Among the most widely known of Africa’s artists, Ben Enwonwu achieved international fame even as Nigeria remained a British colony. Trained by indigenous Igbo sculptors, British expatriates in Nigeria, and preeminent schools in England, Enwonwu painted academic portraits of important figures and images inspired by traditional art during his “African style” phase of the 1950s and 60s. He was particularly inspired by all genres of African dance, and often used the nude black female body as a modern subject for the rhythms he saw in traditional African sculpture. Wary of abstract art as a new form of European acculturation, Enwonwu used his influence as federal art supervisor in the colonial Information Office to champion the integration of classic African art into formulations of modern African art. He saw contemporary practice rooted in historical views of the human body and African spirituality, which could become a rallying point for Nigerians struggling for independence.
Anyanwu (1954–55), sometimes subtitled The Awakening, refers to a deity from the Igbo pantheon who represents the Sun. According to legend, she embodies the characteristics to which every person should aspire. This figure follows the simplicity of modernist sculpture, from its base to its elongated torso. Drawing from the ichi scarification patterns traditionally worn by Igbo men, Enwonwu adorned Anyanwu’s garments and headdress with lines that radiate from a central axis. The slender arms are positioned in a symmetrical gesture that, when coupled with the attenuated form and the aggrandizing headdress, forms an overall sinuous figure.