Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu

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The sculptor of the British queen

The Nigerian painter and sculptor Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu (1921-1994) is the most renowned Nigerian artist of the 20th century. Already in 1937 Enwonwu held his first exhibition in London and drew favourable attention. Twenty years later he became known as the sculptor who had been officially commissioned by the British court to make a bronze bust of Queen Elisabeth II. Enwonwu´s creations use, on the one hand, the forms and hues of classical modernism and, on the other, the formal principles of West African tribal art.
Nigeria brought forth in the 20th century a whole row of eminent and important modern artists, but none of them won such an international reputation as Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu. He was born on 14th July 1921 (though some sources mistakenly claim that he was born in 1918) in Onitsha by the Niger, so the start and early climax of his career fell within the time of colonialism. He got his first training in art from his father, who was likewise a sculptor, and from Kenneth C. Murray, an art-representative of the British colonial government in Nigeria. It was thanks to Murray´s intercession that Enwonwu had his first exhibition in London, in the Zwemmer Gallery. This brought him acclaim in both Britain and Nigeria. A year later he took part in the Glasgow Empire Exhibition then in 1944 was awarded, by the Nigerian colonial government, the British Council and Shell, a grant which enabled him to carry on studying art in England.

Four years later he went back to Nigeria as a painter and sculptor and began working as an art-advisor for the government. In 1956, his reputation was suddenly crowned with a commission from the British court for a portrait-bust of Queen Elisabeth II. Indeed the idea of the bronze came from Enwonwu himself, who wished to recall a visit to Nigeria by the queen in January and February of the same year and to have the bust displayed at the seat of the colonial government.

The news that the British monarch was going to be portrayed by a black artist was received in Britain with mixed feelings. There was a certain condescension from some factions and easy-going tolerance from others, but on the whole the commission received little attention from the British press. The Times wrote only five lines neutral about it, but the West African Review felt that the "renown of the most important West African sculptor was receiving the stamp of royal approval".

Even while the portrait was being made, an anonymous reviewer in the British Arts´ Review regretted that Enwonwu might not meet the "standard of the court tradition of portraiture".

Some reactions to the finished bronze were equally prejudiced. The Daily Mail wrote that the portrait did have a certain likeness but that the features looked rather African. Other reactions were somewhat friendlier, and a photograph of the queen examining the sculpture went round the world.

Enwonwu´s works offer a sophisticated blend of various styles. There are formal elements from traditional West African mask-sculptures -– the abstract and simplified body with emphasis on the face, but also the hues and forms of a toned-down expressionism from Europe. The slim elongated head, as in the sculpture "Bearded Head", or the virtuosity of the brushwork, as in the picture "Tête à Tête" (1950), are good examples. Other pictures, which tend to dissolve classical three-dimensional space, have a magical realism recalling the works of mavericks like Marc Chagall. Yet, in spite of the blend, Enwonwu, who died in Lagos in 1994, moved between cultures with the self-assurance of a natural sleep-walker, as did only a few really eminent artists in the 20th century.

Enwonwu´s success brought esteem not only to him but also to Nigeria. Indeed he inspired later generations in West Africa and Great Britain to follow his example, not only within the field of art.
Author: Ulrich Clewing

Bio

1921 born in Onitsha by the Niger
first training as an artist with his father and Kenneth Murray, the art-representative of the British Colonial government
1944 study at the Goldsmith College in London
1944-46 at Ruskin College, Oxford
1946-48 at the Slade School, London
1948 nominated the first Nigerian art-advisor of the colonial government
1971-76 professor of fine arts, University of Ife
1994 death in Lagos

Works

Beier, Ulli, Art in Nigeria, Cambridge

Published Written,
1960

Goup Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
2001 “The Short Century“, Museum Villa Stuck, Munich, Germany “The Short Century“, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany “The Short Century“, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, USA 1991 National Museum, Lagos, Nigeria 1987 Salon Exhibition, Lagos, Nigeria 1985 Mall Galleries, London, Great Britain 1976 Goethe Institute, Lagos, Nigeria 1950 Howard University, Washington, USA Galerie Apollinaire, London, Great Britain 1947 Berkeley Galleries, London, Great Britain 1946 Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, France 1944 Exhibition Centre, Lagos, Nigeria 1937 Zwemmer Gallery, London, Great Britain

Projects

This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

The Short Century

Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa

(18 May 01 - 29 July 01)