The Masters of Nigerian Art

A short exhibit about the leading figures who contributed to the development of art in Nigeria during the last century.

Enwonwu Ben at workThe Centenary Project

Ben Enwonwu

Ben Enwonwu (MBE, NNOM) is a first generation Nigerian painter and sculptor who, being the first Nigerian artist to gain international recognition is arguably Africa's most influential artist of the 20th century. Ben Enwonwu broke race barriers and was the first African to be admitted into August exhibition spaces in Europe and the United States. He was also the first African to be listed in international directories of contemporary art. He was born on the 14th July 1917 and died in his sleep at his Lagos residence on the 5th of February, 1994.

Female dancers by Ben EnwonwuThe Centenary Project

With his Western training in art, he subsequently taught art in many post Independence schools in Nigeria and abroad. Generally held to be an Impressionist in style, his works are characteristically indigenous. He discouraged the labeling of African Art and worked towards its international acceptance.

Mae dancers by Ben EnwonwuThe Centenary Project

The University of Lagos also elected Ben Enwowu as its first University fellow in African Studies. In 1969, Ahmadu Bello University awarded him an honorary Doctorate degree (D.Litt) for his writings on art. In 1971, he became a visiting artist to the Institute of African Studies at Howard University, Washington D.C. That same year, University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) appointed him Nigeria's first professor of Fine Art, a post he held until 1975. In 1980, he was awarded the Nigerian National Merit Award for his contributions to art.

Princes of Mali by Ben EnwonwuThe Centenary Project

In this artwork, Enwonwu welds indigenous notions of power to political demands for black empowerment. The vibrancy and movement of the figures represents Enwonwu's accordance with the inherent philosophies of the Negritude philosophy: emancipation and celebration of the Africans and their land. The vibrancy of colour which collides to yield new forms, permeates the social and cultural fabric of African societies.

This work expresses the present state of neo-African culture, which includes Enwonwu's heritage of indigenous Igbo and Nigerian art, his formal academic training and his transitional modernist practice, insights acquired from his analysis of European Modern art, and influences derived from his engagement with rhetoric of Senghor's Negritude. (Culled from

Ife dancer by Ben EnwonwuThe Centenary Project

“Art is not static, like culture. Art changes its form with the times. It is setting the clock back to expect that the art form of Africa today must resemble that of yesterday otherwise the former will not reflect the African image. African art has always, even long before western influence, continued to evolve through change and adaptation to new circumstances. And in like manner, the African view of art has followed the trend of cultural change up to the modern times”.

– Ben Enwonwu, 1950 (Culled from Ben Enwonwu Foundation)

From Legon Dance Ensemble by Ben EnwonwuThe Centenary Project

"I will not accept an inferior position in the art world. Nor have my art called African because I have not correctly and properly given expression to my reality. I have consistently fought against that kind of philosophy because it is bogus. 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."

– Ben Enwonwu

Dancers (1947) by Ben EnwonwuThe Centenary Project

Ben Enwonwu died in 1994, but his legacy continues, resting on his forging a philosophical basis for Contemporary Nigerian art by fusing Western techniques and indigenous traditions. He is remembered as one of the most prominent African artists who helped create an international visibility of African Art in all media, wood bronze and painting.

Bruce OnobrakpeyaThe Centenary Project

Bruce Onobrakpeya

Bruce Onobrakpeya, born in 1932, is one of the Nigerian artists best known internationally. He has been described by some as a ‘living legend’ who was contributed significantly to the renaissance in contemporary art in Nigeria. His career as an artist spans several decades with notable exhibitions at the Tate Modern Gallery, London, National Museum of African Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and Malmö Konsthall, Sweden. Bruce is a well renowned and established name in art circles around the world.

Embrace friendship and not gunThe Centenary Project

Onobrakpeya's themes cover a wide variety of subjects. Deeply celebrating Nigerian culture is a common trend. His Christian faith also beckons as he executes works both in his normal working and commissioned ones. Environmental issues and the rainbow unity Nigeria's diversity could produce is one of his themes.

UntitledThe Centenary Project

An accidental experiment with hydrochloric acid on zinc plates in the late 1960s started Onobrakpeya on a new phase of print-making. Improving and refining this serendipitous innovation, he has risen to the heights of professionalism in his career.

