Ben Enwonwu


Enwonwu Anyanwu Private Collection 1500 - © Oliver Enwonwu/The Ben Enwonwu Foundation
  • Ben Enwonwu
  • Anyanwu
  • 1954–1955
  • Bronze
  • 210 cm
  • Private Collection - © Oliver Enwonwu/The Ben Enwonwu Foundation

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.

Joseph Underwood

Biography of Ben Enwonwu

  • Born 1917 in Onitsha, Nigeria
  • Died 1994 in Lagos, Nigeria
Ben Enwonwu studied at Government College in Ibadan and Umuahia from 1934 to 1939. From 1941 to 1944 he taught at Edo College in Benin City and trained as an apprentice in the guild of Benin bronze casters. His early artistic success earned him a study abroad scholarship in 1944. Within the year he moved to London, where he received a fine arts diploma from the Slade School in 1947 and a Master’s degree in anthropology from University College London in 1948. Enwonwu emerged as a successful figurative painter and sculptor in wood and bronze, representing an African modernist style which combined traditional elements with a classical Western training. In 1946 Enwonwu participated in the Exposition Internationale (International Exhibition) at the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris. In 1954 he became the youngest member of the Order of the British Empire in the Commonwealth. He was Cultural Advisor to the Federal Government of Nigeria from 1968 to 1971. In 1971 he became the first professor of fine art in Nigeria at the University of Ife-Ife (retiring in 1975) and a visiting artist at Howard University, Washington, DC.

More artworks by Ben Enwonwu in the exhibition

Enwonwu Going Fsah Collection University Of Lagos Library 1500
Ben Enwonwu
Going, 1961
University of Lagos