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.