Uzo Egonu

Mask with Musical Instruments

Egonu Mask With Musical Instruments Collection Hiltrud Egonu 1500 - © Egonu Estate c/o Grosvenor Gallery, London
  • Uzo Egonu
  • Mask with Musical Instruments
  • 1963
  • Oil on canvas
  • 51 × 61 cm
  • - © Egonu Estate c/o Grosvenor Gallery, London

Uzo Egonu moved to England at age thirteen and only returned to his Nigerian homeland once, for two days in the 1970s. In that sense he represents a group of African artists who were physically rooted in the cosmopolitan capitals of Europe, even as their home nations marched toward independence. Although he received formal training in England, Egonu still faced discrimination as a foreigner and a cultural outsider. His work gives light to the unique struggles faced by immigrant populations who were integrating into the art centers of Europe during the first half of the twentieth century. 

In Mask with Musical Instruments (1963), Egonu compiled images that the Western imagination commonly associated with traditional Africa. Within the gridlike composition, he includes a mud structure with thatched palm roof, the scalloped edges of two shells, a regal double gong bell, and an abstracted, festive mask with vacant eyes. Though European artists had already appropriated many forms of classical African art for their “primitive” qualities, Egonu used some of the same forms here to highlight their function as tropes. Instead of being rooted in actual traditions, the objects in this painting represent the archaic stereotypes he encountered as an artist of African ancestry working in the West. Egonu is not directly translating forms from the visual landscape of his Igbo heritage, but is instead blending his admiration of Cubist principles with his personal sense of estrangement from Nigeria, which was celebrating its independence as he continued to face challenges in London.

Joseph Underwood

Biography of Uzo Egonu

  • Born 1931 in Onitsha, Nigeria
  • Died 1996 in London, UK
Uzo Egonu studied painting and won first prize in a school art competition before he migrated to England at the age of thirteen. There he studied painting and typography under L. J. Daniels and Gilbert Spencer at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, London (1949–52). He then traveled to study the European masters and classical African art. In 1953 he settled in Paris, eventually visiting Denmark, Finland, and Italy. Upon returning to England, Egonu set up a studio in London, and during the 1960s he developed his unique synthesis of modern art (especially Cubism and Pop art) and African visual languages (Nigerian ornamentation, circular composition, and bird's-eye views), blurring the lines between figuration and abstraction. Although Egonu briefly visited his homeland only once, his compositions in painting, collage, and printmaking reveal a lasting bond with African issues, especially the 1966 anti-Igbo pogrom and the Nigerian Civil War. In 1964 Egonu had a solo show at the Woodstock Gallery, London, and he also gained attention in Nigeria for his art. His work has been exhibited in Europe and Africa and he was honored with several medals and prizes. In 1989 his work was included in the landmark exhibition The Other Story at Hayward Gallery, London.

More artworks by Uzo Egonu in the exhibition

Egonu Man Stealing A Shoe For His Wife Collection Hiltrud Egonu 1500 - © Egonu Estate c/o Grosvenor Gallery, London
Uzo Egonu
Man Stealing a Shoe for His Wife, 1965