Thursday, April 22, 2010

Ben Enwonwu

Art personality

Let us take a look as we do a brief feature on art personality. The late Professor Ben Enwonwu easily stands out as a legendary figure on the landscape of contemporary Nigerian Art. As a fresh graduate just out of art school, Enwonwu had the singular rare honour of having the Queen of England visiting his studio and posing for a life-size sculpture.

In July 1937, Kenneth C. Murray exhibited the works of his pioneer students at the Zwemmer Gallery in London and this marked Enwonwu's first representation as an artist in the British Empire. Though not yet a professional, this exhibition earned him favorable recognition in Nigeria and England, as well as encouraging remarks from Rt. Hon. Ormby Gore, then Secretary of State for the Colonies, who performed the opening ceremonies.

Painting by Ben Enwonwu

 In 1938, Enwonwu took part in the Glasgow Empire exhibition and in 1944 he was awarded a Scholarship to study art in the United Kingdom. The Nigerian Colonial Government, the British Council and the Shell Petroleum jointly sponsored this scholarship which came about through a chance meeting with L. N. Harford, then Director of Shell (West Africa) at a one man exhibition of Enwonwu's works in Lagos in 1943.

Enwonwu attended Goldsmith College, London in 1944, Ruskin College, Oxford from 1944 to 1946, and Slade School of Fine Arts of the University of London, from 1946 to 1948. In these institutions, he studied Drawing, Painting and Sculpture, Aesthetics, and History of Western Art and graduated with distinction in sculpture. In 1946, on the invitation of Sir Julian Huxley, Director-General of UNESCO, Enwonwu participated in the Musee d'Art Moderne's International Exhibition of Modern Art held in Paris.

Enwonwu's participation in this exhibition indicates a high level of recognition of his art in the Western critical establishment. Such recognition can in part be attributed to the fact that he was perhaps one of the few African artists operating at that professional level in Britain during this period.

Enwonwu carried out postgraduate studies in ethnography and anthropology at the University of London and was elected to a fellowship of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. He was also elected to the Royal Academy of Art, London as well as membership of the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA). In fact, it was at the 1957 annual exhibition of the Royal Society in the RBA galleries at Suffolk Street, London, that Enwonwu first presented his bronze portrait statue of Queen Elizabeth the Second. 

Sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II by Ben Enwonwu

Enwonwu's career up to this point may be defined in terms of the constitution of a colonial subject whose political and cultural references orient him towards an ideological core (the locale of Empire) as an object of desire. His career as an artist recognizes this background. However, we can also recognize a profound resistance to this kind of circumscribed ordering in the Enwonwu's responses to this background, and in the images and subjects that are central to his self-representation as a Nigerian political and cultural subject.

By Morgan Nwanguma

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