Once Unknown Nigerian ‘Masterpiece’ By Ben Enwonwu

9 October 2020 Entertainment



A previously unknown work by Ben Enwonwu, Nigeria’s most celebrated 20th Century visual artist, is up for auction in an online sale organised by Sotheby’s.

The Court of the Oba of Benin, thought to have been painted in the 1940s, is described as a “masterpiece” by the auctioneers, but was never documented and was held in a private collection.

It was created in the wake of Enwonwu’s apprenticeship with the bronze casters in the Nigerian city of Benin – the home of the famous Benin Bronzes.

The painting, which is one of his earlier works, shows a festival at the Oba’s palace and reflects the artist’s celebration of the culture of the area.

“Throughout his career, Enwonwu felt very strongly that a modern Nigeria should be rooted in its own heritage and history,” Hannah O’Leary, Sotheby’s African art specialist, told the BBC.

The Court of the Oba of Benin is one of 12 of his works on sale from the auction house’s London base and they all reflect this thinking.In the head and hair style, the sculpture Anyanwu, references are made to the Benin Bronzes.

Born in Onitsha in 1917 to a father who was a traditional wood carver and a successful merchant mother, Enwonwu saw himself as a sculptor first and a painter second, Ms O’Leary says.

Anyanwu, made in 1956, is a depiction of the Igbo earth goddess Ani and is a miniature version of a piece that was displayed at the National Museum in Lagos.

It was created just a few years before independence in 1960 and Enwonwu said at the time that his “aim was to symbolise our rising nation”.


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