Professor Benedict Chukadibia Enwonwu (14 July 1921–5 February 1994), better known as Ben Enwonwu, was a Nigerian painter and sculptor of Igbo ethnic extraction whose towering achievements speak volumes from the beautiful shores of Nigeria to the palaces of Royalties in Europe as well as in private and public collections all over the world. He is arguably one of the most famous of Nigeria’s pre- and post-independence artists, whose artistic exploits nationally and internationally is legendary and has been a role model to Nigerian and other African artists.
He attended Government Colleges, Ibadan and Umuahia between 1934-1937; Goldsmith College, London in 1944; Ruskin College, Oxford, England, 1944-1946; Ashmolean College and Slade School of Fine Arts, Oxford, 1946-1948, graduating with first class honours and did postgraduate courses in anthropology and ethnography at the University of California, USA and Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, USA.
From 1939, he was an art teacher in various Schools, including Government College, Umuahia, Mission School in Calabar Province, 1940-1941 and at at Edo College, Benin City, 1941-1943.
He was art adviser to the Nigerian government from 1948. He toured and lectured in the United States from 1950 and executed many commissions as a freelance artist. In 1956 he was commissioned to sculpt a bronze portrait of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. The sittings began at Buckingham Palace and the resulting full length bronze statue was shown at the R.B.A Gallery (Royal Society of British Artists, to which he had been elected) and the Tate Gallery.
On the 5th of October 1966, the Federal Government, on behalf of the Nigerian people, made a special gift of Enwonwu’s sculptural masterpiece, “Anyanwu”, or The Awakening (1955) to the United Nations. The sculpture, prominently displayed at the lobby of the headquarters of the United Nations in New York, is the symbol of the emancipation of the emergent African Continent and her right to self expression.
He was editor, Nigeria Magazine, from 1966; fellow, University of Lagos, Lagos, 1966-1968; cultural advisor to the Nigeria government, 1968-1971; visiting artist, Institute of African Studies, Howard University, Washington, DC; appointed first professor of Fine Arts, University of Ife, Ile-Ife, 1971-1975 and art consultant to the International Secretariat, Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC), Lagos, 1977.
He was also a Fellow, Royal Anthropological Institute, London and Member: Royal Academy of Arts, London.
Enwonwu’s work is displayed in the National Gallery of Modern Art, Lagos. He died in 1994
Quotes from Enwonwu
’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. I have consistently fought against that kind of philosophy because it is bogus. European artists like Picasso, Braque and Vlaminck were influenced by African art. Everybody sees that and is not opposed to it. But when they see African artists who are influenced by their European training and technique, they expect that African to stick to their traditional forms even if he bends down to copying them. I do not copy traditional art. I like what I see in the works of people like Giacometti but I do not copy them. I knew Giacometti personally in England, you know. I knew he was influenced by African sculptures. But I would not be influenced by Giacometti, because he was influenced by my ancestors”.
“Art is not static, like culture. Art changes its form with the times. It is setting the clock back to expect that the art form of Africa today must resemble that of yesterday otherwise the former will not reflect the African image. African art has always, even long before western influence, continued to evolve through change and adaptation to new circumstances. And in like manner, the African view of art has followed the trend of cultural change up to the modern times”. 1950, Ben Enwonwu
Some works of Enwonwu