Ben Enwonwu’s ‘Nigerian Symphony’ (1963-64)
Ben Enwonwu’s ‘Nigerian Symphony’ (1963-64) © Bonhams

Ben Enwonwu is a household name in Nigeria. Poster reproductions of his lost painting “Tutu”, a beguiling portrait of an Ile-Ife princess, hang on the walls of homes all over the country. As Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, Enwonwu’s art is part of the national identity.

The pioneering painter, sculptor and founding father of Nigerian Modernism, Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu MBE died in 1994 aged 77. “Families [in Nigeria] have collected Enwonwu’s work for decades,” explains Kerryn Greenberg, curator of inter­national art at Tate Modern, “but during his lifetime, that was not the only place he was celebrated.” His works were in demand outside his country from the late 1930s onwards. Last week, Greenberg and curator Bea Gassmann de Sousa hosted a conference at Tate on Enwonwu to re-evaluate his place in 20th-century art.

Interest in Enwonwu is being propelled by the recent upsurge in interest in Modern and contemporary African art. He first exhibited his work in London in 1937, and studied at Goldsmiths, the Ruskin and the Slade art schools in the 1940s. In the 1950s, Enwonwu was commissioned to create a sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II, who came to his studio to sit for him. Though the sculpture sparked some controversy in the British press, which suggested Enwonwu had “Africanised” the Queen’s features, he was later awarded an MBE. Enwonwu’s works are currently held by Tate, the Smithsonian, Fisk University Museum and the National Gallery in Lagos, as well as in private collections including the Royal Collection.

What is striking about Enwonwu’s painting is his use of colour, a result of the quality of light in west Africa, where most of his works were made. In “Nigerian Symphony” (1963-64), for example — the top lot at Bonham’s Africa Now sale on October 5 — a hazy sky half-conceals the sun, bringing out the intensity of the colours beneath. The painting (estimated at £100,000-£150,000) was made during the early years of Nigerian independence, and is a panorama of the nation at the time, full of cultural symbolism. Distinct Igbo, Urhobo, Yoruba and Fulani figures signal not only Enwonwu’s appreciation of the diversity of Nigerian society, but his wish to unite Nigerians post-Independence.

Although Enwonwu does not usually fetch as much as contemporary African artists — the Ghanaian-born El Anatsui’s metal wall-hangings can fetch in excess of £900,000 — he is the top selling Nigerian Modernist. His auction record is £361,250, for a series of wooden sculptures originally commissioned by the Daily Mirror in 1960 and sold at Bonham’s Africa Now sale in 2013. The sculptures had been missing from the Mirror’s offices since the 1960s and were discovered under a pile of rubbish at a London school in 2012. (Other Nigerian Modernist painters in the Bonham’s sale, Demas Nwoko and Uche Okeke, have paintings estimated at £60,000–£90,000. According to Bonhams, average auction prices for Modern African artists range between £5,000–£80,000.)

Seven wooden sculptures commissioned from Enwonwu by the Daily Mirror in 1960
Seven wooden sculptures commissioned from Enwonwu by the Daily Mirror in 1960 © Bonhams

In February this year Bonham’s saw fierce bidding over Enwonwu’s sculpture “Anyanwu” (1954), which eventually went for £353,000, a record for a bronze by the artist. The first “Anyanwu” sculpture stands outside the National Museum in Lagos; another was commissioned for the UN headquarters in New York in 1961.

Enwonwu was not an activist, like many of his peers, but he sympathised with the Negritude movement and its pride in black culture and opposition to colonial rule. He met key animators of the Pan-Africanism movement, including the Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor, at the first Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris in 1956. The Bonhams auction next month includes an oil painting from Enwonwu’s “Negritude” series, “Negritude on Red” (estimated at £60,000–£90,000). In it he returns to the subject of the black female nude: a celebration of the beauty of an independent Africa.

Enwonwu spoke passionately about endemic racism; as he told the BBC in 1958, “I will not accept an inferior position in the art world. Nor have my art called ‘African’ because I have not correctly and properly given expression to my reality.” Yet he remained an art adviser to both the British and Nigerian governments post-Independence. He was torn between his identification with Pan-Africanism and his previous connections to colonial rule. This is perhaps another reason why his work has not been fully understood. “He was reluctantly politicised; unwittingly he became a political spokesperson,” says Gassmann de Sousa. “But away from politics, there are so many works you can fall in love with. They have a power that rivals any European Modernist.”

The artist at work on his figure of the Queen, c1956
The artist at work on his figure of the Queen, c1956 © Alamy

The Nigerian banker Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede has been collecting Enwonwu for decades. “My parents gave me an Enwonwu print as a child, but my first purchase was about 25 years ago, from Quintessence in Lagos, a small ‘Negritude’ watercolour — all I could afford at the time,” he recalls. “Enwonwu’s work interprets African culture and tradition with sophistication and universal appeal. Beyond the intrinsic beauty of an Enwonwu, his unabashed Africanism fills me with pride.”

“Pieces I bought for $5,000 in the early 1990s now exchange for 20 times as much,” Aig-Imoukhuede adds.

Within the narratives of colonialism and post-colonialism, the artist’s complex position adds intrigue to his work. “There is still a long way to go regarding our understanding of [his] full impact on African and global Modernism,” says Gassmann de Sousa. “It is time to re-look at Ben Enwonwu.”

Africa Now, Bonhams, London, October 5

Photographs: Bonhams; Alamy

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