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Ben Enwonwu (1921-1994)
Ben Enwonwu (1921-1994)

Untitled

Details
Ben Enwonwu (1921-1994)
Untitled
signed and dated ‘Ben Enwonwu R.B.A 1967’ (lower left)
oil on canvas
50 x 40in. (127 x 101.5cm.)
Painted in 1967
Provenance
Private Collection, France.
Post Lot Text
The authenticity of this work has been confirmed by the Ben Enwonwu Foundation

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Paola Saracino Fendi
Paola Saracino Fendi

Lot Essay

‘ 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.’

‘Nigerian art,’ intuits Bruce Onobrakpeya MRF, ‘is dynamic because it is the product of cross fertilization and influences from at home and outside. This hybrid quality inherent in it, means that it can never be stagnant’ (B. Onobrakpeya, quoted in E. Iruobe, ‘Nigerian Contemporary Art,’ The Guardian, 3 November 2016). Such sentiments ring resoundingly true in the works of three prominent artists of Nigerian heritage, Njideka Akunyili Crosby (b. 1983), Toyin Ojih Odutola (b. 1985), and Ben Enwonwu (1917-1994). Though separated by at least three generations, these artists are nonetheless thematically linked through their pictorial explorations into the entwining complexities, fragilities and multilayers of identity and self-expression. Emerging at differing moments from an African country with a rich, albeit troubled, history, Akunyili Crosby, Ojih Odutola and Enwonwu have similarly produced a wealth of internationally-acclaimed art which speaks to the challenges of occupying multiple spaces, cultures, and narratives in an increasingly globalised and interconnected society.
Born and bred in Nigeria, Akunyili Crosby, Ojih Odutola and Enwonwu each left home to study in the West. Their experiences were to profoundly impact their lives and artistic practices. Akunyili Crosby left Nigeria for the USA at the age of sixteen. Today she lives and works in Los Angeles. Drawing on her native Nigerian heritage and her adopted home in America, her art weaves layers of identity and experience together to consider how they clash, collide, converge and coexist. ‘I think of myself as a woman, an Igbo woman, a Nigerian, an African, a person of colour, an artist,’ she has explained. ‘And the fascinating thing is the layers I add to how I identify myself changes over time. It just keeps broadening as I move further out into the world’ (N. Akunyili Crosby, quoted in ‘Njideka Akunyili Crosby: Inhabiting multiple spaces,’ video, Tate Modern, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/njideka-akunyili-crosby-18974/njideka-akunyili-crosby-inhabiting-multiple-spaces [accessed 27 April 2018]). Composed whilst still at art school, Veiled Sorrow (The Look of Failure), circa 2008-2009, is an early example of Akunyili Crosby’s self-investigative style, and indeed the exemplary drawing won an award from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at their prestigious Annual Student Exhibition in 2009. Rendered in charcoal on paper, the drawing offers a striking portrayal of the artist that is at once powerful and vulnerable, intimate and strong. Ojih Odutola ventured to the USA to pursue a career in art, and lives and works today in New York. Her practice draws from fact and fiction, history and myth, to investigate the transmutable and dynamic qualities of personhood.
Working some five decades earlier, the post-war artist Enwonwu, recognised from an early age for his artistic talents, was granted a scholarship to study fine arts in the UK in 1944 at Goldsmiths College, Ruskin College Oxford and the Slade School of Fine Arts, graduating with a First Class degree. As early as 1946, his work was exhibited in Paris alongside prominent European modernists at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou. He became a member of the Royal Society of British Arts (RBA) in 1948, and, having garnered great critical acclaim, was awarded a Membership of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1954. Two years later he became the first African artist commissioned to sculpt a bronze portrait of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. Renowned as a pioneer of African modernism, Enwonwu was instrumental in forging a new visual and cultural language for Nigeria. His large-scale canvas Untitled, 1967, beautifully encapsulates the artist’s distinct visual style which fuses together indigenous and Western modes of representation. The painting presents a central female figure, whose gestures are echoed by a rippling stream of women behind her: engaged, enthused and entranced in dance, they evoke a rhythmic sense of dynamism, movement, and unity. Their chiselled faces and statuesque bodies are informed by traditional African masks, carvings and totems, whilst the composition’s faceted planes and vibrant palette are strongly reminiscent of European Cubism and Futurism. Executed some seven years after Nigeria gained independence from its former colonizers, Untitled exemplifies Enwonwu’s pictorial expressions of national pride, autonomy and empowerment that inspired a whole generation of black artists around the globe. For Enwonwu, Ojihn Odutola and Akunyili Crosby alike, the black female subject becomes a poignant symbol of Africa’s resilience, beauty and fortitude in a hybridized and ever-changing world.
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– Ben Enwonwu

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