For Ben Enwonwu, Aig-Imoukhuede Goes to London

Better known in the finance sector as the former group managing director and CEO of Access Bank PLC and President of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, has other passions. Born to parents who earned a living through the visual arts, he started to appreciate art at the tender age of five. Agha Ibiam, who met him at Bonhams auctioneers of fine art and antiques in London, writes

Like Pussy Cat, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede and wife, Ofovwe, were in London to see the queen. Of course, not literally! Really, the couple’s last Monday’s visit also had little or nothing to do with business meetings, holidays or even shopping. They were in London for the centenary dinner in honour of the late Nigerian modernist, Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu, simply known in art circles as Ben Enwonwu.

Enwonwu, a renowned and respected artist, was the first Nigerian professor of art. His international recognition dated as far back as 1956. This was when he became the first African artist to be commissioned by the colonial British Government to produce a portrait sculpture of England’s Queen Elizabeth II. The successful execution of that sculpture projected him up the ladder-rungs of fame.

It was on the premise of the late icon’s renown that Aig-Imoukhuede and family base their interest in his work. At the centenary dinner hosted by him, his wife and the directors of Bonhams, Aig-Imuokhuede, proudly told a coterie of aficionados at the gathering that the artist’s works are not only cherished in Nigeria but also in renowned galleries worldwide. Without mincing words, he said Enwonwu’s works not only command premium prices in the international art market but also set the standards for the contemporary African art.

The venue for this event was at a posh location along London’s fashionable New Bond Street. It was precisely at Bonhams, a privately-owned British auction house and one of the world’s oldest and largest auctioneers of fine arts and antiques, including modern and contemporary African art in London.
“Ben Enwonwu is indeed the pride of Nigeria and Africa,” Aig-Imokhuede told the gathering at the event. “And he will be celebrated, which is the reason we are here tonight at Bonhams.”

This really wasn’t a night for long speeches. Guests milled around the hall, ogling Ben Enwonwu’s classics, including his bronze sculpture “Anyanwu” which was produced in 1956. Positioned at a corner of the hall, this Enwonwu’s masterpiece valued at £150,000-£200,000 by Bonhams.

This could be why Aig-Imoukhuede, at a media briefing, said that he would have chosen to work in the art industry rather than in baking had he known the value of art. But even these figures seemed modest when compared to Ben Enwonwu’s other works recently sold by the auction house.

Bonhams’ Director of Modern Arts, Gilles Peppiatt enthused about the value of Ben Enwonwu’s works. “His sculpture has sold for £380,000 and his painting £260,000 last year. His work made a lot of improvements. And if you don’t create work, people will not notice, but Ben has done that through his work,” Peppiatt said.

Enwonwu’s works are not only celebrated for their monetary value, but also for their influence on the younger generation of artists. The renowned British artist of Nigerian descent Yinka Shonibare, who grew up as a young child in Nigeria, told the audience that he embraced Enwonwu’s work with an indescribable love.

“No doubt, he is certainly one of the artists that inspired me to go into art when I came to London to study,” Shonibare said. “But everything began when I was in Nigeria by people like him and his works. He stimulated my interest into the arts and I feel very honoured celebrating his centenary work today.”

Indeed, his desire to study art almost set him on a collision course with his parents. He had left Nigeria in 1980 to England and was advised to study law by his parents. But his predilection for art trumped his parents’ wish. Yet, even that was not easy, as he put it: “Though my parents wanted me to study law, I wanted to study arts. I was so determined to study art that my parents later had to allow me. But it was quite a battle.”

Admiring Enwonwu’s paintings which adorned Bonhams main hall during the centenary dinner night, Shonibare extolled the fine arts as a good profession to pursue provided that young Nigerians are focused and hardworking. He also added that they must be ready to study the work of other artists. Education for the arts in London is very good, he conceded. But he also believes that studying arts in Nigeria could also be profitable, especially in Yaba College of Technology and University of Ife.

The artist, Shonibare continued, is like a story-teller. Hence, if people could watch films and understand them, there is no reason why they cannot understand and enjoy the visual arts. Shonibare’s works, like Ben Enwonwu’s, will be on display in March at James Coham Gallery, New York. But in Piccadilly London, there is a permanent exhibition of his works at the Royal Academy.

For Aig-Imoukhuede, love for Enwonwu’s works affected him differently. Unlike Shonibare, he didn’t have to abandon law and banking for art. He rather chose to become a connoisseur. He got his first Enwonwu at the tender age of five. It was a piece about a Biafran soldier who fought during the Nigeria-Biafra war. And his second work was the portrait of the Queen of England.

“Ben was a multitalented artist,” the banker said. “He was someone I grew up with and I admired him. Most of my family members are very much embedded in the arts and I have a large collection of Ben’s work. If my parents were not as generous as they were when I was growing up, perhaps we could not have been here to honour him[Enwonwu].”

Aig-Imoukhuede had good reasons to reach out to Bonhams when the auction house first began to project Africa Now: Modern Africa. One of the reasons, he said, was that it something he needed and desired. Perhaps, proper valuation was another reason, otherwise there would have been no justification for the Monday event.

Enwonwu’s pedigree, he opined, has projected the Nigerian modern art to a very high pedestal, making him a great bequest to humanity. He argued that if a work of art could not be valued in monetary terms, it would ultimately have no value. Making a side allusion to football, he again argued that a footballer must command a value.

But without a shadow of a doubt, Aig-Imoukhuede’s love for the visual arts must have stemmed up from his parents. His mother, according to him, was the first African curator at National Museum, while his father was the producer and director of films and had also worked at the Federal Ministry of Information.
Aig-Imoukhuede grew up as a child knowing about the masters like Ben Enwonwu or Bruce Onobrakpeya, whose works he also had. “Maybe my own involvement in this gives the opportunity for others to discover what ordinarily they would not have discovered,” he said.

Aig-Imoukhuede professes an undying love for other Enwonwu offerings like “Tutu” and “Ogolo” (which were not on display at Bonhams). “I know Nigerian culture which is vibrant and artistic, but I don’t know how Professor Ben Enwonwu captures it because it comes alive,” he said.
The well-attended event was also graced by some dignitaries like the acting Nigerian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Simon Ogah and another great artist of Nigerian descent Mrs Sokari Douglas, among others.

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