On his return to Nigeria in 1948, Enwonwu became Artist Adviser to the Federal Government, and in 1949 Time magazine declared him ‘Africa’s greatest artist’. Among his many accolades, Enwonwu was awarded an MBE in 1955 by Queen Elizabeth II, and the following year he became the first African artist to receive a royal commission when she sat for a large bronze sculpture, now at the entrance to the Parliament Buildings in Lagos. By 1962, when the present lot was painted, Enwonwu was internationally recognised as Nigeria's premier artist.
Enwonwu first started his Africa Dances series during his time in London, in reaction to the 1935 book of the same name by Geoffrey Gorer, which documented accounts of traditional post-colonial life in West Africa. Enwonwu wanted to illustrate his own views on the state of modern Nigerian culture at the time using symbolic imagery, so he painted scenes of dance and ritual performance from his Onitsha-Igbo heritage. Enwonwu explored a range of dance forms in the series, from masquerade and traditional ceremonies, to modern dance and performance. Other paintings in the series include Africa Dances/Agbogho Mmuo (1949) and Dancing Girls (1951-54).
By 1962 the series had taken on another dimension in Enwonwu’s quest to represent modern Nigeria. Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom on 1 October 1960, and with it the country was in search of a new post-colonial identity. Enwonwu advocated a new modern Nigerian national culture, in contrast to the Zarianist artists who were more in favour of indigenous traditions. It was in this context that Enwonwu created Africa Dances (1962), illustrating his views on modernity and tradition. The woman in the foreground represents the new Nigeria. With her modern hairstyle and dress, she leans forward in a swaying dance; she is beautifully juxtaposed with the crowd of traditionally dressed women, carrying goods on their heads through the local market.
Sylvester O. Ogbechie, Ben Enwonwu: the Making of an African Modernist, Rochester, 2008, p.155
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