Enwonwu, Ben C. (1917–1994) By Ogbechie, Sylvester Okwunodu
Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu was a pioneer African modernist and the first African transnational artist to gain global visibility, having had his art exhibited in Europe, Africa, USA, and also in Asia well before 1950. Enwonwu was born in Onicha in Eastern Nigeria in 1917 and grew up in a cosmopolitan market town that was a center of indigenous Igbo culture and British colonial control. The origins of Enwonwu’s art lie in the complex historical and cultural environments from which the artist emerged. A sculptor and painter, his art was a complex amalgamation of British colonial culture and indigenous Igbo/African systems of representation that framed the artist’s early years. His father was a sculptor who produced both ritual and secular artworks for indigenous Onitsha society and Enwonwu was first introduced to the conceptual structures of Igbo aesthetics through his father’s practice. Throughout his life, Enwonwu described himself as a sculptor and used his father’s traditional tools of sculpture, mainly an adz, to produce his own works. Ben Enwonwu died in 1994 and left a legacy of significant art and notable critical interventions, which reflected his insistence on formulating a notion of African modernist practice that built on important indigenous styles and aesthetics. His various artworks, writings and commentary on the art of his time are among the most substantial of any modern artist in the global context.