Ben Osawe

Article Bio Works Projects
modernity, tradition
Visual Arts (portrait, sculpture)
Africa, Western, Europe, Western
Nigeria, Benin, England (UK)
created on:
July 10, 2003
last changed on:
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Tradition and classical modernism

Born in 1931 the sculptor Ben Osawe is thought to be one of Nigeria´s leading sculptors, though he has spent more than 20 years in exile in Benin. After initial instruction from his father, who at that time was the court sculptor of the king of Benin, Osawe went to London for 10 years, to study at art colleges there. Since the 1960s he has made many sculptures, including some sensitive portrait busts influenced by classical modernism.
The sculptor Ben Osawe is one of the most outstanding Nigerian artists of his generation. Born in Agbor in 1931, he was first instructed by his father, who by then had made a reputation for himself as a sculptor at the court of the king of Benin, Oba Eweka II. In the mid 50s Osawa moved to London to study further at the School of Graphic Art (1956-59) and the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts (1960-65). In 1965, the year in which he completed his studies of sculpture at the Camberwell School, he was chosen to represent Nigeria at the Commonwealth Exhibition in Glasgow. A year later he went back to Africa, to teach at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, but owing to the war in Biafra he was soon forced to flee to Lagos. He there worked in the atelier of his artist colleague Felix Idubor, till opening an atelier of his own in Benin City in 1979.

Like several of his Nigerian contemporaries, Osawe brought traditional Nigerian influences together with the formal language of European classical modernism. Roughly speaking, his motifs tend to come from his African surroundings, whereas his style is more European. Yet his style has also dramatically changed, since artists working within the European tradition are expected to evolve as part of the avant-garde.

Indeed if two works, made only shortly after one another, are compared, like the portrait bust "Head of Moshood" (1958) and "Caucasian Girl" (1969), the differences are found to be remarkable. The former is realistic in the sense of Rodin´s sculptures, and the sitter might be recognised from the bust, but the latter is more abstract with the head shown only as a few broad planes divided by diagonal lines and ridges. Whereas the former seems to come from the Parisian school of the late 19th century, the latter is cubist and might have come from the vorticist (British futurist) Peter Wyndam Lewis. But the two busts, however different, do have one thing in common – Osawa´s typically delicate surface treatment much appreciated by connoisseurs.

Since the 60s, Osawa´s works have been shown in many exhibitions in Europe, Africa and the USA. In 1962 he took part in an exhibition of the Artists´ International Association in London, and a year later some of his works were shown in the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh. Since then he has taken part in exhibitions all round the world, from Lagos to New York and New Delhi. Sculptures of his are to be seen in many public exhibitions and museums, including the National Gallery of Modern Art in Lagos and the cultural department of the Nigerian Ministry of Information.

Ben Osawe lives and works in Benin City.
Author: Ulrich Clewing


1931 born in Agbor
first instruction from his father, the court sculptor of the king of Benin
1956-59 study at the School of Graphic Arts in London
1960-65 study at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in London
1966 return to Nsukka in Nigeria
flight to Lagos
1979 move to Benin City


Publication on Ben Osawe

Exhibition / Installation,
The Short Century (cat.), Munich, London, New York 2001

Group Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
2005 "Africa in Portraits”, Skoto Gallery, New York, USA 2001 "The Short Century”, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany "The Short Century”, Villa Stuck, Munich, Germany 1986 The Mall Galleries, London, Great Britain 1985 National Theatre, Lagos, Nigeria 1973 University of Ife, Ife, Nigeria 1971 Lalit Kala Akademi, New Dehli, India 1969 Goethe-Institut, Lagos, Nigeria 1965 Commonwealth Festival, Glasgow, Scotland 1963 Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh, Scotland 1962 Artists International Association Gallery, London, Great Britain

Solo Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
2002 "What the Thieves Left Behind“, Nimbus Art Centre, Lagos, Nigeria


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

The Short Century

Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa

(18 May 01 - 29 July 01)