Art is priceless
Renowned Nigerian artist, Ben Enwonwu, was the star of the 16th Arthouse Contemporary auction in Lagos where his work, ‘Obitun Dancers’ sold for 46 million naira (about $130,000).
‘Obitun Dancers,’ created in 1990, is a 40×30 inche oil on canvas piece featuring three lithe women dancers naked from the waist up. Other works that raked in millions at the auction, according to Arts and Culture Place, include Yusuf Grillo’s ‘Threatened Innocence’ (16 million naira), another Enwonwu piece, ‘Haze’ (8 million naira) and Nidi Emefele’s ‘Rainbow Café’ (3 million naira).
The Arthouse auction listed works by famous old and young artists alike: like Bruce Onobrakpeya, Yusuf Grillo, Demas Nwoko, Ben Osawe, Peju Alatise, Sokari Douglas Camp, Ndidi Dike and Mohammed Abba Gana.
‘Obitun Dancers’ may have made more money than other works at the auction, but it’s definitely not the highest price ever paid for an Enwonwu piece. In May 2013 at the Bonhams, London, sale of modern and contemporary African art, Enwonwu’s work, a set of seven wooden figurines holding newspapers sold for £361,250, about 170 million naira at current exchange rates. The piece, according to a dated Bonhams press statement, was commissioned by the Daily Mirror in 1961. Another Enwonwu oil on canvass work, ‘The Durbar of Eid ul-Fitr’ went for £193,250, and yet another, a bronze sculpture titled ‘Anyanwu’ sold for £133,350.
Enwonwu enjoyed tremendous success in his lifetime and was widely acknowledged as the first Nigerian artist to enjoy international acclaim.
Portrait of the artist
Ben Enwonwu (14 July 1917 – 5 February 1994) was a foremost African painter and sculptor of Igbo heritage. He had his elementary and primary education in the eastern parts of Nigeria, and then went on to study Fine Arts at government college Ibadan. He also held a postgraduate degree in Anthropology from the University College, London. In 1971, he was appointed Nigeria’s first Professor of Fine Arts by the University of Ile-Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) and he taught in various schools in Nigeria and in the United States.
Enwonwu enjoyed tremendous success in his lifetime and was widely acknowledged as the first Nigerian artist to enjoy international acclaim. He exhibited his work all over the world, winning several awards along the way. Some of his notable works include a bronze sculpture of the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, a sculpture of Sango, the Yoruba god of lightning and thunder for the National Electric Power Authority (now Power Holding Company of Nigeria) headquarters in Lagos, and ‘The Drummer’ for the Nigerian Telecommunications (NITEL) headquarters in Lagos.
In 1954, Enwonwu was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire. He received similar honour from the Senegalese government in 1971. His profile has continued to rise since his death. The Ben Enwonwu Foundation, established in 2013 in his honour, seeks to sustain and build on his life and legacy.