Uzo Egonu

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Article

Three hues for Piccadilly Circus

Born in 1931, the Nigerian painter Uzo Egonu was one of the outstanding artists of the second half of the 20th century in England, where he lived since 1945. Influenced to the same degree by European modernism and traditional West African art, he painted pictures, to be seen in many public collections, in which abstract patterns and figurative forms in the style of pop-art combine in often poetic metaphors. He died in 1996 in London.
In the upper left of the picture is to be seen an elegant ladies´ shoe, to the right of it a woman, around whose face modish fabrics are wound like an oriental veil or turban, then there are two strange forms – a silhouette and a design in a red coat cut out of a German fashion magazine. Besides these, there are abstract patterns, chequered designs and indefinite three-dimensional forms without any clear meaning. "Man stealing a Shoe for his Wife" (1965) is the title of this collage of painting, photography and text by Uzo Egonu. In its disparity of parts, the work is typical of this artist from Nigeria.

A critic once called Egonu a master of metaphor, but the ability to mix complex features meaningfully in a personal visual language is only one of the aspects of the works of this painter and draughtsman, who counts as having been one of the leading artists of Nigeria and his adopted home England in the second half of the 20th century. In his paintings and works on paper, there is a blend of representation and abstraction, caricature and photo-realism, geometrical configurations and words written into the image, creating on the whole colourful and symbolic compositions.

An instance is the picture "Piccadilly Circus", which he painted four years after "Man stealing a Shoe for his Wife". Here Uzo Egonu has changed one of the busiest sites in London into a three-hue harmony of white, blue and red. In the middle can be seen the well-known statue of Cupid on a stand shown rather cubistically, as also the dancer-like statue itself. Pointing an arrow, which in reality is aimed at Shaftsbury Avenue, it looks like a cut-out by Henri Matisse. Around this hub revolve commercial slogans, facades of buildings and naturally, from London Transport, a red double-decker bus looping head over heels.

It is hard to make out what is up and what down in this picture. Everything – the buildings, the vehicles, the people – seem to be spinning round the statue, as if in a centrifuge, and thus to be combining into a system. Seldom has Piccadilly Circus, which is frankly rather grubby, loud and tiring, been presented as so gay and poetic. Indeed this combination of aesthetic idealism and social realism is typical of Uzo Egonu, who on the whole blended separate traditions like cubism, dada, Nigerian ornamentation and the latest British pop-art.

Born on 25th December 1931 in Onitsha by the Niger, Uzo Egonu came at the age of 13 during the period of colonialism to England and settled down. Only once, and for only two days in the 1970s, did he go back to his African homeland. Having had his first lessons in painting in Nigeria, he studied fine art from 1949 to 1956 at the Camberwell School of Fine Arts and Crafts in London. In England his works were shown in many group and solo exhibitions, and a number of them are now on show in public museums like the Victoria and Albert and the Africa Centre in London, the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation in Lagos, the Commonwealth Institute in Edinburgh and the National Museum for Modern Art in Baghdad. In 1983 the International Association of Art called on him to advise it for the rest of his life, an honour which he shared with painters and sculptors like Henry Moore, Joan Miro and Louise Nevelson. Uzo Egonu died in London on the 14th August 1996.
Author: Ulrich Clewing

Bio

1931 Born on 25th December in Onitsha in Nigeria
1945 Move to England
1949-1956 Study at the Camberwell School of Fine Arts and Crafts in London
1952-1960 The grand tour through most European lands
1983 Advisor for the rest of his life for the International Association of Art
1984 International Prize for graphics, Biennale Cracow
1985 Fellow of the Asele Institute, Nimo
1996 Died on 14th August in London

Works

Group Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
2001 "The Short Century“, Villa Stuck, Munich, Germany "The Short Century“, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany 1990 Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry, Great Britain 1989 Hayward Art Gallery, London, Great Britain 1973 Commonwealth Institute Art Gallery, London, Great Britain 1975 "Ljubljana Graphic Art Biennial”, Graphic Art Biennial, Ljubljana, Slowenia

Solo Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
2004 "Uzo Egonu´s London”, Museum of London, 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)