Oliver Enwonwu is the president of the Society of Nigerian Artists, the umbrella professional body for all practising visual artists in Nigeria. Enwonwu holds a Master’s degree with distinction from the University of Lagos, Nigeria. He comes from a long line of artists; his grandfather was a reputable traditional sculptor and his father Ben, widely celebrated as Africa’s pioneer modernist. In his work, Oliver Enwonwu elevates Black culture to challenge racial injustice and systemic racism by celebrating the cultural, political and socio-economic achievements of Africans through an examination of African spirituality, Black identity and migration, contemporary African politics, Pan Africanism and the global Africa empowerment movement.
Strongly figurative, Enwonwu’s art interrogates the complex layers of history between the African continent and the West with portraiture playing a huge part in his oeuvre. Here, he addresses the near absence of Black personages in historical accounts of Western art history by adapting 16th century Old Masters’ modes of representation and techniques of painting.
Comprising the ‘Black Victoria’, ‘Signares’, ‘Belle of Senegal’, and ‘Wanderers’ series, his portraits are of subjects not always known personally to him and are often idealistic; completely invented or recalled from memory.
‘Black Victoria’ focuses on Black cultural identity and colonial postcolonial history. Here, the women appear confident, their gaze remarkedly self-contained. Closely related are the ‘Signares’ and the ‘Belle of Senegal’, which deal conversely with the effects of European Imperialism in Francophone West Africa. Significantly, the former explores how the Mulatto French-African women of the Island of Gorée and the city of Saint Louis in French Senegal negotiated their identity in the 18th and 19th centuries. The latter category engages present-day women of Senegal, chronicling their increasing hybridity that absorbs and transforms global fashion trends yet retains the best aspects of their culture. In a celebration of the African woman, both series are united in the artist’s deft handling of form and rhythm beneath the large volume of apparel, jewelry and adornment.
The network of lines strewn across the almost corrugated faces of the Tuaregs in ‘The Wanderers’, are evidence of their far-flung travels that dissolve boundaries and conflate notions of time and space. The lines are also a metaphor for their migratory experiences along trodden paths, and more importantly, the history of trade relations between Africa and Europe.
In tribute to his late father, Enwonwu’s incursion into the metaphysical is marked by his series based on mythological characters as exemplified by ‘Anyanwu’, contemporary interpretations of traditional African dance and the Onitsha-Igbo masquerade pantheon. The masquerades are of two strains; the graceful female Agbogho-mmuo and the more aggressive male Ogolo. Enwonwu’s chief interest lies not in the decorative qualities of their costume but in the rhythmic movement and spirituality of their dance, as well as in their role in bridging the spirit and physical worlds. This thrust is clearly apparent in the artist’s engagement with African dance, and in his representations of Anyanwu, the Igbo god of the sun. Here, he draws semblances between the lithe and sinuous bodies stretched to near abstraction in accentuating the rhythm of their often trance-like movements, and the maternal and nurturing qualities inherent in womanhood.
‘Negritude’ is more political in outlook and consciously draws from the Negritude philosophy of the 1930s and early 40s, as expounded by Aimé Cesare, Léopold Sédar Senghor and Léon Damas that sought to emancipate Black people all over the world from the negative stereotypes cast on them by the West. Negritude borrows heavily from the formal elements of the artist’s father’s series of the same title but differs strongly in the broader engagement of challenging systemic racism.