Queen posed for dad to sculpt her inside Buckingham Palace – Enwonwu’s son
Oliver Enwonwu is a son of the late renowned and celebrated painter and sculptor, Prof Ben Enwonwu. In this interview with OLADIMEJI RAMON, Oliver speaks about his father’s personality, craft and footprints
It’s been nearly 29 years since your dad, Prof Ben Enwonwu, passed on. What fond memories of him do you have?
I know he was an excellent dresser. He had this classic and very elegant way of dressing up. He was always the life of a party. He had wonderful charisma; he couldn’t walk into a room without getting the attention of everyone. He was very jovial; always cracking great jokes. He was also always up-to-date with information and happenings around town. But he was extremely hard-working and didn’t like people loafing around. So, he always had his eyes on us, his children, to make sure that we were always active, busy doing something.
He loved gardening. He didn’t want to always sit indoors. He would rake the leaves that fell off the trees, packed them and set up a fire to burn them.
I remember him starting his work in the very early hours of the morning. He was a stickler for excellence and was always talking about keeping very high standards. He believed that whatever you do, you must do it with that great spirit of excellence.
I also have memories of him helping me to complete my school art assignments because he noticed that I also had a talent for drawing. I remember him coming to check me in school at King’s College and he would spend more time looking at the architecture of the old buildings and my friends would tease me that ‘Your father is here, he hasn’t sent for you but he is busy looking at the buildings instead’. He would be standing there, looking at the buildings and gesticulating with his hands. These are some of the fond memories that I have of him.
Your dad was described as “arguably the most influential African artist of the 20th century,” and “Africa’s Greatest Artist”. Why exactly was he described like that?
Well, because before his appearance on the scene nobody really wanted to study art. The more popular professions were medicine, engineering, law. Many parents didn’t want their children to study art. But with his many successes, you found students going to study art because they wanted to be like Ben Enwonwu. He was the first artist that the Queen (of England) sat for in 1957 (to have her statue made). You can imagine bringing that sort of glory to your fatherland. It’s natural that he would have a lot of young people wanting to be like him.
He was the first African artist that exhibited in august places in the UK despite the fact that he was a black man. His fame was used all over the world to champion black nationalist struggles because he was successful. Many of his works are in our national consciousness. For instance, Sango, his work for the electric power supply company; same for The Drummer at NITEL. Many of his works are entrenched in our national consciousness. It was the same with Anyanwu, which is a symbol of peace and global unification, standing at the lobby of the United Nations building in New York. So, you see, these are some of things that made him a household name. And incidentally, he was also Nigeria’s first professor of art. He is celebrated all over the world as Africa’s pioneer modernist artist because he was able to fuse western traditions of painting, aesthetics and conventions with our indigenous traditions. All of that cemented his place as Africa’s greatest artist as early as 1950s. Even in the 1940s, he was already exhibiting with the like of (Pablo) Picasso. So, it is little wonder that he is described as Africa’s greatest artist.
Did he really have exhibition alongside Picasso?
Yes, in 1946 in Paris.
As an artist yourself, what unique elements will you say stood your dad’s works out?
His psychological expressions, where he exaggerated certain features of the human anatomy into almost abstraction to convey movement and rhythm. You will see this, especially in the elongated limbs, elongated torso. You see a lot of that in his works. He was all about movement, rhythm, capturing the spirit of the dance. He captured what makes Africa, Africa; what makes the African artist the African artist.
You can see a lot of repetition in his works. You know in Africa, you have the lead dancer and several dancers that follow the dictate of the lead dancer. You can see how he was able to capture all of that. And of course, the tone of his works. He used a lot of blue hues, especially Prussian blue, and he used a lot of yellow ochre, as well. Those are things I will say are vital elements of his works.
Did you experience him in his active days as an artist? What was the unique thing about his approach to his creativity or craft?
He was always very spontaneous. Although he executed a lot of sketches on his sketch pad, he mostly drew straight with his brush on the canvas. Construction lines were made right there on the canvas and he incorporated all of that, including accidental strokes or errors, into his work.
