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:

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,
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. 

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