|Ben Enwonwu's son, Oliver (in white agbada) speaking with visiting Prince Charles during the exhibition of Queen Elizabeth II sculpture... in Lagos.|
When Prince Charles visited Nigeria in November, 2018, the British royal family had a retrospection with the famous bronze sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II, in Lagos.
The sculpture was produced in 1957 by Ben Enwonwu MBE, to mark the Queen's visit to Nigeria.
In an exhibition format, a not-for-profit organisation, The Ben Enwonwu Foundation (BEF) and the British High Commission, in collaboration with London-based auction house Bonhams, exhibited the sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II, at the British Residence in Ikoyi, Lagos in honour of the Prince of Wales’ visit to Nigeria.
Apart from the ceremonial context in which the bronze sculpture was displayed, the event also revisited the African content that characterised the Queen's statue. BEF, for example noted that the artist's works, in general, celebrate Africa and were used to champion Black nationalists struggles all over the world. The foundation also noted that "he is credited with inventing a Nigerian national aesthetic by fusing indigenous traditions with Western techniques and modes of representation".
And when Enwonwu completed the Queen's sculpture in 1957, his African touch generated controversy, among the western press. In fact, the sculpture was described by a section of the media as 'The Africanised Queen'.
Revisiting the African touch of the bronze sculpture, BEF stated that "there is a careful balance of realism in the physical features of the face, torso and hands, and the geometric abstraction in the folds of the dress, drawn from traditional African sculpture that gave birth to modern art".
The finished sculpture could not have escaped the level of critique it got given the fact that from conception, the media were involved. For example, the official announcement, BEF recalled, was in the Times (London) and stated: Her Majesty the Queen has agreed to sit for a portrait in bronze to be executed by the Nigerian sculptor Mr. Enwonwu in commemoration of the Queen’s visit to Nigeria in January and February of 1956. Also, another publication The West African Review wrote: The news that Her Majesty the Queen is to give sittings to the Nigerian sculptor, Mr. Ben Enwonwu, sets the royal seal on the renown of West Africa’s most famous artist.
BEF recalled the trajectory of the sculpture, which took off in 1956. "The portrait commission of Elizabeth II, Queen of England and Monarch of the British Empire, was conceived by Enwonwu", the BEF said in its post-exhibition statement. "The artist actually proposed it to Alan Lennox-Boyd, Secretary of State for the colonies, to commemorate the Queen's visit to Nigeria in January and February 1956. The commission was arranged in consultation with protocol officials at Buckingham Palace, with the intention to install the completed bronze statue in the Nigerian House of Representatives in preparation for independence in 1960".
Though the official announcement of the commission was made in November 1956, the queen did not commence sitting till the following year". Enwonwu, it was disclosed, started work on the sculpture, "effectively in March 1957".
And when work started, Queen Elizabeth II actually sat 12 times for Enwonwu! "The sittings were 12 in all, with the first few at Buckingham Palace, where he was provided a studio". Enwonwu, it was recorded, "spent an hour each day sketching and modelling in clay", with the thumbnails on the queen "produced in watercolours and captured her in profiles and frontal poses".
Among the 12 sittings, four took place at another studio. "Sir William Reid-Dick, Enwonwu’s colleague at the Royal Society of British Artists, made his studio at Maida Vale available, and the queen agreed to complete her next 4 sittings here". And like most works of such scale, Enwonwu also did a maquette as "portrait bust and a sketch model of the sculpture".
Ahead of the sculpture's travelling to Nigeria, Enwonwu presented it at the 1957 annual exhibition of the Royal Society of British Artists in London. "The West African Review noted Enwonwu’s inclination towards indigenous African symbolism but also praised his vision of modern art. The Times reported that the completed bronze statue conveyed the requisite sense of regal dignity required of commissions of this significance".
However, 61 years after, the Lagos exhibition during Prince Charles' visit was a restage of what BEF noted as Enwonwu's last solo exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London organised by the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA).
Tracing the African consciousness in Enwonwu's art dates back to his early art education in Nigeria. Enwonwu's basic art education before leaving Nigeria was under Kenneth C. Murray, an Education officer in the colonial civil service. But the African consciousness in Enwonwu's art is not unconnected to Aina Onabolu-Murray influence on Nigerian art education of the early 20th century. Onabolu, a pioneer and father of Nigerian modern art — who promoted indige out contents — had recommended the employment of Murray into the Nigerian education sector.
Currently housed at the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos, the sculpture of the Queen, according to BEF is significant not only for its artistic merit but because it celebrates the relationship between Nigeria and Great Britain in many ways.
Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu MBE was born in 1917. Enwonwu was trained at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in London through a scholarship partly funded by the British Council.
He was also a member of the RBA. And in 1954, he was awarded an MBE, for his contributions to art and culture.
He is the most influential African artist of the 20th century. His pioneering career opened the way for the post-colonial proliferation and increased the visibility of modern African art. Educated at the Slade, University of London, he was one of the first African artists to win critical acclaim, having shown at prestigious exhibition spaces in Europe and the United States, and listed in international directories of contemporary art. Since 1950, Enwonwu was celebrated as "Africa's Greatest Artist" by the international media and his fame was used to enlist support for Black Nationalists movement all over the world. In 1971, Enwonwu was appointed Nigeria’s first professor of art by the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, and was awarded the Nigerian National Merit Award by the Federal Government in 1980. The Enwonwu crater on the planet Mercury is named in his honour. He died in 1994.
-Tajudeen Sowole is a Lagos-based writer on The Arts.