I think he had a very strong imagination and he worked quickly. He painted almost very thinly. He wasn’t one to paint very thickly in impasto. So, with water colour, he used a lot of water, so that the colour is flowing. It is same with oil colour. He was a very sensitive artist. So, while carving, he wouldn’t go against the natural progression of the wood; rather he incorporated the natural progression of the wood or direction into his sculpture. He treated the wood as if it had a living soul of its own. He had respect for that.
Also, he believed that once that initial energy is spent, he shouldn’t go back to be refining his sculptures. He believed that with that initial burst of energy his work was complete. So, at any point in time, you will see that his works were very energetic because they captured that initial burst of energy. For him, the process was just as important as the finished work.
Did he get to tell you how he discovered his artistic talent and the process that led to his decision to build a career on that?
Of course. When he was a boy he didn’t have many friends because he was considered to be erratic. Children who were gifted were thought to be erratic. He was born a twin in Onitsha (Anambra State) and twins at that time were considered to be very different from normal or single children. He was very gifted. His father too was an artist, a traditional sculptor, who was also erratic and called omenka, a name given to very creative people. My father would always draw in the sand, making little figures to play with because he didn’t have many friends due to his predilection for contrary behaviour. He created his own world as a carver because he learnt at the feet of his father. He made and lived in his own world.
He was drawing one day when someone discovered him and called him an artist and that was when my father learnt what an artist was. The man bought him his first drawing or sketch pad, pencils and all that. He graduated from drawing in the sand to sketch pad. He was soon discovered by Kenneth C. Murray, a British colonial education officer, who was instrumental in the founding of the national museum in Lagos.
He (my father) had his first exhibition in Lagos about 1943. From there, he won a scholarship to study art at the Slade School of Fine Art, London. Of course, the rest is history.
You said he was born a twin; what about his twin brother?
He died very young. He was named Jacob. I think he died before they were two.
Did your father keep a record of the number of artworks he executed over the course of his career?
He kept some records. Over a 60-year career, there must have been about 67,000 works executed in bronze, water colour, gouache, pastel, charcoal, oil, terracotta, wood. He worked in several media.
What were some of his struggles as an artist or the things he wished were different about the visual art space at that time?
For him, during his time, racism was at its peak but he broke several barriers and boundaries, exhibiting his works at places where a black man would never have been admitted to. And he wasn’t just a black man, he was a black African man. So, he had to deal with those struggles.
But he was able to overcome financial situation because while he was actively pursuing his career as an artist, he was also Nigeria’s Federal Art and Culture Advisor. So, he was financially stable to a very large extent. He was also a university professor. His main travels were during his professional career, fighting to become a modern artist in a space where modernity was not considered as an African thing. The French artists and Spanish artists, like Picasso, would borrow concepts from the African mask and they would be credited with inventing modern art, as it were. But when artists like Ben Enwonwu and those who came after him like (Yusuf) Grillo, were influenced by our own African tradition, they were never given credit or credibility. Instead, they would say they were copying the European modernist artists, which was very strange because the European modernist artists actually copied from our forefathers. So, those were some of the struggles he faced — intellectual struggle, having to champion Africa, having to stand out as a Nigerian modernist artist, having to invent a new visual language that champions or embraces the ideals or the aspirations of the African and Nigerian people, especially at the time when Nigeria was gaining independence in 1960 and it was very important for African countries, beginning with Ghana in 1957, to show that they had come of age. It became a task for artists like Enwonwu, for instance, to create national monuments that would describe us as a people. This was the idea behind some of the major sculptures in public places to help to inspire a sense of identity and a sense of unity.
So, Enwonwu created works like Anyanwu, Sango, Drummer, the mural at the Nigerian Ports Authority. Artists like that were tasked to create a new identity for the Nigerian people as we yearned for our own independence from our colonial masters. Those were the kind of struggles that he faced. It was all about describing himself as an artist first because before then our art was looked down upon as primitive. So, he fought as an African artist to be treated on the same plateau as his western counterparts and to be considered on the merit of his works and his intellectual capacity.
