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
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