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Ben ENWONWU (Dedicated Exhibition)

First generation Nigerian painter and sculptor; born in 1921, Ben Enwonwu was born into a linage of sculptors. Ben Enwonwu (MBE, NNOM) is Africa’s most influential artist of the 20th century, he was born at Onitsha. He was the first Nigerian artist to gain international recognition. He trained and worked with Kenneth C. Murray at government colleges, Ibadan and Umuahia in the mid 1930s. In 1944, his artistic talent won him a scholarship to further his training in England. He attended Goldsmiths College, London and the Slade School of Art, University College, London graduating with first class honors in Sculpture.

Ben Enwonwu broke race barriers and was the first African to be admitted into August exhibition spaces in Europe and the United States. He was the first African to be listed in international directories of contemporary art. In 1948, he was elected fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. He was also a member of the Royal Society of British Artists and in 1954 became a member of the distinguished Order of the British Empire

In 1956, he was commissioned to sculpt a bronze portrait of Her Royal Majesty; Queen Elizabeth II . This commission and the product thereof were however perceived critically by a few who felt African artists are supposed to be ignorant in the art of portraiture.

With his Western training in art, he subsequently taught art in many post Independence schools in Nigeria and abroad. Generally held to be an Impressionist in style, his works are characteristically indigenous. He discouraged the labeling of African Art and worked towards its international acceptance.

Enwonwu was appointed Art Adviser to the Nigerian Federal Government in 1959, a post he held till 1968. In 1966, Enwonwu led the Nigerian contingent to the first World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. In 1968, he retired from the Nigerian civil service as Art Adviser to the Federal Government and was reappointed on contract that same year as Cultural Adviser. The University of Lagos also elected him, her first University fellow in African Studies. In 1969, Ahmadu Bello University awarded him an honorary Doctorate degree (D.Litt) for his writings on art. In 1971, he became a visiting artist to the Institute of African Studies at Howard University, Washington D.C. That same year, University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) appointed him Nigeria’s first professor of Fine Art, a post he held until 1975. In 1980, he was awarded the Nigerian National Merit Award for his contributions to art.

Ben Enwonwu died in 1994, but his legacy continues, resting on his forging a philosophical basis for Contemporary Nigerian art by fusing Western techniques and indigenous traditions.

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