Ben Enwonwu Nigeria, 1917-1994

Working as a painter and sculptor throughout Nigeria’s colonial, independence, and post-independence periods, Ben Enwonwu formed a unique modernist language that speaks to the country’s culture and national identity.

Ben Enwonwu was the first artist from the African continent to gain global visibility. Born in 1917 in Onitsha, Nigeria, Ben Enwonwu was trained in the first accredited formal art education program in the country. He received a scholarship to study at the Slade School in London, becoming its first African graduate. Ben Enwonwu quickly garnered international praise for his work. In 1949, Ebony Magazine coined him “Africa’s greatest artist”. By 1950, his work had been exhibited across four continents, in Africa, Europe, Asia and the USA.


In 1956, Enwonwu was commissioned to produce a bronze sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II. As the first African artist to be commissioned by the Queen, the unveiling became a major international sensation. A version of his iconic sculpture of Anyanwu, the Igbo sun god, was given as a gift to the United Nations from Nigeria in 1966, where it is permanently installed today.

 

Over the last few years, Enwonwu’s artworks have made international headlines with record-breaking sales at auction. One of his iconic paintings of Tutu achieved over a million pounds at Bonhams in 2018 after it was found in a London apartment. Soon after, his painting Christine, a portrait of an African-American woman living in Lagos in the 1970s, also achieved a record sale at Sotheby’s in October 2019. To this day, Ben Enwonwu’s artworks, critical writings, and commentary on the art of his time continue to be among the most substantial of any modern artist in the global context.