Arts & Design

Why Oliver Enwonwu’s Exhibition in London is a Must-See


The news is out already: OM234 presents ‘Oliver Enwonwu: A Continued Legacy’ at Mall Galleries, London. If you are wondering why this is such a vibe, the answer is simple. The exhibition which is to kick off in May coincides with the 30th anniversary of Ben Enwonwu’s passing.


Running from May 21 to June 1,  the show is a joint exhibition of paintings, drawings and sculpture by Oliver Enwonwu and his father, Prof. Ben Enwonwu, MBE, NNOM (1917 – 1994) at Mall Galleries, London.


Conceived as a conversation between both artists exploring their shared depiction of femininity as a symbol of indigenous aesthetics and primordial feminine power, the exhibition venue pays homage to Ben 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” emphasising 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.


Indeed, 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. ‘Legacy of Resistance,’ Enwonwu’s interpretation of the 1804 “Igbo Landing,” is another notable work.


Here, he explores the reality of historical trauma by recalling the past and written accounts of history and having them retold as myths or legends. In this painting as well as in the ‘Children of Biafra’ series, the artist adapted his father’s Anyanwu to continue a conversation with him as well as a metaphor for emancipation. The series on Idia (Iyoba, the warrior queen and mother of Oba Esigie of Benin) celebrates women through the concept of heroism, while Beauty and Morality and Musings challenge the gaze cast on women by White European artists such as Matisse and Modigliani, respectively.


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.


In a long career spanning over six decades Ben Enwonwu’s broad oeuvre embraces several themes including the metaphysical, colonialism, sexism, gender inequality, environmental sustainability, and peace. Among Ben 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 Enwonwu 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 Enwonwu re-enacts an artistic process of his father and continues his legacy. Printed editions of Ben Enwonwu’s ‘Adetutu Ademiluyi’ works will also be available.


Ben Enwonwu’s sculpture of HM Queen Elizabeth II is also among 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 few photographs of Oliver Enwonwu 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.


Oliver Enwonwu is a third-generation artist; his grandfather was a reputable traditional sculptor, while his father, Professor Ben Enwonwu, MBE, is celebrated as Africa’s pioneer modernist artist.


Enwonwu is a well-recognised leader in the Nigerian arts and culture sector with about 20 years of experience in art advisory, programme management, as well as strategy and development.


A curator, art administrator, author, publisher, and brand strategist, Enwonwu earned a first degree in biochemistry, an advanced diploma in exploration geophysics (distinction), and a postgraduate diploma in applied geophysics from the University of Lagos, Nigeria. From the same institution, he holds another postgraduate diploma in visual arts (distinction) and graduated as with a master’s in art history. Presently, Enwonwu is pursuing a PhD in African art history at the University of Benin.


Art Adviser to the Federal Government and was reappointed on a contract that same year as Cultural Adviser. The University of Lagos also elected him the first university fellow in African Studies. In 1969, Ahmadu Bello University awarded him an honorary doctorate (D.Litt). In 1971, he became a visiting artist at the Institute of African Studies at Howard University, Washington D.C. That year, the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) appointed him Nigeria’s first professor of fine art. In 1980, Enwonwu was awarded the Nigerian National Merit Award (NNMA) for his contributions to art.





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