• Monday, May 27, 2024
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Ben Enwonwu on sale in London


 Benedict Enwonwu’s works stand centre stage at Bonhams sale of Contemporary African Art at Bonhams New Bond Street on May 22, led by a collection of seven wooden sculptures commissioned by the Daily Mirror in 1961.

These seven sculptures by Ben Enwonwu, M.B.E (1917-1994), are estimated to sell for £80,000 to £120,000. Each of the signed sculptures features a figure holding a newspaper.

An unrelated bronze sculpture, also by Enwonwu, titled ‘Anyanwu’ is estimated to sell for £50,000-£80,000. This is a small-scale version of the famous work mounted on the façade of the National Museum in Onikan, Lagos, the current lot is one of Enwonwu’s most significant sculptures. The title ‘Anyanwu’ (eye of the sun) invokes the Igbo practice of saluting the rising sun as a way to honour Chiukwu, the Great Spirit: in some instances (for example in the small Anyanwu bronze in the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace), the work is titled Rising Sun.

Enwonwu’s ‘Anyanwu’ is commonly cited as among the artist’s most accomplished works, not only formally but also in terms of its positioning in Nigerian cultural history. The noble figure, with its lithe bronze torso arising as if from the earth, is considered the pre-eminent expression of what Sylvester Ogbechie describes as “the aspirations of the Nigerian nation and Enwonwu’s personal intercession for its survival and growth.”

Enwonwu has said of the sculpture: “My aim was to symbolise our rising nation. I have tried to combine material, crafts, and traditions, to express a conception that is based on womanhood – woman, the mother and nourisher of man. In our rising nation, I see the forces embodied in womanhood; the beginning, and then, the development and flowering into the fullest stature of a nation – a people! This sculpture is spiritual in conception, rhythmical in movement, and three dimensional in its architectural setting – these qualities are characteristic of the sculpture of my ancestors.”

The first ‘Anyanwu’ sculpture (1954-5), made for the National Museum, Lagos, was so popular that another was commissioned for the United Nations headquarters in New York (1961).

Another strong work by this leading African artist is titled The Durbar of Eid ul-Fitr, Kano, Nigeria. It is signed and dated ‘Ben Enwonwu 1955’ (lower left); bears Piccadilly Gallery label. An oil on canvas, it is estimated to sell for £50,000 – £80,000. This work was bought by the president of the Junior Combination Room Art Committee, Downing College, Cambridge, from the Piccadilly Gallery, London, in 1955.

In Northern Nigeria, Eid-ul-Fitr – the end of Ramadan – is celebrated with a Durbar, or festive procession. The Durbar is initiated by the Emir of each state, and consists of a series of prayers followed by a parade of the Emir and his elaborately-dressed entourage, many on horses or camels, to the Emir’s palace. The procession is accompanied by music players (particularly drummers) and is an energetic and colourful event: the subject clearly captured the artist’s imagination and is ably documented in the dynamic composition of the present lot.

It is probable that the Durbar represented here is that of Kano, the capital city of Kano State, which Enwonwu visited in 1951 as part of a government commission on which he was working. Not only is the Kano Durbar the most renowned and lavish in the country, but the architecture, as well as the bird symbol of the Emir of Kano – just visible on the parasol which shields him from the sun on the left of the picture plane – suggests this attribution.

Commissioned by the Nigerian government to produce a series of wood-relief panels for the recently-built Nigerian House of Representatives, the artist sought to “express Nigeria’s cultural diversity by including motifs drawn from different Nigerian cultural contexts,” including the predominantly Muslim North. Enwonwu thus made a trip to Kano to record the decorative traditions, festivals and people of the region, producing a number of paintings during this visit.