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In Conversation: Oliver Enwonwu's 'A Continued legacy' bridges generations and reclaims narratives

I had the pleasure of speaking with Visual Artist, Oliver Enwonwu on the powerful message behind his new body of work. Highlighting Oliver’s studio practice and the inspirations derived from his father, Ben Enwonwu, we discuss the purpose for this long-awaited duo exhibition and how both artists use their work to reclaim African cultural influences in European art. This joint exhibition of paintings, drawings, and sculptures coincides with the 30th anniversary of Ben Enwonwu’s passing,  and the venue–Mall Galleries–pays homage to Ben Enwonwu’s 1985 exhibition ‘Dance Theme’ which was held at the same location.

Children of Biafra, 2024, oil on canvas, 91.5 x 76.5cm.| Courtesy of Oliver Enwonwu
Children of Biafra II, 2024, oil on canvas, 122 x 61.5cm.| Courtesy of Oliver Enwonwu

Art Report Africa: Your exhibition title, "A Continued Legacy," suggests a dialogue between you and your father. Can you elaborate on the artistic conversation you're having with Ben Enwonwu's work in your new pieces?

Oliver Enwonwu: ‘A Continued Legacy’ coincides with the 30th anniversary of my father’s passing and is conceived as a conversation with him mostly in our shared celebration of women and adoption of the female form in two specific manners: first, feminity as a physical symbol of indigenous aesthetic, ethical, and moral qualities,” and second, “alludes to metaphysical principles and primordial feminine power.

Studio Image - Courtesy of Oliver Enwonwu.
Studio Image - Courtesy of Oliver Enwonwu.

ARA:The exhibition highlights the influence of African art forms on European modernists like Picasso. How do you plan to address this within the context of the show?

OO: By showcasing how African artists like Enwonwu and I have reclaimed and reinterpreted these cultural influences in our work, challenging the Eurocentric narratives of art history. By exploring these connections and dialogues between African and European art, 'A Continued Legacy' seeks to provoke critical conversations about cultural appropriation and representation in the art world.

ARA:How does your background in geophysics and art history influence your artistic practice?

OO:My background in geophysics and art history influences my artistic practice by providing me with a unique perspective on the intersection of science and art, allowing me to incorporate elements of both disciplines into my work. This diverse background also helps me approach artistic challenges with a multidimensional mindset, leading to innovative and thought-provoking creations.

Were God to Be a Woman, 2023, oil on canvas, 183.5 x 150cm
Were God to Be a Woman, 2023, oil on canvas, 183.5 x 150cm

ARA: You are re-interpreting Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" in a new work titled "Were God to be a Woman." How does this challenge the way power and femininity have been portrayed in Western art history?

OO: ‘Were God to be a Woman’ asks the viewers to reimagine the role of the women depicted by modern masters such as Picasso and celebrate indigenous African power over objectivity and colonialism. Whereas ‘Les Demoiselles d'Avignon’ associates his subjects as women of easy virtue, my re-interpretation aims to shift the narrative from objectification to empowerment, giving voice to marginalised perspectives in art history.

ARA:Ancestral and spiritual connections seem to be a theme. How does the inclusion of traditional music and masquerade imagery in the exhibition tie into your work's message?

OO:The use of these elements helps to deepen the viewer's understanding of the cultural significance and historical roots of the masquerade tradition in Onitsha. By incorporating traditional music and masquerade imagery, I aim to create a more immersive experience that resonates with the ancestral and spiritual connections inherent in the subject matter.  They also highlight the importance of preserving and honouring these traditions in a rapidly changing world.

ARA:There are archival photographs of you and your father juxtaposed with the sculpture "Anyanwu." How does this imagery contribute to the exhibition's themes?

OO:About 30 years ago, my father posed with his 'Anyanwu' sculpture, created in 1956. Standing on the same spot, I thought to honour his legacy by taking a few minutes to reflect on his contributions to laying the philosophical foundations of contemporary African art. This contributes to the theme of the exhibition 'A Continued Legacy' by visually connecting the past and present while highlighting the intergenerational impact of artistic expression within the family. I come from a long line of artists. My grandfather was a reputable traditional sculptor. The juxtaposition of the archival photographs with the sculpture serves as a powerful reminder of the enduring influence and legacy that have been passed down through generations.

