Now, the Stage is Set for Another Cross-generational Dialogue… 

A first-ever joint exhibition of sculptures, paintings, and drawings by Oliver Enwonwu and his renowned late father, Ben Enwonwu, will take place in a London gallery in late May. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports 

I sn’t it rather remarkable how, even after three decades since the passing of the revered Professor Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu, his son, the unarguably talented Oliver Enwonwu, faithfully continues to carry the torch of his pioneering artistic tradition? It is therefore not surprising that the younger Enwonwu’s deft weaving of his own creative tapestry into the revered legacy of his eminent father—the legendary Nigerian art icon, better known in art circles as Ben Enwonwu—now sets the stage for a landmark joint exhibition to grace the exquisite Malls Gallery in London, UK.

Talking about the exhibition, which is being organised by OM234, it is titled Oliver Enwonwu: A Continued Legacy. It will feature the father’s and son’s paintings, drawings, and sculptures for the first time in a London gallery, where the late icon Ben Enwonwu reportedly held his last major international show, Dance Theme, in 1985. It not only commemorates the 30th anniversary of Ben Enwonwu’s death, but it also serves as a platform for a conversation between the two legendary artists on how they each define womanhood as a combination of natural beauty and ancestral feminine fortitude.

As a young lad, Oliver used to revere his father’s art studio as a sacred space where he imbibed the basic principles of art. Despite his father’s praise for his classical style and advice on completion benchmarks in painting, Oliver didn’t flinch when it came to opting for biochemistry over fine arts for his first degree at the University of Lagos. However, his academic journey evolved, leading him to delve into exploration geophysics and later to pursue the visual arts, culminating in a Master’s degree in art history from the same university. Currently immersing himself in the realm of African art history, he is ardently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Benin.

Perhaps one of the unique features of the exhibition, which will be held from May 21 to June 1, is the fact that the artist, whose tenure as the president of the Society of Nigerian Artists spanned from 2009 to July 2021, has chosen to break free from his father’s artistic style by delving into themes of national identity, the female form, gestures, and symbols. Through a careful examination of his subjects’ movements, hair, and attire, he captures a spirit of defiance that underscores the assertiveness of those he portrays. Drawing inspiration from overlooked origins in African art, like geometric African masks, he challenges the legacy of modern masters who failed to credit their sources fully. His striking reimagining of Picasso’s “Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon,” which is renamed “Were God to be a Woman,” for instance, prompts viewers to reconsider the depiction of women in art, highlighting African power in the face of colonial history.

Noteworthy is “Legacy of Resistance,” a poignant piece alluding to the 1804 “Igbo Landing” at Dunbar Creek on St. Simons Island, Glynn County, Georgia, US, where Enwonwu confronts the impact of historical trauma by blending the lines between fact and fiction. Through works like “Children of Biafra” and the reimagination of his father’s “Anyanwu,” he maintains a dialogue with his heritage while symbolising liberation. Additionally, Enwonwu’s series on Idia, the warrior queen and mother of Oba Esigie of Benin, exalts female heroism, challenging historical narratives that objectify women. Pieces like “Beauty and Morality” and “Musings” further confront the colonial gaze of European artists, offering a powerful and transformative perspective on women in art.

The exhibition, sponsored by Geregu Power PLC and CSL Capital (UK) Ltd., will also feature archival materials, highlighting the intergenerational bond that exists between the two famous Enwonwu artists. Through a juxtaposition of photographs—Ben Enwonwu posing next to the legendary bronze “Anyanwu” at Lagos’ National Museum and his son mirroring the scene years later—the narrative of artistic evolution unfolds. These visuals not only mark the younger artist’s foray into sculpting but also hint at his innovative exploration of the medium. As for his limestone works and paintings, which bear the obvious hallmarks of inspiration from “Anyanwu,” they express his ideas about womanhood and nationhood. 

The elder Enwonwu’s vast collection of work, which is culled from his over sixty years of studio practice, delves into a wide range of topics, including the metaphysical, colonialism, gender issues, environmental concerns, and peace. Notable among his acclaimed works are three portraits of Adetutu Ademiluyi, which attempt to lift the veil on the soul of the young princess of Ile-Ife. Building on this history, Oliver Enwonwu delves into the royal lineage, focusing on Olori Aderonke Ogunwusi, Adetutu’s granddaughter. Oliver, succeeding his father, reimagines the artistic process in a new series of paintings, conserving and expanding the family’s artistic legacy. Print versions of Ben Enwonwu’s “Adetutu Ademiluyi” will be available at the exhibition for both art enthusiasts and collectors.

Of course, there is also the renowned artist’s iconic sculpture of the late British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, which stands out as one of his most acclaimed works. A series of historic photographs chronicling the artist’s creative process as he engaged with Her Majesty in 1957 will memorialise this masterpiece. Additionally, there are snapshots capturing Oliver Enwonwu’s presentation of the sculpture to the then Prince, now King, Charles during the latter’s official visit to Nigeria.

For preserving the elderly Enwonwu’s legacy, which rests on his forging a philosophical basis for contemporary Nigerian art by fusing Western techniques and indigenous traditions, Oliver deserves a seat of honour in the pantheon of contemporary Nigerian artists. After all, his father’s intimidating credentials as Africa’s pioneer modernist artist—a feat that easily earned him the diadem as Africa’s greatest artist of the 20th century— were burnished by his being the first Nigerian artist to gain international recognition as well as the first African to break racial barriers by exhibiting in August Spaces in Europe and the US.

This conversation between the two Enwonwu’s works in A Continued Legacy—an anticipated sequel to the previous ones—explores the point of convergence between tradition and modernity. It also highlights the lasting significance of native African identities, values, and convictions in the globally interconnected world of today.

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