“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
Professor Benedict Chukadibia Enwonwu (14 July 1921–5 February 1994), better known as Ben Enwonwu, was a Nigerian painter and sculptor of Igbo ethnic extraction whose towering achievements speak volumes from the beautiful shores of Nigeria to the palaces of Royalties in Europe as well as in private and public collections all over the world. He is arguably one of the most famous of Nigeria’s pre- and post-independence artists, whose artistic exploits nationally and internationally is legendary  and has been a role model to Nigerian and other African artists.
Agbogbho Mmuo, one of the masquerade paintings of Ben Enwonwu

Ben Enwonwu is also Nigeria's pioneering modernist, straddled the colonial and post-colonial eras, attempted to balance competing constituencies: the colonial establishment that supported him, the younger generation of artists who followed him, and his own creative and political needs. Deeply influenced and inspired by Igbo aesthetics and philosophy, Enwonwu repeatedly turned to the vigorous imagery of Igbo masquerades and dancers.

Ben Enwonwu, with chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, Eboh Johnson and Others

He was an artist who achieved international acclaim early in his career, received a royal commission for a statue of Queen Elizabeth II, became art advisor to the Nigerian government, befriended the first Senegalese president Leopold Senghor, and espoused Negritude. Enwonwu who was the leading light in Nigeria's rich aggregation of contemporary artists was described  by art connoisseurs and leading African Studies scholars as an undying Pan-Africanist who refused to copy from the Europeans.
“The essence of my own Negritude was particularly characterized in the movement of dancing figures, (African Dances [1952], Maiden Dances [1954] Kano Dance [1958]), in the movement of Agbogho mmuo (1951/52, 1978), in the beauty of Black women. My Negritude is shown in Black forms because at that time in London, Black beauty was an essential and recognized image of the movement.”
Negritude Ben Enwonwu (1957)
“Negritude was an expression of Blackness, a celebration of the Black image. It was a great source of artistic wealth that Senghor, who had so much in him of poetry, personified. We, the artists, more or less drank from the fruits of his knowledge. I went to my home at Onitsha and began to use some of the traditional dances — particularly the dance movements and the colors — as a basis for representation.”

 He once said "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. I do not copy traditional art. I like what I see in the works of people like Giacometti but I do not copy them. I knew Giacometti personally in England, you know. I knew he was influenced by African sculptures. But I would not be influenced by Giacometti, because he was influenced by my ancestors".
With regards to Enwonwu`s Pan-Africanist attributes, Paul Chike Dike, Director of the Nigerian Gallery of Modern Art posits "'He was a pan-Africanist, 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."
Bronze figure by Ben Enwonwu

He received an MBE  in 1958 from queen Elizabeth for his exceptional artistic work in Britain and Africa and was awarded Nigerian National Merit Award in 1980. Enwonwu married twice, had four sons, and five daughters.He died in Lagos  in 5 February 1994.
"Dancing Girls" 1947 by Ben Enwonwu

Ben Enwonwu was born a twin on 14th July 1921 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.

“Ben Enwonwu in his art studio in Ikoyi, suburb of Lagos, Nigeria,” photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1959, EEPA EECL 7027, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution: earthmatters2013.

His artistic talent which he exhibited at a very early stage by partaking in the family special trade that made them famous among other families in his home town was spotted during his primary school days and flowered at Government Colleges, in Ibadan and Umuahia, where he was a student from 1934 to 1939.
Ben Enwonwu chats with Nigeria`s prime minister, Sir Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa

 As a result of his exceptional abilities in art, he was made to start his art training under an European called Kenneth Murray. Between 1940 and 1944 he was art master in a number of government educational institutions. The schools included Government College, Umuahia — his alma mater; Mission School in Calabar Province between 1940 -1941 and Edo College, Benin City, 1941-1943. He won a scholarship from Shell of Mexico to further his education in Britain, when one of his early works, Making Man, in wood- brush and leaves, attracted favourable attention.

“Ben Enwonwu in his art studio in Ikoyi, suburb of Lagos, Nigeria,” photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1959, EEPA EECL 7027, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution: earthmatters2013.

Enwonwu studied at Goldsmith College, London in 1944. He also attended Ruskin College, Oxford, England 1944-1946; Ashmolean College and finally Slade School of Fine Arts, Oxford, 1946-1948.
He graduated from there with first class honours and did postgraduate courses in anthropology and ethnography at the University of California, USA and Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, USA.

Ben Enwonwu with Nigeria`s first minister of Information, Chief Theophilus Ben inspecting Enwonwu`s finished sculptural work of Queen Elizabeth in Nigeria.