What part of the country did he settle down and have his studio in his heyday?
He had a studio in Ikoyi, Lagos and one in London.
So, he was shuttling between Nigeria and London?
How was he able to combine his lecturing job at the University of Ife with maintaining a studio in Lagos and another in London?
He lectured at the University of Ife from 1971 to 1975. He was Nigeria’s first professor of Fine Art. Depending on the weather, he would be in London during the warmer months but when it was winter, he would come back home. He was also a visiting professor to some universities and he delivered lectures around the world, so, that afforded him the opportunity to travel. He was at Ife for some time but he kept a home in Ikoyi (Lagos). The kind of provisions he had allowed him to travel.
Were his parents educated?
His father was a traditional sculptor; I am not sure about his level of education. His mother was a wealthy cloths merchant. I wouldn’t know if she was educated either.
What were some of the notable places he had exhibition abroad?
The last major exhibition he had was at the Royal Society of British Artists, where he was a senior member, where he had been a fellow from as far back as 1985. He exhibited in London at the Mall Galleries. He also exhibited in Paris. I can’t remember some of the names now.
You’ve mentioned some of his notable works. Can you mention some more and where can they be found?
Knowledge, which is at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs; Sango is at the Power Holding Company in Lagos; Anyanwu, at the United Nations headquarters in New York; The Drummer used to be at the head office of NITEL before it was removed. The sculpture of the Queen in 1957, when the Queen sat for him at the Buckingham Palace. Twelve sittings in all — five sittings at Buckingham Palace, seven at his private studio in London. There is also Tutu, 1973. These are some of his major works.
Recently, there was a story about Tutu resurfacing after going missing for years. What is the story behind that?
That was the second iteration. He did three versions of Tutu. It was the second one that resurfaced. The main one is still stolen. Two had been sold publicly at auctions. One broke a world record for him. That one went for $1.6m. But there is still one, the main Tutu, which is still at large.
What’s the idea behind Tutu? Who was Tutu?
Tutu was a granddaughter of the Ooni of Ife. She is Tutu Ademiluyi. My father was a professor at Ife and she was just a young girl. So, he sought permission from her parents for her to sit for him. She sat for him. At the time, Nigeria was recovering from the tragic civil war and the work was very important because of the power that he (Enwonwu) wielded in unifying the country. Here was an Igbo artist painting a Yoruba princess and the country took to it as a form of healing for the wounds of the war. Around that period, he painted a lot of works that told of the horrors of Biafra and the travails of children. That was the period when Tutu was executed.
For me, I always believe that art must have some form of political, historical, social and economic significance. And here was an artist at the height of his powers, bringing various tribes and people together as a way of healing the country through his works because he understood his position. Remember, he had been federal art advisor for over two decades, so his works were very relevant because these were not mere works; they were works that were exhibited all over the world and he was a very eloquent and articulate artist. So, he always spoke about healing and bringing the country together.
As an artist yourself, what do you think really makes Tutu a masterpiece?
We already talked about the social and historical significance but let me look at it from the aesthetic point of view as an artist. You just need to look at the elegant features; the elongated neck, the eyes, they follow you around the room. Look at the brush strokes, which are powerful and economical because with very few strokes he was able to describe her effectively, he was able to situate her in space. It’s not just blank space; you can see that the air around her is breathing. And if you look at the colours, they are very few but it (the work) has a lot of vibrancy; the richness is there; the gait, elegance, the form, the poise. It’s a very powerful work. Look at how he captured the velvety tone of the skin. It’s a very powerful work that sits very comfortably.
You said it was sold for $1.6m. Was that the highest that your dad made from a single piece of artwork?
No, because he never sold it in his life. He didn’t make money from it. Remember I told you the works were stolen. It was just celebrated all around the world for its beauty.
Your father was 76 years old when he died on February 5, 1994. Was he still active as an artist up till then or had he retired?
He was still painting on his sickbed until he died. He would still get his sketch pad and make sketches, even though he had lost the use of his legs.
What happened to him?
