May 28, 2023

African contemporary art marches on! Ben Enwonwu sells for £361,250

The art of Ben Enwonwu (1917 – 1994) took centre stage at Bonhams’ sale of Modern and Contemporary African Art in London this week  with a new world record for the artist at £361,250.

His record work, l a collection of seven wooden sculptures of figures holding newspapers, was commissioned by the Daily Mirror in 1961. The figures had been estimated to sell for £80,000 to £120,000 but tripled the high estimate to make £361,250.

The 120 lot sale made a total of over £ 1.3 million. New world records were also set for over twenty other African artists, including Erhabor Emokpae, Uche Okeke, Uzo Egonu and Tshibumba Kanda Matulu.

“African Contemporary Art took another step forward today,” said Giles Peppiatt, Head of African Art at Bonhams.  “The national spotlight being cast on African art by Bonhams, the Tate and others has focused increasing interest on African artists and I am delighted to see them getting the recognition they deserve.”

A bronze sculpture, also by Enwonwu, titled Anyanwu, made £133,350. This is a small-scale version of the famous work mounted on the façade of the National Museum in Onikan, Lagos and is one of Enwonwu’s most significant sculptures. The title Anyanwu (eye of the sun) invokes the Igbo practice of saluting the rising sun as a way to honour ChiUkwu, the Great Spirit.

Enwonwu’s Anyanwu is commonly cited as among the artist’s most accomplished works, not only formally but also in terms of its positioning in Nigerian cultural history. The noble figure, with its lithe bronze torso arising as if from the earth, is considered the pre-eminent expression of what Sylvester Ogbechie describes as “the aspirations of the Nigerian nation and Enwonwu’s personal intercession for its survival and growth”.

Enwonwu has said of the sculpture: “My aim was to symbolise our rising nation. I have tried to combine material, crafts, and traditions, to express a conception that is based on womanhood – woman, the mother and nourisher of man. In our rising nation, I see the forces embodied in womanhood; the beginning, and then, the development and flowering into the fullest stature of a nation – a people! This sculpture is spiritual in conception, rhythmical in movement, and three dimensional in its architectural setting – these qualities are characteristic of the sculpture of my ancestors.”

The first Anyanwu sculpture (1954-5), made for the National Museum, Lagos, was so popular that another was commissioned for the United Nations headquarters in New York (1961).

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