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Ben Enwonwu

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

Ben Enwonwu with his sculpture tool in hand
Ben Enwonwu the artist

Artist 304

Ben Enwonwu

the Father of African Modernism

Odinigwe Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu MBE, better known as Ben Enwonwu, (born 1917- 1994) was a Nigerian painter and sculptor. Enwonwu’s work including oils, works in gouache and on wood, and bronze sculptures.

Enwonwu believed throughout his life that a modern Nigeria needed to be rooted in its own heritage and culture. Growing up in Onitsha, a cosmopolitan market town that was a center of indigenous Igbo culture and British colonial rule, he based his art on a complex amalgamation of visual imagery and systems of representation, borrowing from local traditions and foreign culture.

Arguably he is one of the most influential African artist of the 20th century. His pioneering career opened the way for the postcolonial increased desire and visibility of modern African art.

He is often called “the father of African Modernism”. Enwonwu was instrumental in defining a new visual language for Nigerian art, which was both culturally relevant and modern. This new aesthetic drew upon Enwonwu's Igbo heritage and his British art academic training.

Enwonwu studied in London at Goldsmiths and Oxford and later completed postgraduate work in social anthropology at the London School of Economics. This decision to study anthropology was partly fuelled by his encounters with racism in London.

The Ben Enwonwu Foundation, founded by Enwonwu's son Oliver, says this about the late master: "He is credited with inventing a Nigerian national aesthetic by fusing indigenous traditions with Western techniques and modes of representation."

He struggled with working internationally and being mistreated by the Western world who discredited his hard work through racism and he struggled with his own nation as they viewed his relationship with the western art world as a betrayal when they were so close to political freedom.

Enwonwu's relationship with the Western world was complicated. As arguably the most decorated African artist in the 1950s and 1960s, he benefitted directly from his close ties to the Western art world.

But as an African, he felt undervalued.

"I will not accept inferior position in the art world. Nor have my art called 'African' because I have not correctly and properly given expression to my reality," he said in an interview with the BBC in 1958.

His passionate speech from the First International Conference of Negro Writers and Artists in Paris, addressed these issues as he talked about race, pan-Africanism and colonialism.

"I know that when a country is suppressed by another politically, the native traditions of the art of the suppressed begin to die out. Then the artists also begin to lose their individual and the values of their own artistic idiom. Art, under this situation, is doomed," he said in the speech.

Enwonwu was part of an intellectual movement that pushed for a unified Nigerian culture before independence. He was also a prolific writer and art critic.

"While Europe can be proud to possess some of the very best sculptures from Africa among museums and private collectors, Africa can only be given the poorest examples of English Art particularly, and the second-rate of other works of art from Europe," he said in his speech in 1956. His speech was later published in Présence Africaine, a Paris-based pan-African quarterly magazine.

Oliver Enwonwu (Ben Enwonwu’s son) says his father was also heavily influenced by Negritude, a movement founded by African and Caribbean students in Paris to celebrate Africa and blackness.

"Enwonwu was instrumental in creating visual representations of the philosophy," Oliver Enwonwu explains.

"If you look closely at that work on this Negritude theme, you can see how he shows the beauty of the black skin, the beauty of the African woman. He depicts this carefully in the work and it's all about being black and proud."

Sources consulted:


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