ben EnwonwuThe Centenary Project

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Ben Enwonwu celebrated Africa and blackness through the concept of Negritude which is thought to be strongly linked with the Harlem Renaissance. According to Enwonwu (1968), “the African philosophy of Negritude has defined the kind of knowledge that characterized the African spirit and mind.” 

Celebration (1970) by Ben EnwonwuOriginal Source: Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

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His 5-decade long career was marked by numerous negritude paintings comprising of dense silhouetted central (female) figures, sometimes surrounded by ghostly forms moving in the background. These silhouettes are his representations of race consciousness through black identity.

Princes of Mali by Ben EnwonwuThe Centenary Project

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#8: He painted dancing scenes

As an element of black culture, Enwonwu explored dance as a theme in his works. His paintings and sculptures portrayed moving figures rendered in a unique style that captured and glorified the essence of dance.

Ife dancer by Ben EnwonwuThe Centenary Project

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Inspired by a book titled “Africa Dances”, authored by Geoffrey Gorer in 1935, Ben Enwonwu embarked on the Africa Dances series during his studies in London in the 1940s. In the book, Gorer reflected on colonial rule and its impact on traditional life in Africa. 

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Enwonwu used the series as visual illustrations of his views on the state of the modern Nigerian culture at the time, with attention to the symbolic imageries he saw in different scenes of traditional ceremonies, cultural dances and ritual performances of different ethnic groups in the country. This became a dominant theme throughout his career and was revisited in a lot of his paintings (eg. Ife Dancers, 1973).

The Dancer (1959) by Ben EnwonwuOriginal Source: Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

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#9: He created elongated figures

Most of Enwonwu’s paintings and sculptures are filled with elongated forms and characters. This was a dominant feature in his aesthetic idiom as an artist. According to him, “ I enlongate 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.” 

Ijo (Africa Dances) (1957) by Ben EnwonwuOriginal Source: Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

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#10: He painted masquerades

Just like dancers, masquerade was also a unique theme explored by Ben Enwonwu as a response to the cultural encounters that spurred his thoughts and creativity as an artist. 

Ogolo (1990) by Ben EnwonwuOriginal Source: Yinka Fisher Collection

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The masquerades are an extension of the Africa Dances theme as the figures are characterized by vibrant colours, postures and gestures that give every viewer an illusion of movement. In his mimesis of European artistic techniques, Enwonwu developed a visual language that was appropriate to his local, modern context – an achievement that was praised by scholars.

Celebration (1970) by Ben EnwonwuOriginal Source: Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

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#11: He celebrated his Onitsha-Igbo Culture

The huge influence of the Onitsha-Igbo culture and heritage is very evident in Ben Enwonwu’s art. Using paintings of indigenous traditional dancers, ceremonial masquerades and ritualistic performances in shrines, he not only identified with his roots, but also celebrated and showcased the rich, beautiful culture and heritage of the Igbo people to everyone.

Ije Village (1973) by Ben EnwonwuYemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, Pan-Atlantic University

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#12: He painted Nigerian landscapes

As a skilled landscapist, Enwonwu illustrated his view of settings in Nigeria on numerous colorful landscape paintings while exploring trends in rural and urban life all over the country. His oeuvre of landscapes includes towns and villages, forests, rivers, roads etc.      

Anyanwu (1987) by Ben EnwonwuOriginal Source: Yinka Fisher Collection

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#13: He created a sculpture for the National Museum in Lagos

Anyanwu or The Awakening (bronze) is one of Ben Enwonwu's greatest works famous for its illustration of his pioneering contributions to modern art in Nigeria and Africa through the invention of a new visual language that engaged nationalist and Pan-Africanist ideals.  The first edition was a life-size commission for the Nigerian government to mark the opening of the National Museum in Lagos in 1954. 

Ben Enwonwu Posing beside Anyanwu at the National Museum, Lagos by Ben EnwonwuOriginal Source: ©Ben Enwonwu Foundation

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Commenting on Aynanwu, Enwonwu 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!”
Ben Enwonwu

Enwonwu Ben at workThe Centenary Project

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#14: First African to be commissioned by the Queen

In 1956, Ben Enwonwu received the greatest commission of his career as an artist. The famous life-size bronze portrait of Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of England was conceived by the queen herself to commemorate her visit to Nigeria the same year and also celebrate the relationship between Nigeria and Britain.

First Live Sketch of H.M Queen Elizabeth II (1958) by Ben EnwonwuOriginal Source: Yinka Fisher Collection

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Execution of the portrait commenced in 1957. The queen was recorded to have sat 12 times for the preliminary sketches that would finally be developed into the sculpture.  This painting was developed in 1958 from the first live sketch of the Queen.

Ogulugu (1992) by Ben EnwonwuOriginal Source: Yinka Fisher Collection

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#15: He was the first professor of fine art in Nigeria

Enwonwu became the first professor of fine art (in 1971) at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), where he taught and retired in 1975. He wrote and published widely on African art in numerous journals and magazines. 

Ben Enwonwu and Nigeria's First Prime Minister, Alhaji Sir.Abubakar by Ben EnwonwuOriginal Source: Ben Enwonwu Foundation

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#16: He served the Nigerian Government

Upon completion of his studies in London, Enwonwu was appointed art adviser to the Nigerian government in 1948. He executed numerous commissions for the government and popular individuals as a freelance artist.

From Legon Dance Ensemble by Ben EnwonwuThe Centenary Project

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In 1959, he was appointed art supervisor in the Information Service Department office in Nigeria, a position he held till 1968.  During this time, he led the Nigerian contingent to the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal in 1966. Upon his resignation as art supervisor, he was reappointed as Cultural Advisor to the Federal Government of Nigeria same year and served till 1971.

Dancers (1947) by Ben EnwonwuThe Centenary Project

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In 1977, he was appointed art consultant in the International Secretariat for the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC 77”) hosted in Lagos, contributing to the success of the landmark event on the cultural celebration of Africa. 

Ben Enwonwu by Ben Enwonwu FoundationOriginal Source: Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

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#17: He won numerous awards

As one of Africa’s most influential artist of the 20th century, Ben Enwonwu was recognised with a number of awards and honours including: Member of the Distinguished Order of the British Empire (MBE) and the youngest holder of that honour in the commonwealth (1958); Honorary Doctorate Degree by Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria (1969); and Officer of the National Order of the Republic in Senegal (1971) among others. 

Credits: Story

Solomon Nkwagu: Audiences' Manager, Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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