He died of prostate cancer, so, he couldn’t walk anymore. But he would sit up on his bed and ask for his sketch pad and paper.
For how long was he sick before he passed on?
He was sick for a while; about two years before he passed.
That suggests that he had unfinished works that he left behind.
Yes, he had some unfinished works.
How many were they and what became of them?
He left about 300 works in his collection, many of them finished. He had executed some of them as early as 1950s but he kept them in his personal collection.
Why wasn’t he selling them?
He felt his works were like his children and very close to his heart. He sold some of his works but there were some that were very special to him. Some of them were portraits of my mum, some of his children, he wouldn’t sell those ones. Some of them, like Tutu, were masterpieces but sadly before he died, a lot of his works were stolen.
How did that happen?
That’s a long story, which I wouldn’t want in the press.
Growing up with him as your father, what was the experience like?
He was very inspirational. We all wanted to be like him; he’s my hero. I already mentioned how he always wanted us to be busy doing something. He believed in excellence.
How many wives did he have?
His first wife died and then he married my mum.
How many siblings do you have?
From my mum, we’re four. All together, we are nine children.
Did your dad get to tell you the story of how he met your mum? Was he a romantic man?
He was very romantic. She used to work at the federal Ministry of Information around Broad Street (Lagos). My father was much older than my mum. There is about 23 years difference in their ages. I remember she told me he would come with a big ride; I think it was a Ford Mustang at that time and she would be hiding from him because her mates were young boys, so they would be teasing her: ‘That your old man is around again o’. So, she would go and hide but he was persistent and eventually he won her heart. And I remember he was very romantic; they would walk around hand-in-hand. They used to go to nice hang-outs of those days where the crème de la crème of society would go dancing. Those were the things that she told me. He loved dancing and he was a very good dancer.
When he passed on, how was the moment like for your mum?
Of course, that is her husband of many years and they had four children together. They were very close and she was into his work. If he wanted to go outdoors to paint, she would pack his things. She would help him to arrange his works, bring them out to air them. She knew a lot about his work and even did an inventory for his works. And she also modelled a lot for him. There are paintings and sculptures of her that he did.
So, how is she doing now, 29 years after her loving husband passed on?
She is 81 years old now.
What was your dad’s favourite food and drink?
I know he liked my mum’s cooking a lot. He liked pounded yam; he liked ofe nsala, ofe onugu, these are Igbo soups. He liked biscuits; he liked fine red wines, which he always had with his meals; and white wine with fish or chicken. And of course, he always made sure he ate fruits. There was always banana in the fridge.
Did he smoke?
He smoked but he had to give it up. He was coughing very badly. He used to smoke cigar and especially, his pipe. But my mum had to make him stop for the sake of his health.
Did he give you and your siblings advice on choice of career?
He was liberal. His disposition was that whatever you did, just be the best at it. That was his advice.
When he noticed your inclination towards art, did he particularly encourage you to become an artist like him?
No, he actually wanted me to be a priest.
Why was that?
He said he had been told…he wanted to dedicate his youngest son to the service of God. You know we are five boys and I am the last one.
Are you his last child?
No, last son. I have two younger sisters.
How did you then end up not being what he thought you should do?
(Laughs) Long story. I think art took over. I became more like him instead.
And he didn’t have any problem with that?
He didn’t live to see it. He just knew I could paint. I was in secondary school (when he died).
How old were you when he passed on?
I was 16 or 17. So, he didn’t see that.
Since you were quite young when he passed on, what did his absence mean for you?
It was sad initially but it spurred me on to continue his work.
Where exactly were you on the day he passed on?
I was in the next room. My mum was with him and I was the first person she called.
Were you the only child at home then?
No, my sisters and brothers were also around but I was the first person she called because I was with him the night before.
What was his funeral like? Where were his remains interred?
It was in Onitsha; it was grand. The masquerades that he used to paint, some of them came out. But, of course, as a chief, there were some rites that we were not allowed to participate in. It was just his age group of chieftains, very respectable men that were allowed to participate in that ceremony. His funeral was with the sort of pomp that you will expect a man of his calibre to be celebrated with.
