Benedict Chukwikadibia Enwonwu
Portrait of Constance "Afi" Ekong, 1962, oil on canvas.
Spanning nearly 60 years, Ben Enwonwu's career coincided with one of the most important periods of modern Nigerian history. He was born in Onitsha, eastern Nigeria into the Umueze-Aroli royal family, his father was a noted sculptor and his mother operated a textile business. He studied fine arts at the Umuahia Government College in 1934 and later attended Goldsmiths College and the Slade School of Fine Arts in the United Kingdom through a scholarship in 1944. After his years of learning in Europe Ben returned to Nigeria to continue his painting and was declared "Africa's Greatest Artist" in 1949 by Time magazine. The following year Enwonwu experienced a pivotal point in his career having done an exhibition tour throughout the United States returning him home an international star.
Outside of his artistic career the 1950's was an important decade for Ben and the fight against colonialism in Nigeria. Enwonwu was an articulate and well written individual who wore tailored suits with floral lapels serving as a face for a progressive, modern Nigeria. His personal image along with his artwork served as a delivery tool for this message. In 1956 he became the first African artist to complete a portrait of a ruling European monarch in sculpting a statue of a young seated Queen Elizabeth II. The sculpture was later unveiled in 1959 by the last British Governor-General of Nigeria, Sir James Robertson, in Lagos. Through this process the Queen became one of Enwonwu's largest collectors after spotting an original work depicting Constance "Afi" Ekong (1930-2009) in his studio. Shortly after in 1960 Colonialism ended in Nigeria creating a new beginning for the country and culture.
Executed in 1962 the sitter of this portrait is almost certainly Constance "Afi" Ekong, a close friend and contemporary of Enwonwu. She was the wife of Prince Abdul Azizi Attah (1920-1972), the older brother of Princess Judith Safinat; another known sitter of Enwonwu. Constance was an accomplished artist and cultural advocate of Nigeria having been one of the first female Nigerian artists to be trained abroad. She studied fashion and fine art at the Oxford College of Arts and Technology, Saint Martin's School of Art, and the Central School of Design. She returned to Nigeria in 1957 with high praise quickly rising in influence amongst political and elite social groups. In 1958 she became the first female artist to have a solo exhibition in Nigeria and later opened The Bronze Gallery, a commercial space for post-colonial Nigerian artists. She devoted her life to promoting Nigerian art having produced a weekly television program called "Cultural Heritage" featuring the work of her contemporaries. She was a member of the Nigerian Council for the Advancements of Art and Culture helping curate the "Nigerian Art Exhibition". A celebration of an independent Nigeria and a show which received international exposure identifying Nigeria's most important post colonial artists. Ben Enwonwu was one of the selected few to take part in this exhibition.
This painting was from the collection of the late Adelaide M. Cromwell (1919-2019). Noted sociologist and Harvard University Ph.D. graduate who in 1951 became a professor at Boston University co-founding the African Studies center. Cromwell was noted for her activism and dedication to African culture, heritage, and history.
Signed and dated "B. Enwonwu 1962" lower left.
Canvas 16" x 12",Frame 18" x 14 1/4",Oil on canvas
Acquired directly from the artist. From the estate of Adelaide M. Cromwell, noted American sociologist and professor at Boston University who co-founded the African Studies Center in 1959.
Overall good condition.