Lot 58
  • 58

BEN ENWONWU | Africa Dances

20,000 - 30,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Ben Enwonwu
  • Africa Dances
  • signed and dated 1962 (lower left)
  • oil on canvas
  • 51 by 41cm., 20 by 16¼in. (canvas)


Private collection, Amsterdam
Thence by direct descent

Catalogue Note

Ben Enwonwu was a pioneer of African modernism. Born in Onitsha in southern Nigeria, he studied fine arts at the Government College in 1934, before receiving a scholarship to study in the UK in 1944, where he attended Goldsmiths College, Ruskin College Oxford, and the Slade School of Fine Arts. During this time he engaged with the international art world, studying modern European art movements such as Symbolism and Fauvism. In 1946 he exhibited alongside prominent European modernists at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris, where he briefly shared a studio with the South African artist Gerard Sekoto. The artists used a similar formalistic structure, which appeared in Enwonwu’s representation of paintings of Benin dance and rituals in 1943, and in Sekoto’s masterpiece Song of the Pick (1946-47), a name appropriated from Enwonwu’s Song of the City series, which dated back to 1942. 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