He was widely travelled and exposed. Did he keep closely in touch with his tradition or culture?
Of course, even through his works. If you look at his works, you will see those masquerades. He was a deeply cultural man, even though he was widely travelled. He was able to blend very seamlessly the western world and learning with his background.
Now as an artist, will you say your works are driven by the same philosophy that underpinned his own? Did you adopt his style or did you create your own?
Well, I have adopted some of them. There is no way there wasn’t going to be an influence. But again, I see things differently. We are different in many respects. For instance, as I told you, at the time he came on the scene, it was important for African artists to define who they were. He was more interested in developing a new modern language for art. I am not doing that. Instead, I am tackling and engaging the works of modernist artists, who didn’t give the deserved credit to African artists. So, I am having conversations. Overall, he was more interested in the spiritual aspect of art. For me, I am championing black excellence. So, we are different in our philosophies.
Are you his only child who is following in his footpath?
I have a brother who is a sculptor but he’s not very vigorous about it and I have a sister who can draw but she’s applying her own artistic talent to designing websites. I am the one who is in the art field. I used to be National President of the Society of Nigerian Artists; I have exhibited my works locally and internationally. So, I am the one who has taken after him more than any of his other children.
Did the fact that you are a son of the great Enwonwu make it easier for you to achieve success in the visual art space?
Yes and no. Yes, because my name is instantly recognised. No, because I am held to higher standards. It’s a double-edged sword.
So, how have you been able to manage the expectations of people?
I am not dealing with expectations. I just believe and see my work as continuing where my father stopped and there is no competition; I cannot compete against my father. And our paths are different. I started out as a publisher, publishing exhibition catalogue for artists and promoting their works. I then went on to establish a leading Nigerian art gallery, promoting other artists. I also established a foundation to preserve my father’s legacies. I am also an artist, a painter. So, you can see I am doing things that he didn’t do. He didn’t establish a gallery; he didn’t set up a publishing company. Part of my own work has to do with promoting artists and art in Nigeria, which is different from what he did. I am a painter primarily, he was a painter and a sculptor.
The works that he left unfinished, did you finish them?
No, it’s not in my place to finish them. And who can say whether an artist has finished a work or not? It’s left for the artist to decide. I am creating my own works.
When you meet people who knew your father and how great he was, particularly outside the country, what kind of reaction do you get from them?
Oh, they are happy. First of all, they marvel at the fact that we are three generations of artists, from my grandfather to my father and then to me and they want to know if my children are also artists. They are very happy that I have been able to keep the legacy flying.
Are your children also artists or are they showing the tendency?
Two of my children are very artistically inclined.
Your dad got national honours in Britain and Senegal. Were you old enough to appreciate those moments and what were they like for him and the family?
It was later on in life as I grew older that I began to understand more about his accomplishments. When people used to talk about his greatness, for me, he was just daddy. But as I grew up, I began to understand fully his impact on the Nigerian culture and the broader African continent. But one thing we are not particularly happy about is that despite his international awards and recognition, he wasn’t given the sort of honour that he deserves here. The national honour he won had to do with academic merit, the Nigerian National Merit Award. But he wasn’t given a national honour and when you see some of the people who are being conferred with national honours, you will wonder why a great artist like Ben Enwonwu, who brought so much recognition to his fatherland, has been ignored, which is sad.
On the family end, what are you doing to keep his memories alive?
We’ve established a foundation in his name. Through the foundation we give out scholarships to preserve his legacies. We are also trying to publish some books that he wrote himself. We want to publish and circulate them to the wider world and to compile all his works into a catalogue, to stop forgeries and theft. We are trying to work on a documentary of his life and times. These are some of the things we are doing.
What do you think artists of today can learn from him?
Excellence; whatever you do, be excellent at it. That’s the major thing because that was what he lived for. And they should try to show the relevance of their art, rather than just do art for the sake of art. Art has its political relevance, especially in a country with great political upheavals. What are you doing as an artist to document your history, to shape society? The art has a larger role than just being for aesthetic reason.