Benedict Enwonwu was a sculptor and painter, who many consider to be one of the pioneers of modernism in Africa. Art fanatics like Tunde Folawiyo might know that Enwonwu’s work also played a key role in increasing international awareness of African art in general. The majority of his most famous paintings and sculptures can be seen in the Virtual Museum of Modern Nigerian Art, as well as in the Lagos National Gallery of Modern Art.
Born on the 14th of July, 1921, Enwonwu was raised in the Nigerian city of Onitsha. His mother worked as a cloth trader, whilst his father was an employee of the Royal Nigeria Company. He too was also passionate about art, and created sculptures in his spare time.
Enwonwu decided to follow a creative path, studying art at the Government Colleges in Umuahia and Ibadan, where he was mentored by Kenneth C. Murray. He had his first art show at the age of 17, at the Glasgow Empire Exhibition, and six years later, moved to London, in order to study at Goldsmiths College. He then decided to continue his studies in Oxford; first at Ruskin College, and then at the Slade School of Fine Arts. After graduating, he moved to the US, where he attended Louisiana State University, and the University of California, taking classes in ethnography and anthropology.
From 1959 until 1968, Enwonwu worked as an artistic supervisor in Nigeria; after leaving this position to focus on his art, he began to hold exhibitions across the US and Europe. Following three years of painting and exhibiting, he took up a temporary role at Howard University, as a Visiting Professor of African Studies. Shortly after this, the University of Ife in Nigeria offered him the job of Professor of Fine Arts, which he accepted.
In 1975, he decided to retire from teaching; however, he continued to create art, and over the years, was commissioned to create several portraits of well-known public figures in Nigeria. In addition, he also illustrated a book called The Brave African Huntress by Amos Tutuola. As a lover of African art, Tunde Folawiyo may be aware that throughout his career, Enwonwu maintained close ties to the city of London; he kept a studio in the capital, and was a member of the Royal Academy of the Arts, as well as a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute.