On the planet Mercury there exists a crater. It was named after one of the greatest visual artists ever to come out of Nigeria. And whilst the Enwonwu Crater is perhaps the ultimate in timeless reminders of his craft, Ben Enwonwu’s impact was thankfully felt much, much closer to home.
Ben Enwonwu was born on 14 July 1917 in Onitsha, Nigeria to a technician father (who worked with the Royal Niger Company) and a mother, Ilom, who was a successful cloth merchant.
The young Enwonwu attended Government College, Ibadan and Government College, Umuahia before proceeding to Goldsmith College, London in 1944. From Goldsmith, he went to Ruskin College, Oxford, then Ashmolean College and later Slade School of Fine Arts, London where he graduated with first-class honours. His post-graduate work took him to the University of California and Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, USA.
Ben Enwonwu was that rare artist – someone acknowledged for his greatness in his own lifetime. His exhibitions, first in Lagos, then London and Milan established him as the foremost African artist of his generation.
In 1954 he was became a member of the most distinguished Order of the British Empire. In 1957 he became the first African to sculpt HM Queen Elizabeth II. And in 1964 he created perhaps his most famous work, the sculpture of Sango, the god of thunder, which graces the NEPA building in Lagos.
Yet Onwonwu was never content to remain purely an artist. He was first an art advisor, then later a cultural advisor to the Nigerian government. He became a fellow of the University of Lagos, was a visiting artist at the Institute of African Studies at Howard University, Washington DC, and made history as the first professor of fine arts at the University of Ife.
He was a proudly outspoken advocate of African art, famously saying: “I will not accept an inferior position in the art world. Nor have my art called African because I have not correctly and properly given expression to my reality. I have consistently fought against that kind of philosophy because it is bogus.”
Ben Enwonwu died on February 5 1994. He continues to be celebrated for his contributions to modern African art. His work continues to fetch record sums at auction. And some 48 million miles away, a crater on the planet Mercury bears testament to the fact that sometimes it doesn’t take a meteor to make a big impact.
Sep 28, 2014 0