Ben Enwonwu

Ben Enwonwu, Full names: Odinigwe Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu MBEwas a Nigerian African Painter and Sculptor born on 14 July 1917 and died on 5 February 1994,  Ben Enwonwu is arguably one of the most influential African artists of the 20th century and is ranked No. 6 on MoMAA100 Top ranked Artists based on exhibition archives, artist awards, social media presence and internet search data. The pioneering career of Ben Enwonwu opened the way for the postcolonial proliferation and increased visibility of modern African art. He was one of the first African artists to win critical acclaim, having exhibited in august exhibition spaces in Europe and the United States and listed in international directories of contemporary art. Since 1950, Ben Enwonwu was celebrated as “Africa’s Greatest Artist” by the international media and his fame was used to enlist support for Black Nationalists movement all over the world. The Enwonwu crater on the planet Mercury is named in his honour.

Ben Enwonwu on Race and colonialism

Ben Enwonwu’s relationship with the Western world was complicated to put it mildly. In pre independent Africa, Ben Enwonwu was arguably the most decorated African artist in the 1950s and 1960s, Ben Enwonwu benefitted directly from his close ties to the Western art world. But as an African, he felt undervalued, a sentiment many African Artists can relate to today. “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,” Ben Enwonwu is quoted as saying in an interview with the BBC in 1958. Two years earlier, Ben Enwonwu gave a passionate speech to the First International Conference of Negro Writers and Artists in Paris, in which 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,” Ben Enwonwu said in the speech.

Ben Enwonwu supported the Negritude movement – an anti-colonial cultural and political movement founded by a group of African and Caribbean students in Paris in the 1930s – and created a series of paintings and sculptures of the same name, celebrating Africa and blackness.

Notable works
1951 – Portrait of Chief Candido Joao Da Rocha which was exhibited during FESTAC Lagos 1977
1956 – Bronze sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II
1964 – Sango: the Yoruba god of lightning and thunder
1967 – Ogbanje which is currently exhibited at Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art. You can find more of Ben Enwonwu’s works displayed there
1971 – Christine: Sold in 2019 for US$1.4 million.
1973 – Tutu
1986 – Risen Christ: was displayed University of Ibadan, Nigeria but was destroyed as a result of a political-religious tensions.

1944 – Shell Petroleum Scholarship: to study in the United Kingdom
1954- National Merit Award: for academic and intellectual attainment in Nigeria
1958 – Commonwealth Certificate in London: for contributions to art by the Royal Institute of Art
1958 – Member of the Order of the British Empire
1971 – Officer of the National Order of the Republic in Senegal
1980 – National Order of Merit in Nigeria: for contributions to art in Nigeria

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