Enwonwu's Legacy

Professor Benedict Enwonwu MBE, NNOM (1917-1994)

Ben Enwonwu was the first Nigerian artist to gain international acclaim and first professor of art in Nigeria. He was the first Nigerian artist to be conferred Member of the distinguished order of the British Empire and first African artist to be commissioned to sculpt Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The first Federal Art Adviser, Ben Enwonwu ranks among the greatest artists the world has ever produced.

1917

July 14: Birth of Benedict Chukadibia Enwonwu Enwonwu was born a twin into the noble family of Umueze-Aroli in Onitsha, Nigeria. His father, Omenka Odigwe Emeka Enwonwu was also a technician and worked with the Royal Niger Company. A member of the Onitsha Council of Chiefs, he was a reputable traditional sculptor who produced staff of office, stools, decorated doors and religious images. His mother, Ilom was a successful cloth merchant.

1926 -1934

1926 - 1928: Attends St Joseph's Elementary School, Onitsha
1928 - 1929: Attends St. Theresa's Elementary School, Umuahia
1929 - 1930: Attends St. Mary's Primary School, Port-Harcourt
1930 - 1931: Attends Holy Trinity Primary School and St Mary's Primary School, both in

Onitsha

1934: Attends St Patrick's School, Ibusa and later Government College, Ibadan under Kenneth C. Murray, Education Officer in charge of Art Education in the colonial civil service and later Director of Antiquities. Leaves with Kenneth Murray for Government College, Umuahia where he spends the next five years

1937

Kenneth Murray exhibits the works of his students at Zwemmer Gallery, London from 6 July 6 – August 7. Among his students is Ben Enwonwu, recognized as the most gifted and technically proficient. The exhibition is a great success.

1938

Enwonwu's works were shown at the Glasgow Empire exhibition.

1939

Awarded prize money and a bronze medal for his work now in the art collection of the International Business Machines Corporation in San Francisco. Teaches art at Government College, Umuahia and missionary schools in the Calabar Province including College of the Holy Child Jesus, Ifuhot in Ikot-Ekpene.

1941-1944

Teaches at Edo College, Benin City. He takes up apprenticeship with the guild of Benin bronze casters. This period has a profound influence on his practice.

1943

Holds exhibition of paintings and wood carvings from December 31, 1943 to January 15,

1944

Meets Mr L. N. Harford, a director at Shell Company of West Africa. Harford is instrumental to Enwonwu's joint scholarship from Shell and the British Council to study Art in the United Kingdom.

1944

Enrolls for remedial classes at Goldsmiths College, London and later Slade School of Art, University College, London.

1945

The Slade is evacuated to Ruskin College, Oxford University.

1946

Participates in the International Exhibition of Modern Art, Musee d' Art Moderne' Paris, on the invitation of Sir Julian Huxley, Director-General of UNESCO.

1947

Enwonwu graduates with a Slade Diploma in Fine Art and first class honors in Sculpture. The first in a series of exhibitions at Berkeley Galleries, London which firmly establishes Enwonwu internationally as a modern African artist. The exhibition was opened by Lord Listowell
Enrolls at the University College, London for postgraduate studies in Anthropology.

1948

Graduates and is made a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Elected into the Royal Society of British Artists. Made a member of Hampstead Arts and Artists International.

1949

Enwonwu holds show at the Exhibition Centre, Lagos in December. He begins famous series, Africa Dances and paintings of agbogho mmuo, the Onitsha masquerade pantheon.

1950

April: Enwonwu holds exhibition at Berkeley Galleries, London. Holds a series of shows in New York, Boston and in Washinton DC at Howard University as part of a teaching and touring exhibition.

July 13 – Aug 14, Enwonwu holds major exhibition at Gallery Apollinaire in Milan. He joins Presence African Cultural Organization and remains a member till 1966.

1954

Enwonwu is made a Member of the most distinguished Order of the British Empire. He is the youngest holder of that Honor in the Commonwealth. Commissioned to produce a sculpture for the University of Ibadan's new Chapel of Resurrection. The finished sculpture, The Risen Christ, is carved from a single block of iroko and is arguably Enwonwu's finest sculpture in wood.

1955

Enwonwu is commissioned by the Nigeria Federal Government to produce a sculpture that would symbolize the spirit of a new Nigerian nation for the new National Museum at Lagos. The resulting sculpture, Anyanwu is one of his most successful and visible works. A copy of this work was presented by the Federal Government to the United Nations in 1961 in promotion of world peace.

1957

In preparation for the visit of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth ll to Nigeria, Enwonwu is commissioned to sculpt her bronze portrait. He was the first African to receive such an honor. The sittings began at Buckingham Palace and the resulting full-length sculpture was shown at the Royal Society of British Artists’ (RBA) exhibition that year.

1958

Awarded the Commonwealth Certificate for contributions to art by the Royal Institute of Art, Commerce and Agriculture in London.

1959

Appointed Art Supervisor in the Information Service Department office in Nigeria, a position he held till 1968.

1961

Receives major commission by any African artist in England. The commission is for seven figures in wood for the Daily Mirror.