ARA:In your new series of royal portraits, you're featuring Olori Aderonke Ogunwusi. Why did you choose to continue the artistic legacy your father began with Adetutu Ademiluyi?

OO:I chose to re-enact this process, similar to my father's, and continue his legacy. By featuring Olori Aderonke Ogunwusi, I am not only paying tribute to her lineage but also highlighting the importance of tradition and history in contemporary art. I believe that by honouring the past and celebrating the present, we can create a bridge between generations as well as inspire a deeper appreciation for our history and the significance of preserving it through art.

Ben Enwonwu and his bronze statue of her.Credit...The Ben Enwownu Foundation
Ben Enwonwu and his bronze statue of her.Credit...The Ben Enwownu Foundation

ARA:"Negritude" by your father and your ongoing series "Body of Power" are exhibited together. How do these pieces speak to each other about the Black experience?

OO:They both share the same philosophical foundations in challenging racism. ‘Negritude’ explores the celebration of Black identity and heritage. According to Ben Enwonwu, “The African philosophy of Negritude has defined the kind of knowledge that characterised the African spirit and mind.”

In ‘Body of Power’, the body at once becomes a contested site and a weapon of resistance to challenge the status quo. All through history, the body as a theme has always been explored. However, not all bodies are equally valued in every culture; some are regarded highly while others are despised and even censored. In Western accounts of art history, black bodies—complete with kinky hair—are almost excluded, except when they are depicted in servitude. Cultural battles prevail today with controversies revolving around such issues as socially preferred size, shape, age, sexual expression and gaze as well as the colour of bodies. The dark almost black bodies of the sitters in the ‘Body of Power’ series have a common goal to not only resist such narratives but also to act in socio-political protest—the Aba Women’s Riot of 1929 in Nigeria, and the 2011 widespread protest by women in Côte d’Ivoire who stripped naked against the refusal of President Laurent Gbagbo to step down.

Children of Biafra, 2024, oil on canvas, 91.5 x 76.5cm.jpeg
Children of Biafra, 2024, oil on canvas, 91.5 x 76.5cm.| Courtesy of Oliver Enwonwu

ARA:You're the founder of The Ben Enwonwu Foundation. How do your curatorial efforts and artistic practice influence each other?

OO:As the founder of The Ben Enwonwu Foundation, my curatorial efforts are directly influenced by my artistic practice, as I strive to honour and elevate the legacy of Ben Enwonwu through exhibitions and publications that highlight his contributions to Nigerian art history. Additionally, my artistic practice informs my curatorial decisions, allowing me to bring a unique perspective and understanding to the presentation of Nigerian art on a global stage.

'Oliver Enwonwu: A Continued Legacy' opens at  Mall Galleries, St. James’s, London SW1

Dates: 21 May to 1 June 2024

Private view: 23 May, 6.30 pm – 8.30pm



Oliver Enwonwu is a third-generation artist; his grandfather was a reputable traditional sculptor, while his father, Professor Ben Enwonwu, MBE, is celebrated as Africa’s pioneer modernist artist.

Enwonwu is a well-recognised leader in the Nigerian arts and culture sector with about 20 years of experience in art advisory, programme management, as well as strategy and development.

A curator, art administrator, author, publisher, and brand strategist, Enwonwu earned a first degree in biochemistry, an advanced diploma in exploration geophysics (distinction), and a postgraduate diploma in applied geophysics from the University of Lagos, Nigeria. From the same institution, he holds another postgraduate diploma in visual arts (distinction) and graduated with a master’s in art history. Presently, Enwonwu is pursuing a PhD in African art history at the University of Benin.

Oliver Enwonwu is the founder, executive director, and trustee of The Ben Enwonwu Foundation. He is also the CEO of Revilo Company Ltd., publisher of Omenka, Africa’s first arts, business, and luxury lifestyle magazine. From 2009 to July 2021, Enwonwu served as the President of the Society of Nigerian Artists, established in 1963 as the umbrella professional body for all artists in Nigeria, which exists to engender the highest standards of practice and teaching of the visual arts in Nigeria.He is currently a Fellow of the Society.


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In Conversation: Oliver Enwonwu's 'A Continued legacy' bridges generations and reclaims narratives

May 21, 2024

Obidike Okafor

5 min read

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