Ben Enwonwu MBE: Seven Decades of Artistic Production

30 April - 6 June 2015

The Gallery of African Art (GAFRA) is pleased to present Seven Decades of Artist Production - a selected exhibition of works by the pioneering Nigerian modernist Ben Enwonwu, curated by Ayo Adeyinka. Seven Decades of Artist Production is also the gallery's official launch in its new Mayfair space. Regarded as one of the forefathers of African modern art, the exhibition  - a collection of pencil works, paintings and sculptures span the seven decades of Enwonwu's career and represent a fraction of his artistic output. It is hoped that this exhibition will encourage further discourse, or indeed a comprehensive survey of his oeuvre.

 

Ordered chronologically, the starting point for the exhibition is Return from Stream (1938), a work produced by Enwonwu soon after he graduated from Government College Umahia and brought favourable attention from the colonial government. By the 1950s Enwonwu had achieved international recognition as the first African artist to receive a royal commission for a statue of Queen Elizabeth II. The full-length bronze portrait was shown at the Royal Society of British Artists in London, to critical acclaim. Sketches from the 1958 sittings at Buckingham Palace are on view at the exhibition. The figural and landscape compositions of Boy with Folded Hands (1953) andUntitled (Landscape) (1959) complete the works from this decade.

 

Ben Enwonwu's practice was informed by his Igbo heritage in particular the masking traditions and sculptural practices. It was through this intimate knowledge aligned with his formal academic training that Enwownu defined a new visual aesthetic for Nigerian art, which was culturally relevant and modern. This idea is beautifully expressed in the work Anyanwu (1975) - a sculpture of the Igbo sun god. Widely regarded as one of his greatest works, the limited edition bronze is a variation on the 1950s original, which was commissioned by the National Museum of Lagos.

 

The elegant Africa Dances another stunning sculpture by the artist also features in this exhibition. Enwonwu began working on his Africa Dances series in the 1950s and it was a theme he returned to throughout his career. The series itself was an intellectual response to Anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer's book Africa Dances - a travelogue that romanticised West African subjects and their traditions. The work dated from 1980 reveals a move away by Enwonwu from a largely figurative style to more abstract forms within the series.

 

Enwonwu's Negritudist leanings are also reflected in the exhibition. The works - a visual interpretation of the movements principles - give particular focus to the idea and form of the African woman.  The artist met with Leopold Senghor the founder of Negritude, during a stay in France. While the later work Negritude (1980) is a classic example of paintings from this series, the earlier composition Negritude(1969) links back to the dancing figures of Enwonwu's Dance Series.