The fusion of his training in Western techniques and materials blended into his background, culture and genius yield such ingenuity that is irrefutably indigenous, yet exotic. His rich textured works are a blend of native folklores, faith, environmental reflections and supernatural essences.

Boat regattaThe Centenary Project

Onobrakpeya was trained in the Western tradition of representational art at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, now the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria between 1957–1962. He began to experiment with forms in relation to Nigerian folklore, myths and legends while a student.

He had attended a series of printmaking workshops across the country and on the international scene where he exhibited his works. His first one-man exhibition was held in 1959 in Ughelli in the Niger Delta and later exhibited in the US, Italy, Zimbabwe, Germany, Britain, Kenya and elsewhere.

Images 1The Centenary Project

"Fascination for marks on human bodies and decorations on walls of houses and art works, observed whiled growing up in the Niger Delta environment increased through my exposure to similar art in Northern Nigeria. During my studies at Zaria, I visited other towns like Kano and Gashua. From this time on, decorative marks became central in my designs even to the point of obsession"

– Bruce Onobrakpeya

Additive PlastographThe Centenary Project

Onobrakpeya developed a writing style called Ibiebe, Ibiebe from 1978 to 1986, when he revisited in his art, ideas linked with traditional religion, customs and history.

Ibiebe is an invented script of ideographic geometric and curvilinear glyphs. The designs reflect the artist's knowledge of his Urhobo heritage, rich in symbols and the proverbs they elicit, as well as his appreciation of Chinese, Japanese, Ghanaian and Nigerian calligraphy.

Call for prayerThe Centenary Project

Onobrakpeya received an honorary D. Litt. from the University of Ibadan in 1989. He received an honourable mention at the Venice Biennale. He was honoured with the Fellowship of the Society of Nigerian Artists on 6 June 2000. He was honoured with the Pope John Paul II award for painting the life of Saint Paul, the Fellowship of Asele Institute award, the Sadam Hussein award, the Solidra Circle award, and Fulbright Exchange Scholar award.

Onobrakpeya is the recipient of the Living Human Treasure Award (2006) given by UNESCO, and on 14 September 2010 became the second winner of Nigeria's prestigious Nigerian Creativity Award by the
Federal Government of Nigeria.

Susanne WengerThe Centenary Project

Susanne Wenger

Susanne Wenger (1915-2009), also known as Adunni Olurisa, was an Austrian artist who resided in Nigeria. Her main focus was the Yoruba culture and she was successful in building an artist cooperative in Osogbo and left a legacy as the first foreign traditional goddess priestess in Nigeria. In accordance with Susanne’s instruction, she was buried immediately following her death, at a private burial in a discreet, unmarked grave inside the Osun River grove; without any fanfare or ceremony.

"Tief in Dir bist Du oh Mensch der Gott” (Deep within yourself you, oh human, are the god) by Susanne WengerOriginal Source: Susanne Wenger Foundation

The following year after Wenger arrived to Nigeria, she moved from Ibadan to the village of Ede near Oshogo, where she quickly assimilated the local culture.

It was at Ede that she met Ajagemo, a powerful Obatala (native) priest and her guru, who initiated her into the world of the Orisha - the traditional Yoruba religion. She immersed herself into the traditional Yoruba religion and later founded the New Sacred Art, an expression of her works of art. The art houses her huge cement sculptures, her architectural rules, her cult shrines, houses and caves of initiation and endless walls.

Gods in exile by Susanne WengerOriginal Source: Susanne Wenger Foundation

Wenger got caught up in Osun River Grove; her fervor and dedication saw her grow through the ranks to become the chief guardian and priestess of the shrine until her death.

Through her efforts, Osun River grove was enlisted into UNESCO as a World Heritage Center in 2005. It was to her credit that the Osun River Grove has been preserved for posterity and has become world renown.

Abayomi Barber Portrait by Isimi TaiwoThe Centenary Project

Abayomi Barber

Born in 1928 in Ile Ife, Osun State Nigeria, Abayomi Barber is one of Nigeria’s renowned artists. He is a painter, sculptor, graphic designer and teacher. Barber has created some of the most captivating landscapes in Nigerian art.

Water front by Abayomi BarberThe Centenary Project

Abayomi is known mainly for his surrealist landscapes, as well as impressive oeuvre of sculptural pieces.

Sea & Cloud by Abayomi BarberThe Centenary Project

Barber became the guiding light and mentor for an informal afro-surrealist school of art known as the Barber School, which aims at resolving the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality through visual artworks and paintings.

