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

The year was 1956 and there was great celebration and anticipation for Queen Elizabeth’s first visit to Nigeria.

Only a few years into her reign, the young monarch made a much-anticipated visit to the West African nation, which was to become a republic.

Prior to 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 work on the sculpture the following year and visited Buckingham Palace in London for several meetings.

“In 1957, Queen Elizabeth II sold Enwonwu for a large bronze sculpture,” said the Royal Collection Trust, which oversees the British royal family’s art collection.
Ben Enwonwu working on the Queen's bronze sculpture

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

In total, Queen Elizabeth sold for Enwonwu 12 times, including eight at Buckingham Palace, according to the Ben Enwonwu Foundation website.

The rest of the sessions took place in a private studio belonging to 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 agency.

Ben Enwonwu and HM Elizabeth II look at his sculpture of the Queen

Ben Enwonwu and HM Elizabeth II look at his sculpture of the Queen Credit: Courtesy of Oliver Enwonwu/The Ben Enwonwu Foundation

“African Traits”

Enwonwu completed the sculpture in 1957 and raised a few eyebrows at the time for depicting the queen with fuller lips. His son Oliver said it was part of Ben Enwonwu’s signature style to “africanize” his subjects.

“Some of the great reviews the sculpture received was that the artist portrayed the queen through his African eyes, the piece had an African character, which was characteristic of his work,” Oliver Enwonwu told CNN.

Oliver, also a renowned 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 his masterpieces that showed his dexterity as an artist,” he told CNN.

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

The unveiling of the statue in Nigeria

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

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

The queen’s bronze was later placed in the Nigerian Parliament building in preparation for the country’s independence from Britain in 1960.

The work is now in the Nigerian National Museum.

An influential African artist

Enwonwu has become known as one of Africa’s greatest modernists.

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

Born in 1917, Enwonwu has been described as the most influential African artist of the 20th century.

He had become an accomplished artist even before he became king, and in 1954 he was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by the Queen for his services to the arts.

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

He was appointed Nigeria’s first Professor of Fine Arts by the University of Ife, 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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