Ben Enwonwu initially studied art under British art educator Kenneth C. Murray in the first government art program in colonial Nigeria, graduating from Government College (Nigeria) in 1934. He continued his studies in the United Kingdom, at Goldsmith College and Ruskin College, Oxford, before graduating from the Slade School of Fine Art in 1948.
Enwonwu’s artworks were first shown internationally at the Zwemmer Gallery in London in 1937, one of the first international exhibitions of modern African art, and at the Glasgow Empire Exhibition in 1938. In 1946, Enwonwu represented Africa at the International Exhibition of Modern Art at the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris. Enwonwu exhibited his work in a series of shows in New York, Boston and Howard University in 1950. That same year, Enwonwu held a major exhibition at Gallery Apollinaire in Milan.
Two of Enwonwu’s most well known sculptures are Queen Elizabeth II’s commissioned sculpture, marking the first African artist to be commissioned by the Queen, and his iconic sculpture of Anyanwu, the Igbo sun god, a version of which is permanently installed at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York.
In Nigeria, Enwonwu served as Art Supervisor of the Colonial Office upon his return from his studies in 1948. Enwonwu also worked as the cultural advisor to the newly formed Nigerian government after independence in 1960. He also served as a teacher, writer and art critic. Enwonwu was a professor at the University of Ife, and lectured at Harvard University, New York University and Howard University in the United States. He was the Artistic Adviser to FESTAC ’77, the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria in 1977.
In 1980, Enwonwu was awarded the National Order of Merit by the Nigerian government for his contribution to Nigeria’s art and culture. His works have been included in exhibitions at the Tate, National Gallery of Lagos, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, PS.1 Contemporary Art Center, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Museum Villa Stuck, and Whitechapel Gallery.