Water front by Abayomi BarberThe Centenary Project

Barber is said to have a stint with the Ori Olokun factor, an art and cultural activist group that emerged at the former University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University.)

Ori-Olokun is a cultural treasure lost during the ancient wars of conquest, but reportedly recovered in 1910 in Ile-Ife, the cradle of Yoruba race, by a group of archaeologists, led by a German explorer, Leo Frobenius. The sculpture discovered in a pure copper form, buried in a palm grove, was wonderfully cast in sophisticated antique bronze that remained an amazement.

Landsea scape by Abayomi BarberThe Centenary Project

Abayomi Barber has participated in joint and one-man art exhibitions both in Nigeria and abroad. He returned to Nigeria and took up job as an art teacher at the University of Lagos. He has groomed some of Nigeria's most interesting modern day artists.

Persistent Faith by Abayomi BarberThe Centenary Project

Barber's works grace most public and private homes in Nigeria and abroad, some of which are; Statue of Sir Wilson Churchill, in London, Life bust statue of Late General Muritala Muhammed, Life statue of Chief I. O. Ogun in Abeokuta, “Oduduwa” a painting on canvas treated with sands, African Maiden (oil) and FESTAC ’77 among others.

Self portrait (1959) by Uche OkekeThe Centenary Project

Uche Okeke

Uche Okeke was born in 1933. He is credited for the revolution which started in the Visual Arts in Nigeria around the 1960s. Uche Okeke is synonymous with the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology where he studied (1957 -1961) and the Zaria Art Society of which he was a founding member.

Head study (1958) by Uche OkekeThe Centenary Project

Uche Okeke was the leading theoretician among the Zaria Rebels. The Zaria Rebels were determined to seek out alternatives artforms informed by their indigenous art traditions and questioned the European-oriented artistic and cultural educational practices.

Following Nigeria's independence in 1960, Okeke went onto propose the concept of 'Natural Synthesis'. He suggested that there could be a fusion of European modernism with localised, African aesthetic influences.

Head in red backgroundThe Centenary Project

Okeke developed his own unique synthesised mode of expression, combining Western technique with Igbo cultural traditions. He also studied the basic language, patterns and symbols of Uli, the traditional designs by Igbo people. Often highly linear and without perspective, they have a spontaneous quality with can been seen in Okeke's imaginative and fluid work.

Okeke is arguably the most acknowledged proponent of "Uliism". His works also depict Christian and Igbo folklore themes, these probably come from his religious upbringing and cultural background.

Haunt of Dwarfs (1965) by Uche OkekeThe Centenary Project

Haunt of Dwarfs depicts the Kingdom of Nri, a medieval state in West Africa and the holy land for the Igbo ethnic group. Sins were believed to be absolved on entering the holy land, and 'abnormal' children, such as those affected by dwarfism were sent to the area for ritual cleansing.

The landscape, which is saturated in dark tones of brown, yellow, blue and green, is literally the 'old-haunt' it is the old home of the marginalised Igbo, and haunted by the memory of the children who were sent away. Okeke emphasises the disturbance of this recollection with his use of a gloomy colour palette and the deserted and barren landscape. He makes effective use of short and long lines, zig-zags, dots, circles and curves of various sizes.

BeggarThe Centenary Project

Okeke's decades of body of work has inspired many African artists and Africanist art historians, as he is considered the forerunner of the transformation of African art into a modern idiom as early as the 1960's.

His works have been the subject of countless museum and gallery exhibitions, publications from 1961 to present. This one, titled "Beggar", is an important and early charcoal figurative work on paper.

Motherhood (1958) by Uche OkekeThe Centenary Project

A great artist from inception, Uche Okeke had his first set of exhibitions in 1954, he was then a fresh High School leaver, yet his exhibition commanded the presence of the then Premier of Northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello.

In the early 1970s, immediately after the Biafran war, Okeke returned to Nigeria to head the Department of Fine Arts at Ahmadu Bello University, Nsukka. It was in the course of his 15 year stint at Nsukka, aided by other distinguished artists as Chike Aniakor and Obiora Udechukwu that the Nsukka Art School emanated.

Credits: Story

Curator: Patrick Enaholo

Virtual Museum of Modern Nigerian Art, Pan-Atlantic University
Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation
Susanne Wenger Foundation

© The Centenary Project

Credits: All media
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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