From the Archives: Ben Enwonwu in the Studio

Today, our post will highlighting an archival image from the National Museum of African Art’s Eliot Elisofon Archives. The archives houses over 300,000 fantastic images chronicling many aspects of life from across the entire continent of Africa over the last 120 years.

Every other week, this blog will highlight one image from the Archives’ vast holdings that ties directly to the works in Earth Matters. Selections are intended to broaden and enrich our understandings of the exhibition – and spark discussions about all the many ways that the Earth matters.

Here is today’s selection:

Enwonwu 2“Ben Enwonwu in his art studio in Ikoyi, suburb of Lagos, Nigeria,” photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1959, EEPA EECL 7027, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu (1921-1994) was one of the earliest African artists to achieve international acclaim and fame. His works employed a modernist aesthetic that was appealing to Western art critics of the mid-20th century, but also challenged prevailing ideas held by those same critics about what constituted “African” art. Emerging from a generation of Nigerian artists educated through the colonial British system (a cohort commonly termed the Murray School), and later completing his studies in Britain with honors, Enwonwu escaped conventions by referencing Nigerian and Western artistic traditions.

In these photos, Eliot Elisofon has recorded Enwonwu in his studio in Ikoyi, near Lagos. These engaging portraits give a glimpse into the way the artist worked and his inspirations. The oil work on the canvas behind Enwonwu portrays a village scene, one that references figurative painting while also employing the swift brushwork, thick oils, and flattened forms of modernism. The disparate busts in Enwonwu’s studio provide insights into his three-dimensional artistic process and reveal his unique style. Enwonwu summed up his approach in 1950, saying “Art is not static, like culture. Art changes its form with the times. It is setting the clock back to expect that the art form of Africa today must resemble that of yesterday otherwise the former will not reflect the African image. African art has always, even long before western influence, continued to evolve through change and adaptation to new circumstances. And in like manner, the African view of art has followed the trend of cultural change up to the modern times” (Ben Enwonwu Foundation (BEF), available online at http://www.benenwonwufoundation.org/faq.php, accessed May 13th, 2013).

Enwonwu“Ben Enwonwu in his art studio in Ikoyi, suburb of Lagos, Nigeria, photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1959, EEPA EECL 7025, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

These photos were taken in 1959, when modernism was in full swing, and a year before Nigeria would gain its independence from Great Britain. For Enwonwu, nationalism and modernism were linked with idealistic promise, something reflected in his works and thinking from the ‘50s and ‘60s. The violent Nigerian Civil War (or the Biafran War, 1967-70), however, would severely damage this dream for Enwonwu, leading to the painting Storm over Biafra, included in Earth Matters. See the work in the National Museum of African Art’s collection here, and make sure to visit the show in person at the museum. What stylistic and ideological differences do you see between the paintings Enwonwu is shown working on in these photos, and his later works? Share your thoughts below in the comments.

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One thought on “From the Archives: Ben Enwonwu in the Studio

  1. Pingback: From the Archives: Lagos’ Waterfront | Earth Matters

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