BEN ENWONWU was the leading light in Nigeria's rich aggregation of contemporary artists. His sculptures and paintings can be found in private and public collections the world over.
'He was a pan-Africanist,' said Paul Chike Dike, Director of the Nigerian Gallery of Modern Art, 'a national and international figure who represented renaissance Africa in terms of his ideals and achievements. He was a man who made a mark that gave us pride that we are blacks, and confidence that in creativity we can equal other races of mankind.'
Enwonwu was born in 1921. His artistic talent was spotted during his primary school days and flowered at Government College, Umuahia, where he was a student from 1934 to 1939. Between 1940 and 1944 he was art master in a number of government educational institutions. He won a scholarship from Shell of Mexico to further his education in Britain, when one of his early works, Making Man, in wood- brush and leaves, attracted favourable attention.
Enwonwu studied first at Goldsmiths' College, London, in 1944, and then at Ruskin College, Oxford, between 1944 and 1946. In 1948, after two years of study at the Sladehe took a First. The Queen sat for him for a statue which now stands at the entrance of the Parliament Buildings in Lagos.
In 1959 Enwonwu rejoined the Nigerian public service as art supervisor. Nine years later he gave this job up to concentrate on his own work, holding exhibitions in Europe, North America and other parts of the world, and did not return to full-time employment until 1971, when he went as Visiting Professor in African Studies to Howard University, Washington DC. In the same year he was appointed Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Illife, Nigeria. He finally retired in 1975.
Public declarations or the raising of dust were never Ben Enwonwu's strongest points. But he was not always successful in keeping away from public attention as the media often wanted him to make pronouncements, if not on politics, at least about his art. He was interested in people appreciating his creative work but declared some of it to be beyond purchase. He told the story once of making a sale to an expatriate. 'The following morning, I went to the airport, intercepted the man as he was about to board an aircraft. I took back my work and returned his money.'
On another occasion, Enwonwu expressed dissatisfaction with the state of preservation of art-works in Nigeria. He had to complain in the press before his 14ft bronze of Sango, the Yoruba god of thunder, was placed in front of the headquarters of the Electricity Authority and overlooking the Lagos Lagoon, where it would be shielded from the ravages of the elements.
But he was upset most when his statue of the Risen Christ, at the Chapel of the Resurrection, University of Ibadan, was torched in 1986, as a fallout of the religious intolerance still being promoted for selfish ends by unscrupulous politicians. When he made the work in the Fifties, he fasted for three days for spiritual guidance to merge with his innate skills. He restored the statue, after the same ritual of self-denial, without raising a voice in complaint.
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