In Praise of Greatness: Memory and Meaning of Enwonwu's Art and Life

The death of Ozo Omenka, Odigwe Ben Enwonwu in 1994 marked the passing of the last great pioneer and one of the most influential modern African artists of the 20th century. In the ten years since his transition, art critics and art historians are increasingly in agreement that Enwonwu’s career created a revolution in modern African art. They also agree that the combination of genuine creativity, nationalist focus and unrelenting faith in cultural synthesis that elevated Enwonwu’s art above those of his contemporaries remain salient as we ponder his artistic legacy ten years later. This celebration of Enwonwu’s life and art is entirely appropriate although a tad belated. Audiences (as well as his patrons) at Enwonwu’s numerous exhibitions in Africa, Europe and the United States of America already agreed as early as 1950 that Enwonwu was “Africa’s greatest artist”. He has remained an important but neglected figure in the discourse of modern Nigerian art since then.

At the height of his fame, Enwonwu was considered a master sculptor and his artworks were exhibited alongside those of prominent European modernists in the Musee d’Art Moderne in 1946. His exhibitions, awards and honours were numerous and his public commissions included some of the most recognisable sculptures, paintings and mosaic murals in Nigeria. His patrons ranged from prominent Nigerian and European collectors, local and international nobility, major museums and prominent Christian religious institutions. Yet until recently, there was scant information to be found on the artist. The Nigerian art historical narrative defined him as an artist of the colonial period, obviously viewing the fact that he was alive and active until 1994 as an accident of history. Despite an acclaimed international practice that exalted him as “Africa’s Greatest Artist”, Enwonwu’s name was until recently also absent from international accounts of modern art.

Ben Enwonwu was important to this disourse of modern art in Africa for several reasons. He was at one time, the most famous modern African artist alive and he enjoyed immense critical acclaim in Africa, Europe and the United States of America. His art and career encompassed the major aesthetic traditions of modern Nigerian art. These included the indigenous aesthetic traditions of Nigeria (his father was an Igbo sculptor) and the European conventions of representations appropriated by Nigerian artists during the colonial period. Enwonwu and four other students formed the first group of Nigerian students trained in European techniques of art by the British Colonial Government. He completed his education at the Slade School of Fine Art of the University of London where he was the first African to receive certification in fine arts.

Enwonwu moved between Nigeria and London all his life but despite Nigeria’s colonial culture and his access to the upper echelons of British society (Queen Elizabeth II was one of his patrons), he maintained identification with his Onitsha-Igbo origins and asserted his identity as an African. In the colonial culture in which his career originated, and the postcolonial context in which it ended, his affirmation of these identities inserted him into the fractious politics of African nationalism and the continued struggle of African societies against different forms of European imperialism. In addition, Enwonwu invented a visual language in the course of his practice as a modern Nigerian artist. This visual language and its attendant ideological assertions provided a structure against which many significant modern Nigerian artists defined themselves in the colonial and postcolonial periods. It is this legacy above all that makes Enwonwu a pivotal figure in the narratives of modern Nigerian (and African) art.

Enwonwu’s legacy also derives from his colourful career and magnificent masterpieces in sculpture and painting. These include artworks like Anyanwu (bronze, 1955), Sango (bronze, 1964), the acclaimed portrait of Queen Elizabeth the Second (bronze, 1957), his ‘Africa Dances’ series of paintings and above all, numinous paintings of the Onitsha Igbo masquerade pantheon (1949-1994). These latter artworks, with their numinous images of agbogho mmuo and ogolo, point to Enwonwu’s search for a place among his venerable ancestors. They also represent some of the most recognisable artworks in the Nigerian national consciousness.

This was because Enwonwu combined concepts from prominent indigenous Nigerian art traditions to create an artistic synthesis and a visual language for modern Nigerian art. He also developed a parallel formalistic direction that extended his forms beyond immediate identification with ethnicity although his motifs continued to draw on various ethnic and cultural images. In the course of his career, the artist resolved the apparent ambiguity of his location between different formalistic and conceptual ideals by creating two distinct modes of representation, each of which he directed to specific ends. His art was thus grounded in the historical conditions of its era, and reflected the conceptual sophistication that Enwonwu brought to bear on his search for culturally significant forms.

Enwonwu was an eminently contentious figure in modern Nigerian art. Above all, he has been shortchanged in both Nigerian art history and institutional art history, both contexts of which have tried to efface his contributions to discourses of modernism. However, Enwonwu put modern African art on the map and he made the art profession respectable in Nigeria. His fame was used to support the Black Nationalist struggles in Africa, Europe and the United States. He was the first African to break the race barrier and be admitted to august exhibition spaces in Britain and the United States of America. He was also the first African to be listed in international directories of contemporary art.

