A few recent discoveries of long-lost works by Africa’s greatest contemporary artist, Ben Enwonwu, are leading to a reexamination of his legacy. How is it that the works of a man who in 1949 would be named Africa’s greatest contemporary artist by Time magazine, would decades later be gathering dust, long-forgotten in an apartment in London or in a family house in Texas?
At the height of his career in the 1940s to 1960s, he was a household name not only in Nigeria, but globally. For more than six decades, one of his bronze sculptures, Anyanwu/Awakening, has occupied a place of prominence in the lobby of the UN headquarters in New York. The bronze sculpture, inspired by the Igbo earth-goddess Ani, was a gift from the newly independent Nigeria in support of world peace and liberation of colonies.
In 1956 he was commissioned to sculpt a bronze portrait of Queen Elizabeth II with sittings taking place at Buckingham Palace.
Widely acclaimed as Africa’s pioneer modernist artist and one of the greatest in the world, he is credited with laying the philosophical foundations of contemporary African art by fusing Western techniques and conventions with indigenous traditions and aesthetics.
Younger contemporary artists seem to finally be reaping some of the benefits of his groundbreaking work through increased global recognition. Sotheby’s recently held its first online only Modern & Contemporary African art sale in March, and saw a 46% jump in the number of bids from a year ago.
Ben Enwonwu’s most enduring legacy will be opening the world to African art, says his son Oliver, an artist himself who also writes, curates art, and is the founder of the Ben Enwonwu Foundation, . “Every Nigerian family wants a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, but my father showed them that also an artist can be successful. I believe that quite a few Nigerians got into the field because of him.” But from the late 1960s to the beginning of the turn of this century, his global fame would seem to take a turn especially when compared to that of his western modernist counterparts. Despite being widely celebrated as a painter and sculptor, Enwonwu was also a distinguished writer and art critic.
In his own writings, he would talk about this phenomenon that would see the works of African contemporary greats be relegated to an inferior position on the global scale. “I will not accept an inferior position in the art world…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.”
His ability to fuse indigenous traditions and aesthetics with those of western techniques and conventions, would be what would help him establish his name globally, but also what would eventually be used to question his legacy, authenticity and “Africanness” on the global stage when newly independent African nations emerged from colonial rule in the 1960s. “The West wanted to downplay the important role that modernists such as my father had played, by limiting their impact to mimicry,” says his son Oliver.
Enwonwu’s own life story highlights the weakness of such claims. Born in 1917 in Onitsha, eastern Nigeria, to a mother who ran a successful textile business and a father who was a retired technical assistant and a reputable sculptor, Enwonwu perfected his early carving skills in Nigeria where he attended Government College Umuahia in 1934, which is also alma matter of another great Nigerian of the arts, the writer Chinua Achebe who was also there in the 1930s.
Enwonwu receiving a scholarship to study in the UK in 1944, where he attended Goldsmiths College, London and Ruskin College Oxford, and the Slade School of Fine Arts.
The recent reexamination of his legacy shows something about the double standards that are held in the West when it comes to contemporary art. His work spanned traditional Nigerian culture with the identity as a British colony, the rise of Christianity in the nation alongside traditional African belief systems and Islam, the eventual independence and a time of nation-building a unique post-colonial identity.
All these in addition to his upbringing and academic path would affect his work. And yet somehow it seem this cross-pollination between cultures and different worlds was not something an African artist could benefit from without it being called imitation. On the other hand, when Western modernists drew inspiration from African art for their work, great lengths would be taken to deny that their work was in any way influenced by “native art” that was believed to be unsophisticated.
Recently, it’s becoming more acknowledged that Picasso drew inspiration from African art with cubism being linked to various African art forms. Analysis shows Picasso progressed from using various African techniques, such as reversing concave and convex lines in a face or figure, to a reduction of figures to geometric shapes that led directly to cubism. One doesn’t need to be an art critic to see a particular aesthetic in the two right hand figures in Picasso’s 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, reminiscent of various West African mask designs.
In the recent past though, Enwonwu’s legacy and fame is beginning to rise again though still not at par with that of his Western counterparts of his generation as evidenced by top sales. While it might be impressive that Enwonwu’s Tutu (Africa’s Mona Lisa) sold at a record $1.6 million in 2018, compare this to the $179 million that Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) fetched at an auction in 2015.
Various factors are leading to the resurgence of Enwonwu’s renown in mainstream art circles. One part of it is the so called decolonizing of the mind happening to Africans and people of African origin globally where the white gaze is gradually being ignored and questioned in all spheres of society—including art.
Other key factors include the rise of the internet and social media, the advent and growth of a more vibrant art and gallery scene on the continent etc. Even Enwonwu’s recent discoveries were aided by technology. Had it not been for the internet, their owners would never have known what treasure they owned. Adetutu Ademiluyi (Tutu) was found in a modest London flat and the owners had no idea of its importance or value. If not for a Google search of the artist’s name, Enwonwu’s portrait Christine, would still be hanging almost-forgotten in a family home in Texas. This portrait would sell at $1.4 million a few months later.
The Ben Enwonwu Foundation carries on his legacy, offering a diverse range of opportunities for artists including initiatives targeted at showing them how to earn a living from art (including intricacies of applying for fellowships, writing business plans and applying for funding), but also uses art to explore contemporary issues in society.
Enwonwu died in 1994, aged 77, certainly not the peak of his fame, but with his legacy assured.
“Now more than ever, it is important for artists to reclaim their roles as those who enlighten society, says Oliver Enwonwu. “For example, most of Lagos will be underwater by 2050 if we don’t think of environmental sustainability. Artists should be social critics in the same way my father was.”
Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech and innovation in your inbox