Monday, August 8, 2016

On Ben Enwonwu's "Anyanwu"

Anyanwu presentation at the UN Headquarters, NY, 1966
Photo Source: Courtesy, Daily Times of Nigeria photo archives
Ben Enwonwu, Anyanwu, 1954-1955
Image courtesy: Independent.com

In 5 October 1966, a few days after the country's sixth independence anniversary, the Nigerian ambassador to the United Nations presented to Secretary-General U Thant an enigmatic sculpture. Called Anyanwu, it was by the acclaimed Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu (most sources wrongly claim that this event took place in 1961). This was a remarkable event that gave Nigeria the opportunity to affirm its position as a leading, newly independent African nation poised to take its place in the global community. And the ambassador, Chief Adebo, used the occasion to remind the world of European Modernism's debt to African art, as well as modern African artists' legitimate claims to Africa's long, rich cultural and artistic legacies.
The ambassador hoped that the presence of a work representing a sun deity by Africa's most famous artist at the United Nations Headquarters would enhance international peace. But what made Anyanwu – an edition of which is offered in Bonhams Africa Now sale in May – a potent symbol of modern, independent Africa? And why, despite being one of his earliest works, is it considered by many to be Enwonwu's finest, the summation of his vision as a self-aware African Modernist, yet equally proud of his Igbo heritage?

Anyanwu's formal significance lies in its dramatic combination of movement and stasis, realism and abstraction, anthropomorphic and vegetal forms, grace and power. Though anyanwu literally means 'the sun' in the Igbo language, this bronze is of a 6ft 10in woman dressed in the royal regalia of the Bini people: a 'chicken-beak' headdress, heavy coral necklaces and bracelets. But nothing in Bini or Igbo traditional sculpture explains Anyanwu's distinctive body. A Nefertiti-type neck – seen here in Anyanwu – is a clear indication of feminine beauty in both cultures, yet her skinny, near-emaciated limbs are reminiscent not so much of traditional representations of powerful female deities as modern-day haute-couture models.

It might be that the artist's desire for figural poetry drove not just the creation of the sculpture's lithe body, but also the decision to progressively transform her lower extremities into a thin monolithic form. Seen from the front, Anyanwu looks less of a powerful deity than a spirit that is too light to give in to gravity's pull. As if to complete the drama, Enwonwu has given this graceful, even delicate figure a menacing gaze, reminding us that this is the powerful sun deity, not a curtseying Bini princess.

Although the United Nations' Anyanwu was commissioned by the Nigerian government in the 1960s, the original version, which still stands in front of the National Museum in Lagos, was produced in 1954-1955 to mark the museum's establishment by British artist and archaeologist Kenneth Crosthwaite Murray, who was Enwonwu's first art teacher. The installation of Anyanwu brought to full circle the decades-long insistence by Enwonwu and Murray on the centrality of indigenous arts and cultures in the making of African and Nigerian modernity.

Thus, while the museum was the culmination of Murray's work towards safeguarding exemplary artistic and craft traditions of Nigeria, in Anyanwu, Enwonwu realized as never before his search for a modern artistic expression of Igbo aesthetics and metaphysics. In the 1955 Anyanwu, Enwonwu found a favorite form and theme that he would explore for many years as part of his wider interest in the feminine form, dancing figures and Igbo masked spirits.

Enwonwu, born in 1917, came from a family of artists – his father was a respected traditional sculptor in his eastern Nigerian hometown, Onitsha. The young Enwonwu was among the first students taught by Murray, who, in 1927, was the first art teacher appointed by the colonial government. While Enwonwu's claim that he was initially trained by his father, who died when he was only three, seems improbable, there is no doubt that he cherished his lineage of traditional artists. This inheritance seems to have recommended him to Murray, whose pedagogy emphasized training young boys from families of traditional artists to become new-age upholders of indigenous arts and crafts.

