ENWONWU, Professor Benedict Chuke

Born 14th of July, 1917

Onitsha, Anambra, Nigeria.




Art's Shining Beacon by(Ozolua Uhakheme). Even in death, Professor Benedict Chuka Enwonwu was perhaps one ofthe most con troversial yet successful Nigerian artists. Born on 14July 1921, in Onitsha to Chief Odigwe, a traditional keeper ofa village shrine, Ben Enwonwu was exposed to art at a very early age. As he grew, his artistic skills blossomed. Be tween 1926 and 1931, he attended five different el ementary schools: St. Joseph's Elementary School. 1926-1928; St. Theresa's Elementary School, 19281929; St. Mary's Primary School, Port Harcourt, 1929-1930; Holy Trinity Primary School. Onitsha and St. Mary's Primary School, Onitsha, 1930-1931;and St. Patrick's School, Ibusa. For his secondary educa tion, he went to GovernmentCollege Ibadan, between 1934 and 1939. Ben Enwonwu himself talks about his early educationinNkiru Nzegwu'sRepresentationalAxis: A cultural realignment ofEnwonwu, 1999: "After we moved to my grandmother's house at Onitsha wa terside, I started school at Holy Trinity school where my uncle was the headmaster. In my standard six, I applied foradmission to Government College Ibadan, and sent in some drawings that Idid. Kenneth Murray (then an art teacher) saw them and I was invited for an interview. Igained admission to Government Col lege Ibadan, and I was awarded a scholarship too. "I studied art under Kenneth Murray who was then the art master at Government College. Ibadan. I studied like any ordinary student, but when it was time for art, I was, of course, first. Because of my interest and ability in art, Murray focused attention on me, and in a sense, groomed me to become a professional. He inspired me to grow within my roots. He gave me bits and pieces of western art which al lowed for the continuance of native inspiration with out destroying it; he gave me the necessary educational grounding. In fact, Murray's philosophy of non interference with native inspiration was what kept my art alive," Enwonwu further states that when Murray was transferred to Government College, Umuahia, he moved with him so he could continue his art lessons, since Murray was the only art teacher in the entire educational system ofthe then colonial government. At 16, Enwonwu was the youngest and the most artistically talented of Murray's art students whose works were exhibited in 1937 at the Zwemmer gallery. London. His prize-winning work, Coconut PalmGrove, was a sensitively executed watercolour painting of humdrum village life: one man ison the ground pick ing up coconuts while his partner is atop the coconut palm shaking down the large-sized nuts. Enwonwu's performance at Government Col lege, Umuahia fetched him another scholarship, this time from Shell, tostudy inthe United Kingdom. So, in 1944, he left for UK. He gained admission into Goldsmith College, but moved to Ruskin College, Uni versity of Oxford, England for two years (1944-1946). While at Oxford, Enwonwu proved his worth by fin ishing with a first class degree in sculpture. To further his knowledge ofart, he enrolled to study social anthropology at the Slide College ofArt, University ofLondon, between 1946 and 1948. Like other Nigerian pioneer artists — Aina Onabolu and Akin Lasekan - Enwonwu etched his nameintheannalsofNigeria's evolving artscape.He braved the odds to bring the profession to its enviable state today. Between 1940 and 1944, he was art mas ter at Government College, Umuahia; Edo College, Benin City; at Uyo and later, art superior for the Fed eral Government ofNigeria from 1959-1968. His pro file in the civil service rose when he was appointed cultural adviserto the federal military government be tween 1968 and 1971. Enwonwu's artwork began to attract the appreciation of academics, and by 1971, he was appointed professor offine art by the University ofIfe (now Obafemi Awplowo University), IleIfe. In recognition of his great artistic ability, the African Studies Department of Howard University, Washington DC.granted him the position of a visiting professor in that same year, 1971. Earlier in 1958, he was conferred with Mem ber ofthe Order ofthe British Empire (MBE); and awarded a commonwealth certificate for contribution to art by the Royal Institute of Art, Commerce and Agriculture. Between 1950 and 1966, he was fellow, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland; member, Presence Africain cultural organization, Paris, France; member, Hampstead Art Inter national Council, and fellow, University of Lagos 1965-1972. Enwonwu was also awarded a honorary Doctor ofArts (Hon. D.A) by Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Enwonwu'sartistic endeavours brought him in contact with prominent leaders around the world who also appreciated his great works. The Queen ofEng land was one ofhis admirers. She posed for days at the Buckingham Palace to have him produce a lifesize bronze sculpture, which is now on display at the Royal British Academy, London. By the time he died in 1994, he had over 22 solo exhibitions and had taken part in several group shows in and around Nigeria. As early as 1937, he exhibited some ofhis works at the ZweemerGallery, London; Glasgow Empire Exhibition in 1948; Mu seum of Modern Art, Paris, 1946, Berkeley Galler ies,1947,GalerieAppolinaire,New York, Bostonand Washington USA in 1950. Recallingthe Negritude period while he was at theOxford University, England, Enwonwu says:"Dur ing my time at Oxford, certain important events be gan to unfold; this was the merger of my political position with my art education. I became a member ofthe Oxford Union, a political organization. I re member the times when Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe preached in London about Africa's political struggle for freedom, and we took part init. We were all so conscious ofthe struggle against colo nialism and nothing else. Wejust wanted the colonial empire to end in Africa ... "Our art was all tied up with our political motivations. Itwasphrasedinpolitical term.TheBlack man was performing in order to free himself from these ties offoreign domination. So, his art came out forcefully in a vein that expresses a particular feeling of yearning for freedom. Ifwe painted any picture, it was about this freedom. If we sang a song, if like Senghor we wrote or recited poems, we philosophized.'" Little wonder that inhis pan-African conscious ness, "art became a visual metaphor ofcultural asser tion; itsvalidatory images extolled black African iden tity and celebrated its values. Negritude meant every thing. Itmeant the revitalisation ofAfrican force,both in art and in all forms ofcreativity. It was an answer to the challenge that Black people are not creative and scientific. Negritude was a creative force that ended from the meetings we used to attend in Paris, called Presence Africaine. "In demonstratingNegritude, we were painting with definite aims in mind and our visions were definite and characteristic of Black expression. We were not imitating the white people, nor were we copying ancient African art. That is to say, we were not doing things for the white man to say that we were Black. We were doing things which were 'Black' because we were proud of being Black. "For the first time the black man wanted to be black, and that erased all feelings ofinferiority both in Africa, which was dominated by colonial rule, and in the American continent where the history ofslavery andthe intimidation ofthe black man's spirit had gone on for centuries. That was a dramatic period in the arts". However, Enwonwuwas quite conscious ofcul tural influence ofwhat he experienced at the shrines as a child, on his works; he maintained that his art forms reference the "qualities that are characteristic ofthe sculptures ofmy ancestors." So, for most ofhis "cosmopolitan posturing, the Euro-modernist semblance of his works, and his expressions ofCatholicism, Enwonwu believedinthe Onitsha account ofreality including itssupernatural dimensionswhich heclaimed to haveexperienced." Although Enwonwu was a Western-trained art ist, he was equally recognized at home where he was conferred with various traditional titles likeEze-Ozo, Nze Na Ozo, and Odigwe Omenka, in addition to being honoured with the Nigerian National Merit Award in 1980. It would be recalled that Enwonwu was the first Nigerian artist whose painting hit the million naira mark at an auction sale. Asone ofNigeria's most distinguished artists, his works can be found across the g\obe beautifying many homes, public buildings and corporate offices. Notable among his works are Anyanwu, a bronze statue of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, in front of the Lagos Museum; the Risen Christ, at the University of Ibadan; Sango in front of the NEPA building along the Marina, Lagos;Knowledge, at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Victoria Island, Lagos; and the Spirit world and Ogolo painting. In spite ofEnwonwu'stowering image in con temporary Nigerian art, some fellow artists still see him as a "colonized artist," who is wedded to Euro pean art, and merely used African motifs to clothe the Western concept of art and society. One such critic is Uche Okeke who excludes Enwonwu from any meaningful discussion ofpost-independentNige rian art. Nevertheless, a discussion ofthe develop ment ofcontemporary Nigerian art would be incom plete without Enwonwu. The fact still remains that Enwonwu impacted the evolving Nigerian art scene much more meaningfully than his critics. Among his admirers and arts scholars, Enwonwu isregarded as a connecting bridge between the art oftwo cultures, as he appreciated the benefits of European artistic techniques, though confirming himself as an African artist.
Gender: Male
Marital Status
  • Married
Name of Spouse 2 wives
State of Origin: Anambra State
Father's Name Omenka Odigwe Emeka Enwonwu
Father's Status Deceased
Mother's Name Ilom
Mother's Status Deceased
Number of Male Children 4
Number of Female Children 5
Profession University Lecturer
Working Experience 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, , 1946 Participates in the International Exhibition of Modern Art, Musee d' Art Moderne' Paris, , 1947 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 , 1949 Enwonwu holds show at the Exhibition Centre, Lagos , 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. , 1959 Appointed Art Supervisor in the Information Service Department office in Nigeria, a position he held till 1968. , 1964 Executes famous public sculpture of Sango , Cultural Advisor to the Federal Government, a position he held till 1971. , 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. , 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.

1. Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.
2. Elected into the Royal Society of British Artists.
3. Hampstead Arts and Artists International.

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, Ruskin College, Oxford University.1945.,Enrolls at the University College, London for postgraduate studies in Anthropology. 1947

1.1944 – Shell Petroleum Scholarship: to study in the United Kingdom
2.1954- National Merit Award: for academic and intellectual attainment in Nigeria
3.1980 – National Order of Merit in Nigeria: for contributions to art in Nigeria
4. Centenary Award

1. Order of the British Empire 1954
2. 1958 – Commonwealth Certificate in London: for contributions to art by the Royal Institute of Art
3. 1958 – Member of the Order of the British Empire
4.1971 – Officer of the National Order of the Republic in Senegal

1956 – Bronze sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II
1964 – Sango: the Yoruba god of lightning and thunder
1973 – Tutu
1986 – Risen Christ: was displayed University of Ibadan but was torched as a result of a political-religious tensions.
Enwonwu’s work is displayed in the National Gallery of Modern Art, Lagos.[9] His works can also be viewed at the Virtual Museum of Modern Nigerian Art

Made a Fellow, University of Lagos from 1966 – 1968.
Awarded an honorary doctorate degree by the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
Made a Fellow of the Asele Institute in Imo.

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

“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 coping 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.” Ben Enwonwu 1989.

Ikoyi, Lagos

5 February 1994
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