Friday 29 March 2024

'Enwonwu: A Continued Legacy' connects Tutu, Ooni in new royal series

'Beauty and Morality II' (oil on canvas, 153 X 105cm, dated 2023) by Oliver Enwonwu.

IN a joint exhibition titled Enwonwu: A Continued Legacy, the son of the late modernist, Oliver Enwonwu revisits one of his father's most iconic paintings, Tutu. 

The exhibition of paintings, drawings, and sculpture by father and son, being organised by OM234, showing at Mall Galleries, U.K from 21 May -1 June 2024, coincides with the 30th anniversary of the death of Prof Ben Enwonwu MBE. Enwonwu, NNOM (1917 – 1994), was appointed Art Advisor to the Nigerian federal government in 1959. In 1966, he led the Nigerian contingent to the first World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. In 1968, he retired as Art Adviser to the Federal Government and was reappointed on a contract that same year as Cultural Adviser. Enwonwu died on February 5, 1994.

In a long career spanning over six decades, Enwonwu’s broad oeuvre embraces several themes including the metaphysical, colonialism, sexism, gender inequality, environmental sustainability, and peace. Among Enwonwu’s most acclaimed works are three iterations of Adetutu Ademiluyi, then a youthful princess of Ile-Ife. In continuing a conversation with his father, Oliver returns to the royal household for the making of another series of royal portraits. His subject is Adetutu’s niece, Olori Aderonke Ogunwusi (nee Ademiluyi, great-granddaughter of Ooni Ajagun Ademiluyi and wife of the present Ooni). In this new series of paintings, Oliver re-enacts an artistic process of his father and continues his legacy. Printed editions of Enwonwu’s ‘Adetutu Ademiluyi’ works will also be available. 

The exhibition, according to the organisers, is conceived as a conversation between both artists exploring their shared depiction of femininity as a symbol of indigenous aesthetic and primordial feminine power. The exhibition venue pays homage to Enwonwu’s 1985 exhibition ‘Dance Theme’ also staged at Mall Galleries. 

For ‘A Continued Legacy’, Oliver Enwonwu has created new paintings that deviate from his father’s aesthetic to unpack ideas of nationhood, the female body, gesture, and symbolism. With a focus on the movement, hair, and clothing of his sitter’s Enwonwu depicts “strategy of resistance” emphasizing the self-assertiveness of his subjects. Enwonwu also engages with the works of other modern masters who failed to fully acknowledge their sources of inspiration in the geometric shapes of African masks and sculpture. Significantly, he has reinterpreted Picasso’s “Les Desmoiselles d’ Avignon” in a new work titled “Were God to be a Woman”. This painting asks us to reimagine the role of the women depicted by artists such as Picasso and celebrate indigenous African power over objectivity and colonialism. 

The use of archival material will underscore the exhibition and the relationship between the older and younger Enwonwu artists. Photographs of Ben Enwonwu with his iconic bronze 'Anyanwu' at the National Museum in Lagos will be juxtaposed with images of his son standing next to the same work decades later. They also serve to highlight the beginning of the latter’s exploration of sculpture as a medium. Completed works in limestone and paintings appropriating “Anyanwu” that express ideas of the woman and nationhood will also be presented.

Enwonwu’s sculpture of HM Queen Elizabeth II is also amongst his most celebrated works and will be remembered through a series of archival images depicting the late artist working on the sculpture and his meeting with HM to explain his artistic process in 1957. There will also be a small of photographs of Oliver presenting the work to the then HRH Prince Charles on an official visit to Nigeria. 

Together, the work of Ben and Oliver Enwonwu in ‘A Continued Legacy’ will examine the meeting point of tradition and modernity while highlighting the continued relevance of indigenous African identities, values, and beliefs in the contemporary globalised world. 

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