But Enwonwu's ambitions extended beyond – and sometimes clashed with – Murray's nativist vision for modern African art. While he wished to draw deeply from Igbo cultural heritage, he also aspired to master academic conventions and set his eyes on becoming a resolutely Modernist artist, at home both in his native Igbo culture, and on the international art scene.

In the summer of 1944, aged 27, Enwonwu sailed to England to attend the Slade School of Fine Art at University College London. He graduated in 1947 with a prize for sculpture. The following year, he earned a MA in Anthropology and Ethnography, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute. On returning in 1948, he was appointed the first Nigerian art adviser to the federal government.

Enwonwu's reputation at home and overseas grew quickly. Exhibitions at the respected Berkeley and Piccadilly galleries in London, Galerie Apollinaire in Milan, and at UNESCO's headquarters in Paris garnered considerable critical attention: in 1950, the sculptor Jacob Epstein acquired Enwonwu's Yoruba Girl. The noted art critic Eric Newton extolled the "lithe rhythm" and craftsmanship of his wood sculpture, and the Manchester Guardian even compared his "daring" work to that of Henry Moore. That was also the year Enwonwu made his first trip to the United States as, according to Ebony magazine, "Africa's greatest artist."

Crucial to Enwonwu's development was his encounter with Negritude, the black affirmation literary movement led in the interwar years by Paris-based francophone writers such as Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor and Léon Damas. The political implications of Negritude were not lost on Enwonwu.
Mahmoud Mukhtar, Egypt's Renaissance, 1919-1927
Image courtesy: Wikipedia

Meta Warrick Fuller, Ethiopia Awakening, 1914
Image courtesy, ExplorePAarthistory.com
Edna Manley, Negro Aroused, 1935
Image courtesy: Wikipedia

This connection helps us appreciate another aspect of Anyanwu: it was Enwonwu's response to the very rhetoric of African cultural revival and political independence that had attracted earlier modern sculptors. For instance, works by the American Meta Warrick Fuller such as Ethiopia Awakening (1914), and the Egyptian Mahmoud Mukhtar's Egypt's Renaissance (1919-1927), imagined, respectively, this renaissance as a revived pharaonic princess and a roused sphinx; the Jamaican Edna Manley figured it in Negro Aroused (1935) as an awakened, powerfully built black man. Negritude also meant, to Enwonwu, the reclamation of his Igbo artistic and cultural heritage. It provided him with the ideological grounds for imagining his stylistically modernist work as a continuation of the Igbo sculptural traditions inherited through his father. Here lies the deep significance of Anyanwu. It simultaneously invokes the assertion by Senghor that dance is a unique African expressive form, a mark of Africanness. It also gives form to a powerful deity for which the Igbo people had no human image. In other words, it depicts an elegant African dancer (Enwonwu produced his Africa Dances series during this period). But, as her piercing gaze implies, it is the manifestation of the Igbo sun god.

* This text was published, in slightly different form, in Bonhams Magazine earlier this spring. 

Friday, July 29, 2016

Princeton's Fung Global Fellowship program: Call for Applications

The 2017-18 Princeton Fund Global Fellowship application is open. This is a fantastic one-year fellowship that has helped launch the academic careers of young scholars, including a couple of Africa-based scholars that have gone through it. The theme this year is "Politics of Resentment." About six fellows, living and working outside of the US,  are selected each year.  The application deadline is Nov. 1. Please spread the word!

About the Program



The Fung Global Fellows Program, inaugurated in the 2013-14 academic year, reflects Princeton University’s commitment to engaging with scholars from around the world and inspiring ideas that transcend borders. The program brings exceptional international early-career faculty members working in the social sciences and the humanities to Princeton for a year of research, writing, and collaboration.  It is administered by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS), which serves as a site for integration and joint activity across all of the University's international and area studies programs.

