Imagine seeing your name in huge flashing lights. Better yet, imagine having something named after you… on another planet? Well, the Enwonwu crater on planet Mercury was named after Nigeria’s own Ben Enwonwu. Enwonwu was the first Nigerian artist to gain international recognition and he is Africa’s most influential artist of the 20th century.
Benedict Chuka Enwonwu was born on July 14th, 1921 in Onitsha, Nigeria. At an early age he learned the art of carving from his father who was a reputable sculptor. Between the ages of 13 to 15, Enwonwu was a student of Kenneth C. Murray, the famous English archeologist at the public colleges of Ibadan and Umuahia. At 18, he began working as an art teacher in various schools, including the Government College in Umuahia (1939), the Mission School in Calabar (1940-1941) and Edo College in Benin City (1941-1943). At this point, Enwonwu’s talent in woodcarving began gaining recognition. In 1944, the Nigerian government sponsored his graduate studies in England.
In 1937, he held his first international exhibition in Zweener Gallery, London and dominated the Nigerian art scene for over three decades. In 1948, Enwonwu became the art advisor to Nigerian government and spent the next number of years touring and lecturing in the United States. He was awarded a Commonwealth certificate for contributing to the Arts by the Royal Institute of Arts, Commerce and Agriculture in 1958. In 1980, he was awarded the Nigerian National Order of Merit for his contribution to art
He was the first African to receive the honor to commission ta bronze sculpture of Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II, which is currently located in front of the old Federal House of Representatives in Lagos. His best-known works in naturalistic African terracotta sculptures are the Head of Kofi and the Head of Koyi. A bronze statue known as ‘The Awakening’ stands outside the Nigerian Museum in Lagos. Enwonwu also created a series of paintings known as ‘Africa Dances’ as well as a number of large murals created for the Nigerian Corporation Building in Lagos.
Ben Enwonwu was a pioneer for African artists. He broke racial barriers being the first African to be admitted into august exhibition spaces in Europe and the United States and the first African to be listed in international directories of contemporary art. He revolutionized art in Nigeria into Contemporary Nigerian art by fusing Western techniques and indigenous traditions. Ben Enwonwu has demonstrated that in creativity, we all have equal capabilities and as such, he is truly an embodiment of Nigerian pride. Even several years after his death, his name is honored and immortalized as the “Enwonwu Crater” on planet Mercury in 2008.
Enwonwu’s works are displayed in the National Gallery of Modern Art, Lagos and can also be viewed at the Virtual Museum of Modern Nigerian Art. This is a unique, interactive, searchable website that enables users to view Nigerian contemporary art and to learn about the artists, schools and artistic styles.