1964

Executes famous public sculpture of Sango, the Yoruba god of lightning and thunder for the National Electricity Board headquarters (now Power Holding Company of Nigeria ) in Lagos.

1966

Made a Fellow, University of Lagos from 1966 - 1968.

Leads the Nigerian contingent to the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal.

1968

Resigned as Art Supervisor and appointed that same year as Cultural Advisor to the Federal Government, a position he held till 1971.

1969

Awarded an honorary doctorate degree by the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.

1971

Appointed first Professor of Fine Art in Nigeria, by the University of Ile-Ife ( now Obafemi Awolowo University). He retired in 1975. Became a visiting artist to the Institute of African Studies at Howard University, Washington DC.

1971

Awarded one of the highest honors in Senegal; Officer of the National Order of the Republic.

1973

Paints famous portrait of Tutu an Ile-Ife princess.

1977

Enwonwu is appointed art consultant in the International Secretariat, Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture.

1978

Enwonwu completes work on the 'The Drummer' for The Nigerian Telecommunications headquarters (NITEL) in Lagos.

1980

Enwonwu is awarded the Nigerian National Order of Merit for contributions to art.

1980

Made a Fellow of the Asele Institute in Imo.

1985

October 5 -11: Major retrospective exhibition organized by the Royal Society of British Artists at the Mall Galleries, London.

1987

Enwonwu restages the same exhibition for his Nigerian audience at the home of the British High Commissioner to Nigeria ,Sir Martin Ewans in Lagos.

1990

Last major retrospective exhibition held in Lagos at the National Museum.

1994

Feb 5, Enwonwu dies in his sleep at his Ikoyi, Lagos home.

PROF. BEN ENWONWU MBE (1917-94)

Prof. Benedict Chukwuka Enwonwu was born a twin on the 14th of July, 1917 in Onitsha, Anambra state.

His father, Odigwe Enwonwu was a reputable traditional sculptor and his mother, Ilom, a successful cloth merchant.

After his early education at Saint Mary's School, Onitsha, Enwonwu enrolled at Government College, Ibadan in 1934, where his genius as an artist was greatly encouraged by Kenneth C. Murray, an Englishman, who was education officer in charge of Art Education in the Colonial Civil Service and later Director of Antiquities. He completed his secondary education at Government College, Umuahia in 1939.

In July 1937, Murray exhibited the works of his students including Enwonwu's at the Zwemmer Gallery in London. Enwonwu's work was also shown at the Glasgow Empire Exhibition in 1938 and the following year, he was awarded prize money and a bronze medal for his work now in the art collection of the International Business Machine Corporation in San Francisco.

In 1944, he was awarded a Shell Petroleum scholarship to study in the United Kingdom. In England, he enrolled at the Goldsmith College of Art, Lewisham, London and later the Ruskin and Slade Ashmolean, Oxford, where he studied Fine Art, Aesthetics, History of (Western) Art and Anthropology, graduating with first class honors in Sculpture. He continued his studies in London at the University College and the London School of Economics where he did postgraduate work in Social Anthropology.

In 1946, on the invitation of Sir Julian Huxley, then Director of UNESCO, Enwonwu represented Africa at the International Exhibition of Modern Art held at the Musee D'Art Moderne in Paris.

In 1947, he completed his studies and was elected Fellow of the Royal Anthropology Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (FRAI). He was also made a member of Hampstead Arts and Artists International.

Enwonwu lectured widely in the United States including Harvard University and New York University. He also lectured at the University of Ghana, Legon and attended many international seminars across the world delivering many papers on African art, culture and aesthetics. In recognition of his contributions to the advancement of art in Africa and the world, Prof. Ben Enwonwu was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 1954, and given the Nigerian National Merit Award for academic and intellectual attainment.

At the height of his fame in 1956, he was commissioned to sculpt a bronze portrait of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, making him the first African to be so Honored. The sittings began at the Buckingham Palace and the resulting full-length bronze statue was shown at the Tate Gallery. He was also a member of the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA).

Other major works of his include, 'Anyanwu' at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York, 'Sango' at the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) headquarters in Lagos and 'The Drummer' at the Nigerian Telecommunications headquarters (NITEL) in Lagos.

In 1966, he led the Nigerian contingent to the first World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. In 1968, Enwonwu retired from the Nigerian Civil Service as Art Advisor to the Federal Government and was reappointed on contract that same year as Cultural Advisor. In appreciation of the artist's excellent status in matters of art and culture, the University of Lagos elected him, her first University Fellow in African Studies. In 1969, Ahmadu Bello University awarded him an honorary Doctorate Degree (D.Litt) for his writings on art. In 1971, he became a visiting artist to the Institute of African Studies at Howard University, Washington D.C. That same year, the University of Ife (Obafemi Awolowo University) appointed him her first Professor of Fine Art, a post he held until 1975.

Enwonwu held several exhibitions in Nigeria and abroad and In 1991, a retrospective show spanning 50 years of his creative genius was held in his honor at the National Museum in Lagos.

He died on 5th of February, 1994 at the age of 77.