Each year, the Fung Global Fellows Program selects six international scholars to be in residence at Princeton for one academic year and to engage in research and discussion around a common theme. The program includes a public seminar series where the fellows will present their work to the university community. Fellowships will be awarded through a competitive application process to scholars employed outside the United States who have demonstrated outstanding scholarly achievement, exhibit unusual intellectual promise, and are still early in their careers.

This program is supported by a gift from William Fung, group chairman of Li & Fung, a Hong Kong-based multinational group of export and retailing companies. Fung earned a BSE in electrical engineering from Princeton in 1970 and an MBA from the Harvard Graduate School of Business in 1972, and then began his career at the family firm. He joined Princeton's Board of Trustees in 2009, and has previously supported Princeton's groundbreaking financial aid program. "In this new age of globalization, Princeton should be even more involved in fostering scholarship everywhere it takes place," Fung said. "Through this gift, I hope to enable Princeton to become a stronger catalyst for developing new and exciting research and for creating international scholarly communities." 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Obiora Udechukwu Retrospective


The Richard F. Brush 
ART GALLERY
& Permanent Collection
St. Lawrence University

OJEMBA: A Fifty-Year Retrospective: Selected Paintings, Drawings, and Prints by Obiora Udechukwu, 1966-2016

August 17 - October 12, 2016


Painting by Obiora Udechukwu

The Richard F. Brush Art Gallery is pleased to mark 2016 with an exhibition to honor the 20-year anniversary of Obiora Udechukwu at St. Lawrence University, as well as the artist’s own 70th anniversary. “Ojemba,” which means “[A] traveller to distant towns/places/countries,” is taken from the Igbo adage “Ojemba e nwe ilo,” or “A traveler to distant lands does [or should] not have enemies.” A range of paintings, prints, and drawings spanning five decades will be included in the exhibition. In addition, a full-color exhibition catalogue will include over 40 photographs and details; an interview with the artist by curator Mark Denaci, Associate Professor of Art & Art History at St. Lawrence; and statements by the artist, Gallery Director Catherine Tedford, and Vice President/Dean of Academic Affairs Val Lehr. In conjunction with the exhibition, noted Nigerian art historian and artist Chika Okeke-Agulu, Associate Professor, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University, will come to campus to give a public lecture and meet with faculty and students.


  • Lecture by Chika Okeke-Agulu, Thursday, September 15, @ 7:00PM, in Griffiths 123

Obiora Udechukwu, artist, poet, and university professor, was educated at prestigious Dennis Memorial Grammar School, Onitsha; Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria; and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He was Professor of Fine and Applied Arts at Nsukka for many years before he moved to St. Lawrence University, as Charles A. Dana Distinguished Professor of Fine Arts in 1997. While at Nsukka, he played a prominent role in the resuscitation of interest in Igbo arts, but especially in Uli, the abstract and elegant drawing and painting on the human body and walls by women, and Nsibidi, the ancient pictographic writing associated with elite clubs in southeastern Nigeria. Arguably, no account of contemporary Nigerian art will be complete without mentioning the contribution of the artists associated with Nsukka.

Udechukwu’s interest in Igbo studies is wide. He has researched and published on Igbo minstrelsy and epics. In 1982, he edited with Chinua Achebe an anthology of Igbo poems titled Aka Weta. A founding member of the Aka Circle of Exhibiting Artists, Udechukwu has exhibited widely in Africa, Europe, USA, Asia, and the Caribbean, and his artworks are in public collections including Nigeria’s National Gallery of Art; the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; Newark Museum; and Iwalewa Haus, University of Bayreuth, Germany.
Additional information about the exhibition will be posted when it is available.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On El Anatsui and Peter Magubane's honorary doctorates at University of Cape Town

Group photo after a luncheon in El's honor hosted by the Vice Chancellor of UCT, Professor Max Price at his university residence. Seated left: Artist and UCT Professor, Bernie Searle. El seated 2nd left. Professor Price standing right; Deputy VC and art historian Professor Sandra Klopper standing 2nd right. 
It is no more fresh news that on June 15, just a week ago, El Anatsui received an honorary doctorate from University of Cape Town, the top-rated university on the African continent. This came in the heels of another doctorate last month from Harvard.
El getting his hood!
Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

