Ben Enwonwu: Aesthetics and Artistic Identity in Modern Nigerian Art
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i M W O N W U m AESTHETICS AND ARTISTIC IDENTITY IN MODERN NIGERIAN ART Sylvester 0. Ogbechie T he career of Ben Enwonwu (1918-1994) enables analysis of the constitution of artistic identity by contemporary African artists who locate their practice in the spaces of culture engendered by Africa's colonial encounter. This category of cultural practice receives little attention from art history because it is misconceived as a distorted copy of Euro-modernism, assumed to lack authenticity and also doubly indicted for having its genesis in the colonial period. The indictment of modern African art on account of its colonial heritage is lopsided since it focuses on only one aspect of the different aesthetic traditions that engendered this context of practice. We are relatively well informed about the European precedents that supposedly influenced the colonial and postcolonial practice of modern African artists. We are less informed of the equally great impact of indigenous aesthetics on their art or the fact that African artists engendered new and distinctive modes of visual representation within the systemic regime of colonial culture. The following analysis of Enwonwu's reconfiguration of indigenous aesthetics (in this instance, a pan-Africanist amalgamation of different Nigerian art traditions) and the complex visual language of his art interrogates the liminal space between Africa's indigenous cultures and its contentious Anyanwu, b r o n z e , ( d e t a i l ) 1 9 5 4 - 5 5 Enwonwu the Bohemian, A r c h i v a l p i c t u r e o f B e n E n w o n w u a t w o r k i n his L o n d o n s t u d i o , p u b l i s h e d b y W e s t A f r i c a n R e v i e w in 1 9 4 6 Fall/Winter 2002 modernity. It also provides an alternative exegesis that rescues the artist from art historical effacement. MAKING HI(S)T0RY Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu was born in Onitsha at the beginning of the 2 0 ^ Century and his career encompassed the major aesthetic traditions that shaped the character of modern Nigerian art. These include the indigenous aesthetic traditions of Nigeria (his father was an Igbo sculptor) and the European modes of symbolic communication appropriated by Nigerian artists during the colonial period. Enwonwu and four other students (collectively known as the Murray School) formed the first group of Nigerian students trained in European techniques of visual representation by the British colonial government . He completed his education at the Slade School of Fine Art of the University of London and subsequently become the first African to achieve international acclaim as a contemporary artist. He was active until his death in 1994 and his career straddled the colonial and postcolonial periods of 2 0 ^ Century Nigerian art. Enwonwu moved between Nigeria and London all his life but despite Nigeria's colonial culture and his access to the upper echelons of British society (his patrons included Queen Elizabeth II) he maintained identification with his Onitsha-Igbo origins and asserted his identity as an African. In the colonial culture in which his career originated, and the postcolonial context in which it ended, his affirmation of these identities inserted him into the fractious politics of African nationalism. Enwonwu also invented a visual language whose formal structures and ideological assertions provided a conceptual framework against which many significant Nigerian artists defined themselves in the colonial and postcolonial periods. These achievements mark him out as a pivotal figure in 2 0 t n Century African culture. At the height of his fame, Enwonwu was acclaimed as "Africa's greatest artist" and the British press attempted to co-opt his fame as an affirmation of benevolent tutelage in colonial culture . In 1948, the London-based journal, West African Review published a picture of Enwonwu in his Hampstead studio apartment in which the artist was shown standing next to an easel on which a framed painting of a West African market scene sits. Enwonwu, dressed in white lab coat and an Oxford tie...


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