Apart from his prolific output and unusual longevity, Enwonwu confronted and grappled with many problems that became pivotal to subsequent generations of modern African artists. These included the problem of how to use European media and conventions of art to engage and define African cultural realities. Enwonwu was also the first African artist to deal with the relationship between European conventions of representation and African spaces of practice which were then emerging as locations where important experiments in modern art were taking place. He engaged the problems of how African artists were received in international spaces and he was very active in constructing a counter-narrative of artistic practice to that of European critics who tried to cast modern African art as the product of primitive consciousness. Enwonwu consistently challenged attempts by European critics to distort the nature of contemporary practice in modern Nigerian art and frame it within a primitivist paradigm. The meaning of Enwonwu’s art career and its implication for the discourse of art history in general thus lies precisely in the fact that it charts the sustained struggle of modern African art against the entrenched ethnocentrism of European discourses about modern art.

In addition to his paintings and sculpture, Enwonwu also wrote intelligently on art and published several articles in which he formulated a philosophical basis for modern and contemporary African art based on his interpretation of traditional African aesthetics. This is evident in his use of ethnic motifs and symbolism in his art. It is also evident in his appeal to the Igbo philosophy of Nka (art/creativity) in definitions of his artistic practice. However, throughout his career, Enwonwu struggled against attempts to circumscribe his art within a narrow ethnic identification. This was because although Enwonwu was trained in indigenous Igbo aesthetic traditions, he also received formal education in art from European art institutions. He was interested in creating a style of art that amalgamated these two artistic traditions that structured his formal education. Thus in his quest for artistic identity, he gravitated towards a highly visible West-African art form – masquerades and masking figures. With their fluid meanings anchored in knowledge of specific texts and symbols, Enwonwu’s adoption of masquerades and dance performances as metaphors structured a definition of artistic and cultural identity unique in modern Nigerian art. His ideas about the relevance of traditional African art to contemporary practice would be codified by the generation of artists who emerged from the Zaria School, and become very relevant to the practice of modern Nigerian art in the post-colonial period.

Enwonwu’s career shows that he resolved aesthetic and philosophical issues through a process of personal development. It was thus subject to the usual transformations that occur in the work of any significant artist over the course of a lifetime. His understanding of traditional forms of African art, different from what he encountered during his studies of European art, engendered a reformulation of concepts he derived from both traditions. This enabled Enwonwu’s art achieve conceptual maturity and a distinct stylistic character that informed the favourable reception of his work by the Parisian critical establishment in the Musee d’Art Moderne exhibition of 1946. In a review of that exhibition, a perceptive critic noted that Enwonwu’s art “wedded the powerful, practical art of ancient Africa with modern Western techniques”.

The meaning of Enwonwu’s art thus inheres not only in its focus on Nigerian cultural practices but also in the conceptual complexity of his radical experiments in modern art. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Enwonwu engaged the political cultures of his era through his art through which he tried to define a new visual language for modern Nigerian art. He was a central figure of the Nationalist movement in Nigeria and served in several capacities as art adviser to both the colonial and independent Nigerian governments.

Enwonwu was genuinely interested in the idea of Nigeria as a political entity whose citizens transcended ethnic identification in favour of a collective national identity that amalgamated the best aspects of Nigeria’s indigenous cultures. His art was devoted to nationalist ideals and deployed symbols drawn up from significant cultural motifs of several Nigerian ethnic groups. This drive for Pan-Nigerian themes and images fit into the prevailing ideal of Nigerian nationalism but did not constitute Enwonwu’s sole conceptual and formalistic response to such issues. It is however true that Enwonwu’s artworks are the most recognisable public images associated with Nigerian art of the nationalist figure. Bronze sculptures like Sango and Anyanwu remain central to the urban landscape of Lagos, Nigeria’s former capital.

Enwonwu’s artistic journey and career has been, in part, a history of the progressive accommodation of modernism in contemporary Nigerian art on the one hand­—and on the other, deliberate and rational engagement in the preservation of tradition. In his view, the central issue that confronted modern Nigerian artists in the postcolonial period was how to create a visual language that reflected the aspiration of Nigerian peoples while attuned to the social and political conditions of art production and cultural practice. Enwonwu engaged this problem all his life and in retrospect, his solutions were innovative and commendable. This record of innovation and philosophical engagement was above all, his principal legacy to successive generations of Nigerian artists. Ben Enwonwu was in the class of great men of history who cut across all spheres of life. It is fitting that we continue to remember his immense contributions to the development of modern art in Africa.

Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie, PhD
Professor of Art History
University of California, Santa Barbara
United States

Text written on the occasion of the 1st  Distinguished Lecture in 2004, to mark the 10th anniversary of Ben Enwonwu's death.