Perhaps only a few in the South African art world also heard that the veteran photographer, Peter Magubane, was the other honoree. It was amazing to see Magubane, who has slowed a bit, deliver a moving speech about his life and work, accompanied by a well-edited film, based on his photographs, that sketch a visual history of anti-Apartheid struggle from the late 1950s through to the 1980s.
Peter Magubane takes the stage,
Photo: Chika Okeke-Agulu

In fact, that award ceremony on June 15, was also an occasion for celebrating the courage of all the school children and youths who rose in defiance of the Apartheid regime's educational policy on June 16, 1976 in Soweto (the day after the UCT graduating ceremony was the 40th anniversary and national holiday); an event burned into the world's consciousness through Sam Nzima's now legendary photograph of dying Hector Pieterson in the arms of distraught Mbuyisa Makhubo, his sister Antoinette by their side.

As the award ceremony carried on, I could not but wonder, looking at the extremely few number of black graduands, how long it might take before South African universities begin to reflect the nation's demographic: less than 10% white, and more than 70% black. In that impressive hall, seeing continuous lines of gowned white students, punctuated by the occasional black was a sobering experience. Then it struck me: no wonder the country's black youth, like in 1976, have now thrown down the gauntlet, demanding radical change in the status quo. Rhodes Must Fall. Fees Must Fall. Unfortunately, the ANC, now a sordid shadow of the political organization that spearheaded the campaign for democratic freedom in South Africa, is filled with self-serving fat cats too mired in their own cesspool to hear the anguished cry of the students and youths out in the streets and university campuses nationwide.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Modernisms Symposium in South Africa

On June 13 and 17, the Multiple Modernisms Project (MMP) to which I belong will have its final symposium, respectively at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and the University of Cape Town. At the Wits, the program is coordinated by Anitra Nettleton now emeritus professor and art historian at the Wits School of Arts; and at UCT, the art historian and depty Vice Chancellor, Sandra Klopper is the host. Nettleton and Klopper are part of the MMP.

Previous symposia of the MMP have taken place at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (2012); Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge University, UK (2013); and Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand (2014); in addition to a closed workshop at Princeton University (2015). The first two volumes originating from the Ottawa and Cambridge events are in preparing for publication by Duke University Press.

A highlight of the Cape Town symposium will be my public conversation with El Anatsui who, by the way, will be receiving an honorary doctorate degree from UCT on June 14! Actually UCT--arguably Africa's best university, is doing something noteworthy for contemporary African art: last year it also awarded an honorary degree to Okwui Enwezor.


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

To University of South Florida, a Note of Thanks


I was in Tampa, Florida this past weekend to receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award for Outstanding Service in the Arts, from The College of the Arts, University of South Florida. It was such an nice event. Most of professors--David Wright, Brad Nickels, Lou Marcus, and Mernet Larson are now gone. Wally Wilson the chair then is now Director of the School of Art and Art History (my home program then), and Helena Szepe and Elizabeth Fraser are still in the art history program, among a cohort of newer faculty that includes Allison Moore who teaches African Art. Before the ceremony, I visited the MFA exhibition and can say that the program remains as strong as I found it in 1998-1999, when I was there. Some changes have taken place, such as the inclusion of Architecture in the College, and the merging of the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) and the legendary Graphicstudio (the nationally-acclaimed printmaking and print archiving facility) into the Institute for Research in Art headed by Margaret Miller who in my day was just the director of CAM. An oh, I reunited with a ceramic piece I made in 1998, thanks to Irineo Cabreros, who ran the kilns then. Finally, thanks to Dean Moy and Wally Wilson, and all the faculty for this award. USF, was generous to me; it gave me a place of refuge when home threw me out. It set me on my US sojourn and travels through art history. That was more than enough.