Ben Enwonwu’s Bronze Sculpture, Anyanwu, Auctions for Record £353,000 at Bonhams

• Dinner held in London to commemorate artist’s centenary

Agha Ibiam in London

A full-size cast of the bronze sculpture, Anyanwu, by iconic Nigerian painter and sculptor, the late Prof. Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu, was auctioned for a record £353,000 (N138.4 million) at Bonhams, the renowned international auction house, in London yesterday.

The auction was the culmination of the commemoration of Enwonwu’s birth 100 years ago, which started with a dinner held Monday night at Bonhams’ headquarters in Mayfair, London.

The dinner was hosted by the Chairman/Founder of Coronation Capital Nigeria, Mr. Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede and his wife, Ofovwe, in conjunction with Bonhams.

Other VIPs in attendance at the dinner covered by THISDAY were the Nigerian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Ambassador, Simon Ogah; wife of the Senate President, Mrs. Toyin Saraki; Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, Baroness Amos; Mr. Christopher Spring of the British Museum; another celebrated Nigerian artist, Mr. Yinka Shonibare, MBE; Ms. Kerryn Greenberg from the Tate Gallery; and Dr. Johnetta Cole from the Smithsonian Institute

Bonhams’ Director of African Art, Giles Peppiatt, said at the dinner: “Ben Enwonwu was the first important Nigerian artist to reflect the sculptural traditions of his people in his work.

“It was a great privilege for Bonhams to join with Mr. and Mrs. Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede to celebrate the centenary of the birth of this remarkable man.”

Peppiatt noted that Enwonwu was the most important modern Nigerian artist of his time and was very talented in paintings and drawing at a very early age.

“At that time, opportunities were not there. He came to study in Cambridge and Oxford and he learnt a lot and went out there to develop and foster his own work in a very massive way and in his own manner and language,” he said.

He recalled that a version of Enwonwu’s Anyanwu was chosen by the people of Nigeria and was given to the United Nations (UN) when the country was commemorating her independence.

“What a better commendation can you give to a man like Ben Enwonwu,” he asked rhetorically.

Peppiatt described Enwonwu as very critical to the art scene and was the reason he was commissioned to sculpt a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II when she visited the country in 1956.

In his remarks, Aig-Imoukhuede said Enwonwu was unarguably the most renowned and respected African artist and sculptor in the history of modern African art.

“I grew up knowing and admiring Uncle Ben for the outstanding beauty of his works. One of the very first paintings I came to own was the print of the famous ‘Tutu’.

“Beyond family connections, my wife and I have become avid collectors of his works. We are indeed privileged and honoured to hold along with Bonhams, the first of many events to celebrate this great African master.

“He is indeed the pride of Nigeria and Africa. His artworks are proudly on display in Nigeria and important galleries around the world.

“His works of art command premium prices in international arts market and set the standard for African contemporary art,” he added.

Information made available on Bonhams’ website after Anyanwu’s auction showed that the sculpture measuring 236 x 71 x 45cm (6ft 10 inches high) was placed on the block at an estimated price of £150,000 – £200,000, but was auctioned to a new owner for £353,000.

Anyanwu is widely considered an Enwonwu masterpiece. Several smaller versions of the sculpture have passed through Bonhams’ salerooms, most recently in Africa Now: Modern Africa, May 2016.

Another version once sold as the best selling work of Enwonwu at an Arthouse auction in Lagos for a record N21 million.

The current lot auctioned by Bonhams is the first full-size cast to come to market. At 6ft10 high, the sculpture dwarfs the later editions.

Enwonwu sculpted and cast the work in 1956 at the London studios of the acclaimed British sculptor, Sir William Reed Dick. The previous year, Enwonwu had received an MBE from Queen Elizabeth II, raising his international profile to an all-time high.

He sculpted a portrait of the British monarch in the same year the present lot was cast.

The first full-size Anyanwu was commissioned in 1954 by the colonial government of Nigeria to celebrate the establishment of the National Museum at Onikan in Lagos by the acclaimed artist and archaeologist, Kenneth Crosthwaite Murray.

Enwonwu had been one of Murray’s first students in the 1930s and shared his commitment to reviving Nigerian art and craft traditions.

Inspired by the shrine carvings of his sculptor father, Enwonwu’s work represented a return to traditional Igbo aesthetics.

Titled after the Igbo word for ‘the sun’, Anyanwu references the traditional practice of venerating ChiUkwu (the Great Spirit) by saluting the rising sun.

Enwonwu depicts the female deity rising up out of the ground, her lithe body arching towards the sky. This upward trajectory was intended to symbolise the aspirations of the soon-to-be independent nation.

Her noble bearing is underlined by her ‘chicken-beak’ headdress and coral jewellery: the royal regalia of the Bini people.

Such was the symbolic potency of the sculpture that the Nigerian ambassador, Chief Adebo, presented an almost identical cast to the United Nations headquarters on October 5th 1966, a few days after Nigeria’s sixth independence anniversary.

Having studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, Enwonwu was highly aware of the debt European Modernism owed to Africa’s artistic traditions.

Anyanwu’s dynamic, semi-abstract form was a clear reminder, and affirmed Nigeria’s position as a leading independent nation, ready to take its place on the world stage.

Cast an entire decade before the version gifted to the United Nations, the present lot is Enwonwu’s second edition of his magnum opus.

It was purchased in London by a close friend of the artist in the 1970s, and was in a private collection until yesterday’s auction.

Enwonwu described his vision for the sculpture thus: “My aim was to symbolise our rising nation. I have tried to combine material, crafts and traditions, to express a conception that is based on womanhood – woman, the mother and nourisher of man.

“In our rising nation, I see the forces embodied in womanhood; the beginning, and then, the development and flowering into the fullest stature of a nation – a people!

“This sculpture is spiritual in conception, rhythmical in movement and three dimensional in its architectural setting – these qualities are characteristic of the sculptures of my ancestors.”

The artist’s words clearly expressed his belief that Anyanwu was a visual manifestation of the new Nigeria, culturally-confident and proud of her heritage.

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