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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Ben Enwonwu

The Durbar of Eid ul Fitr Kano Nigeria, 1955, Ben Enwonwu

Figures on a Forest Road, 1943,
Ben Enwonwu 
It's no secret that any number of great artists of the western world have, at times, ventured into the "other world" of primitive or ethnic art in search of inspiration and new visual images with which to "spice up" their work. Paul Gauguin immersed himself in south Pacific island art. Frederic Church traveled to South America; Georgia O'Keeffe adopted art forms from America's native Southwest; and perhaps most famously, Picasso delved into African art during certain of his "periods" in search of their simple "novelty" if nothing else. Perhaps because of all this "sampling" there has evolves one of the great pretentions of western art and artists, that being that while their own art and culture gradually evolves, that of their ethnic counterparts is considered static, a known entity from which they borrow but do not return. Picasso felt free to borrow from Africa but an African artist who borrows from Picasso is seen as lacking in authenticity--as being imitative--as betraying his or her own cultural identity.
River Niger Landscape, 1965, Ben Enwonwu--African Impressionism?
Ben Enwonwu
Ben Enwonwu hated that. Ben Enwonwu, born in 1917, is considered Nigeria's foremost painter and sculptor of the 20th century. Originating from the upper levels of Nigerian society, he studied at the best art schools his country had to offer, paid his dues teaching art at all levels, and made his name in art the hard way--painting, exhibiting, lecturing, and selling. His The Durbar of Eid ul Fitr Kano Nigeria (top) recently sold for £193,250 ($319,810). Unfortunately, Ben Enwonwu died in 1994 so he won't benefit much from the sale. But his legacy will. Enwonwu left behind a large body of paintings and sculptural commissions, but beyond that, he insisted that he and other African artists were on a par with artists of every other country and culture in the world, not to be considered the stunted stepchild of western art.
Girl with the Blue Headscarf, 1953,
Ben Enwonwu--African subject,
western style, African artist.
Enwonwu's earliest works date from the 1940s and were mostly landscapes such as his Figures on a Forest Road (above, left from 1943. After WW II, Enwonwu studied in London and Oxford in England, at UCLA, and Louisiana State in the U.S., so despite his Nigerian birth and African culture he can legitimately lay claim to being an international artist. His work is unmistakably African yet, like Picasso, he has seasoned it to taste with various "ethnic" western influences. His Girl with the Blue Headscarf (left) demonstrates this mix. In 1956 Enwonwu received the most important sculptural commission of his lifetime, becoming the first black man to sculpt the Queen of England. Though criticized for having taken liberties with the royal lips, the queen seemed pleased.

Enwonwu's "African" queen.


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