Lot 48
  • 48

BEN ENWONWU | Obitun Dancer

150,000 - 200,000 GBP
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  • Enwonwu
  • Obitun Dancer
  • signed and dated 1984 (lower left)
  • oil on canvas
  • 95.5 by 59.4cm., 37¾ by 23½in.


Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner


Please note that his work is stretched and framed. The work has not been examined outside of its frame. The work exhibits surface marks throughout as well as marks to the front and back of the canvas indicating that the work has been exposed to moisture. Upon close inspection, there appears to be very minor cracking to the paint surface throughout as well as areas of minor surface loss. There is cluster of surface loss visible in the top left-hand quadrant of the work, as is visible in the catalogue illustration. There is a further area of abrasive loss to the top right hand corner of the work where the canvas is now visible through the paint. There are six pinholes visible within the work: one to the upper right hand corner, four along the left hand framing edge and one to the lower right hand corner of the work. The canvas is slightly loose and there is an indent to the reverse of the canvas, below the figures head. Upon close inspection there are old canvas fold lines running parallel to the upper, left and lower framing edges. Inspection under UV light shows no signs of restoration or repair.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu, who is highly regarded as one of the great artists of the African modernist movement, used dance and dancers as a central theme to his work throughout his career. 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 and immersed himself in the Negritude movement.

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.

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. For the remainder of his lifetime, Enwonwu would be internationally recognised as Nigeria's premier artist.

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. In the post-colonial period, Enwonwu’s dancers, in both the Africa Dances and Negritude series, took on another dimension in Enwonwu’s quest to represent modern Nigeria, his belief firm “that postcolonial African art must reflect the aspirations of independent African people.”


Sylvester O. Ogbechie, Ben Enwonwu: the Making of an African Modernist, Rochester, 2008, p. 155