Ben Enwonwu: Nigerian artist who made the bronze sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II

The year was 1956, and there was much fanfare and anticipation for Queen Elizabeth’s first visit to Nigeria.

The young monarch has just reigned for a few years and has already made a much-anticipated visit to the West African country, which has yet to become a republic.

Before her arrival, renowned Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu received a royal commission to commemorate her visit with a statue, making him the first African artist to create an official portrait. of a member of the royal family.

He began working on the sculpture the following year, visiting Buckingham Palace in London for a number of interviews.

“In 1957, Queen Elizabeth II sat for Enwonwu to make a large bronze sculpture,” Royal Collection Trustwhich oversees the art collection of the British royal family.
Ben Enwonwu is working on the queen's bronze sculpture

Ben Enwonwu is working on the queen’s bronze sculpture Credit: Courtesy of Oliver Enwonwu / Ben Enwonwu Foundation

In total, Queen Elizabeth sat for Enwonwu 12 times, eight of which were at Buckingham Palace, according to the Ben Enwonwu Foundation website.

The rest of the interviews took place at a private studio of Sir William Reid-Dick, Enwonwu’s colleague at the Royal Society of British Artists.

During this time, Enwonwu “completed a portrait bust and a sketch model of the sculpture,” according to the foundation.

Ben Enwonwu and HM Elizabeth II look at their queen sculpture

Ben Enwonwu and HM Elizabeth II look at their queen sculpture Credit: Courtesy of Oliver Enwonwu / Ben Enwonwu Foundation

‘African features’

Enwonwu completed the sculpture in 1957 and at that time raised some eyebrows because of the depiction of the queen with fuller lips. His son Oliver says it’s part of Ben Enwonwu’s signature style to “Africanize” his subjects.

Oliver Enwonwu told CNN: “Some of the comments praising the sculpture received were that the artist depicted the queen through his African eyes, the work had African features, that is, characteristics of his work.

Oliver, also a famous artist, described the queen’s sculpture as one of his father’s greatest works.

“My father was very proud of it. It was one of those masterpieces that showcased his ingenuity as an artist,” he told CNN.

“At the time, Enwonwu making a sculpture of the queen) was a big deal because he was an African artist. But he was the most famous person in the Commonwealth at the time. That should be very easy for him to nod,” added Oliver.

Revealing the statue in Nigeria

Revealing the statue in Nigeria Credit: Courtesy of Oliver Enwonwu / Ben Enwonwu Foundation

While the sculpture later ended up in Nigeria, Queen Elizabeth acquired the bust and, according to the Royal Collection Trust, has another Enwonwu sculpture as well as several of his paintings.

The queen’s bronze was then placed in the Nigerian parliament building before preparations for independence from Britain in 1960.

The work is currently housed at the National Museum of Nigeria.

An Influential African Artist

Enwonwu has come to be known as one of Africa’s greatest modernists.

His portrait of the Nigerian princess Adetutu “Tutu” Ademiluyi, dubbed the “African Mona Lisa” sold for more than 1.6 million dollars (£1,205,000) at a London auction in 2018.

Born in 1917, Enwonwu is considered the most influential African artist of the 20th century.

He was already a well-known artist even before his royal commission, and in 1954 was awarded a Member of the British Empire (MBE) by the queen for his work in the arts. .

Enwonwu won a scholarship in 1944 from Shell West Africa and the British Council to study fine art in the UK after a successful solo exhibition. He received a classical education at the Slade School of Fine Arts in London and attended Oxford University. Enwonwu later returned to Nigeria to become a lecturer.

He was appointed Nigeria’s first professor of arts by Ife University, now known as Obafemi Awolowo University, in 1971 and received the National Merit Award from the Nigerian government nine years later.

He died in 1994 at the age of 77.

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