The sensational sculpture that made history: Bonhams to auction trailblazing Ben Enwonwu bronze
Ben Enwonwu is known and celebrated as one of Africa’s great modern artists. At the Bonhams Africa Now sale on 25 May, a cast of his iconic Anyanwu sculpture will be offered with an estimate of £70,000-100,000. Commissioned by the Nigerian government in the 1960s, the first cast stands in the Lagos National Museum. It was first unveiled to the public on 5 October 1966, when it was presented by the Nigerian ambassador to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, U-Thant. The enigmatic sculpture gave Nigeria the opportunity to affirm its position as a leading African nation and established Enwonwu as a self-aware African modernist, and the sculpture in turn as a potent symbol of modern, independent Africa.
After Bonhams smashed the record for the Nigerian artist in 2013, selling a series of his sculptures for £361,250, over twenty works by Enwonwu will feature in this spring’s Africa Now sale. Giles Peppiatt, the head of African modern and contemporary art, said, ‘Enwonwu is the ultimate African modernist, who also draws deeply from Igbo culture, and this sculpture has a real sense of pride and grace to it. We’re delighted to be offering this iconic piece at a time when the demand for African modern and contemporary art is booming.’
Ben Enwonwu came from a lineage of traditional African artists. Trained by his father and the archaeologist Kenneth Crosthwaite Murray, he then sailed to England in 1944, aged 27, to attend the Slade School of Fine Art, graduating with a prize for sculpture. Upon his return to Nigeria in 1948, he was appointed the first Nigerian art adviser to the federal government. His art began to glean the highest accolades from art critics, with Eric Newton extolling the ‘lithe rhythm’ of his wood scuptures, and the British press comparing his ‘daring’ work to that of Henry Moore, while the US Ebony magazine described him as ‘Africa’s greatest artist’.
According to Nigerian artist and art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu, ‘Anyanyu was Enwonwu’s response to the very rhetoric of African cultural revival and political independence that had attracted earlier modern sculptors…it depicts an elegant African dancer, but, as her piercing gaze implies, it is the manifestation of the Igbo sun god.’
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