Nigeria has a long history of influential and important artists. Ben Enwonwu is regarded as one of these, and has continued to inspire both art fans and contemporary artists with his sculptures and paintings long after his death. It is testament to the importance of his work that his name is still mentioned as one of, if not the, most highly regarded Nigerian artist in his field.
Originating as a member of the Igbo people in South East Nigeria, Ben Enwonwu moved to England in the 1930s where he studied at Goldsmith College in London, before moving on to Ruskin College in Oxford. Following on from this he graduated from the Slade School of Fine Arts before moving to the USA where he completed a postgraduate course in Ethnography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University. In his time at the Slade School of Fine Arts in Oxford, the Queen sat for him as he produced a famous sculpture which is now displayed at the entrance of the Parliament in Lagos, testament to his skills.
With such a rich background in both African and European cultures, Enwonwu took the controversial approach of melding both styles. He was highly vocal about the dangers of limiting artists from Africa by expecting them only to work within the traditions of their own cultural artistic heritage. He believed that there was an inequality in the treatment of artists from Africa in that they were encouraged to stay within one style, while artists from other parts of the world were not expected to limit themselves in this way. He therefore promoted the idea of expansive art where different styles could be amalgamated to produce new forms.
After teaching at several colleges and Universities, he continued to focus on the development of his own art works, and the continued fusing of African and European techniques. This can be seen clearly in his most famous work, Anyanwu, which means “Eye of the Sun”. This sculpture is displayed on the exterior of the National Museum in Lagos, and beautifully combines African traditional sculptures with a contemporary European aesthetic of the time. Enwonwu himself states that the sculpture represents the rising of Nigeria as a modern state, born from the fruit of its traditional past.
Art lovers from around the world, including Tunde Folawiyo, continue to be mesmerized by Enwonwu’s work and the impact it has had on Nigerian culture. For more information on Nigerian culture and Africa in general, visit Tunde Folawiyo’s YouTube page.