Ben Enwonwu came back to Nigeria after his studies abroad to join the colonial administration in the development of his people intellectually and creatively. The Queen sat for him for a statue which now stands at the entrance of the Parliament Buildings in Lagos.
Enwonwu working on the portrait of Queen Elizabeth

Due to his creative proficiency, he was to later become an art adviser to the then Nigerian government. He toured and lectured in the United States in the 1950s and executed many commissions as a freelance artist.
In 1956, he was commissioned to sculpt a bronze portrait of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

             Enwonwu and HRH Queen Elizabeth watching Enwonwu`s sculptural work of her

 The sittings for the actual sculpting began at Buckingham Palace and the resulting full length bronze statue was shown at the Royal Society of British Artists (RSBA) Gallery to which he had been elected and the Tate Gallery.
Enwonwu observing his finished work of Queen Elizabeth

Among his many masterpieces is “Anyawu” or The Awakening (1955) which on October 5, 1966, the Federal Government, on behalf of the Nigerian people presented as a special gift to the United Nations. The sculpture is prominently displayed at the lobby of the headquarters of the United Nations in New York. It is seen as the symbol of the emancipation of the emergent African continent and her right to self-expression.

TITLE Nigerian National Museum
NATION Nigeria
DETAIL Front view. Bronze statue, Anyanwu, "The Awakening, " by Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu.
CITY Lagos

In 1959 Enwonwu rejoined the Nigerian public service as art supervisor. Nine years later he gave this job up to concentrate on his own work, holding exhibitions in Europe, North America and other parts of the world, and did not return to full-time employment until 1971.
Girls in Waiting by Ben Enwonwu

He later became the editor, Nigeria Magazine from 1966; Fellow, University of Lagos, Lagos, 1966-1968; cultural advisor to the Nigerian government 1968-1971 and visiting artist at the Institute of African Studies, Howard University, Washington, D.C.

“Storm Over Biafra” by Ben Enwonwu
In the Storm Over Biafra, the artist depicts the emotion that rushed through him as he lost his homeland. The overall dark color palette symbolizes the deep and powerful surge of emotions that the citizens felt as their countries sovereignty was being torn away. The blue clouds represent their state of depression, anger and sadness as it covers away the happiness, peacefulness and joy that the yellows and whites bring in. Enwonwu uses the cold color palette as a representation of evilness and isolation that contrasts the warm palette that signifies comfort and homeliness.

Enwonwu was appointed the first Professor of Fine Arts, University of Ife, Ile-Ife, 1971-1975 and art consultant to the International Secretariat, Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC), Lagos, 1977. He executed portraits of Nigerians as private commissions; illustrated Amos Tutuola’s  novel, The Brave African Huntress and maintained a studio in London.
He was also a Fellow, Royal Anthropological Institute, London and member of the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

                           Ben Enwonwu at work

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.'
Sango Bronze 1964 by Ben Enwonwu

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.
The drummer, bronze, 1978

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.

                        "Dancers" 1980 by Ben Enwonwu

Prof. Ben Enwonwu’s work is displayed where it has found home in the National Gallery of Modern Art, Lagos. He died in 1994 after a meritorious service to Nigerian art life.

Unveiling ceremony of the Queen


Nigerian artist’s sculpture sells for £361,250. The figures had been estimated to sell for £80,000 to £120,000 but tripled the high estimate to make £361,250
Ben Enwonwu The Durbar of Eid ul Fitr Kano Nigeria broke the artist’s previous best by selling for £193250. Bonhams Smashes Records for Ben Enwonwu, One of Africa’s Leading Artists
Ben Enwonwu , The Durbar of Eid ul-Fitr, Kano, Nigeria, broke the artist’s previous best by selling for £193,250.

The art of Ben Enwonwu (1917 – 1994) took centre stage atBonhams’ sale of Modern and Contemporary African Art at Bonhams New Bond Street, May 22, with a new world record for the artist at £361,250 against his previous best of £125,000.
His record work, l a collection of seven wooden sculptures of figures holding newspapers (lot 129), was commissioned by theDaily Mirror in 1961. The figures had been estimated to sell for £80,000 to £120,000 but tripled the high estimate to make £361,250.
The 120 lot sale made a total of over £ 1.3 million. New world records were also set for over twenty other artists, including Erhabor Emokpae, Uche Okeke, Uzo Egonu and Tshibumba Kanda Matulu.
Giles Peppiatt, Head of African Art at Bonhams, comments: “African Contemporary Art took another step forward today with world record prices achieved. The national spotlight being cast onAfrican art by Bonhams, the Tate and others has focused increasing interest on African artists and I am delighted to see them getting the recognition they deserve. As the only auction house offering a stand-alone sale of Contemporary African Art for the past five years, today’s result pleases me very much.”
Another Enwonwu work, lot 101, an evocative  oil on canvas of The Durbar of Eid ul-Fitr, Kano, Nigeria, also broke the artist’s  previous best by selling for £193,250. The packed saleroom gave Giles Peppiatt, the auctioneer, a round of applause as this inaugural work of the afternoon’s auction was knocked down.
bronze sculpture, Lot 118, also by Enwonwu, titled Anyanwu and estimated to sell for  £50,000-80,000, made £133,350. This is a small-scale version of the famous work mounted on the façade of the National Museum in Onikan, Lagos, the current lot is one of Enwonwu’s most significant sculptures. The title Anyanwu (eye of the sun) invokes the Igbo practice of saluting the rising sun as a way to honour ChiUkwu, the Great Spirit.
Enwonwu’s Anyanwu is commonly cited as among the artist’s most accomplished works, not only formally but also in terms of its positioning in Nigerian cultural history. The noble figure, with its lithe bronze torso arising as if from the earth, is considered the pre-eminent expression of what Sylvester Ogbechie describes as “the aspirations of the Nigerian nation and Enwonwu’s personal intercession for its survival and growth”.
Enwonwu has said of the sculpture: “My aim was to symbolise our rising nation. I have tried to combine material, crafts, and traditions, 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! This sculpture is spiritual in conception, rhythmical in movement, and three dimensional in its architectural setting – these qualities are characteristic of the sculpture of my ancestors.”
The first Anyanwu sculpture (1954-5), made for the National Museum, Lagos, was so popular that another was commissioned for the United Nations headquarters in New York (1961).
Ben Enwonwu Anyanwu a bronze sculpture estimated to sell for £50000 80000 made £133350 Bonhams Smashes Records for Ben Enwonwu, One of Africa’s Leading Artists
Ben Enwonwu, Anyanwu, a bronze sculpture estimated to sell for £50,000-80,000, made £133,350. Image courtesy of Bonhams

Ben Enwonwu working on Queen Elizabeth

Hunters in the Jungle by Ben Enwonwu

Royal Dance,Benin by Ben enwonwu

Woman weaving 1947 by Ben Enwonwu

Fulani Girl 1947 by Ben Enwonwu

Head 1947 by Ben Enwonwu

Figures on the forest road, 1943

The cathedral Evangelist

Art Exchange by Ben Enwonwu


Crowd Scene 1951

Crucified Gods Galore By Ben Enwonwu (1967-8)

River Niger Landscape, 1963

Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe`s sculpture by Ben Enwonwu

Obanje and the Ghost of Tradition by Enwonwu (1973). Ogbanje: The Ghosts of Tradition is a painting about reincarnation that draws from the life of a little girl that once lived in the Enwonwu’s mother’s household.

Ben Enwonwu with his portrait
of Sir Ladipo Ademola,
The Alake of Egbaland 1968
Photo courtesy of The
Ben Enwonwu Foundation 

Boy with hands folded, 1953

Siloko Road

Country Road

Ben Enwonwu, Leaving church
Leaving Church

Portrait of Ben Enwonwu's Driver (1968)

Ogolo in Motion By Ben Enwonwu (1989-90)
“I have focused on the Ogolo masked form that is closely related to the Agbogo mmuo and Ayolugbe mask that is traditional in Nigeria. It is part of my recent important works– comprising Adonis [1989], Ogolo Metamorphosis (1991), Ogolo (1989), Ogolo in Motion (1989), Nne Mmuo (1987) Ogolo Emerging (1989)–that have a steady flow of thought and development.”

Purapakal By Ben Enwonwu (1973)

Girl with Blue Headscarf By Ben Enwonwu (1953)

Blue Boy By Ben Enwonwu (1959)

Nigerian Dancers

Africa dances, Eve noir By Ben Enwonwu (1972)

The Fishermen by Enwonwu

Obitan I By Ben Enwonwu
Using clean curving lines he captured this melodic fluidity in the lead female dancer of Obitan I. The criss-crossing, interpenetrating lines that one finds in Obitan I amplify the vibrancy of the work and weave together the many disparate parts.

Beggar, 1951

Fulani Girl of Rupp By Ben Enwonwu (1949)


Abstract figure of woman

Prof Ben Enwonwu: Foremost artist extraordinaire
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