Overview

Oliver Enwonwu holds a Master’s degree in visual arts 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. From 2009 to July 2021, Oliver 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.

Biography

Oliver Enwonwu describes his works as: "Strongly figurative, my art interrogates the complex layers of history between the African continent and the West, with portraiture playing a huge part in my oeuvre. Here, I address the near absence of Black personages in accounts of Western art history by adapting 16th century Old Masters’ modes of representation and techniques of painting as well as classical poses that imbue an air of power, regality and pride in the sitter.

 

Comprising mainly of the ‘Body of Power’, ‘Signares’, ‘Belle of Senegal’, and ‘Wanderers’ series, my portraits are of subjects not always known personally to me and are often idealistic; completely invented or recalled from memory. However, a connecting thread runs through the series evidenced by the fact that the figures all appear confident and their gaze remarkedly self-contained and unabashed.

 

Closely related are the ‘Signares’ and the ‘Belle of Senegal’, which deal 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 celebration of the Signares lends weight to arguments that  historically, women have also occupied a pride of place in African society. 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 handling of form and rhythm beneath the large volume of apparel, jewelry and adornment.

 

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 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 readily comes to mind.

 

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 

experience along trodden paths, and more importantly, the history of trade relations between Africa and Europe.

 

In tribute to my father, an incursion into the metaphysical is marked by my series based on contemporary interpretations of traditional African dance and the Onitsha-Igbo masquerade pantheon, Mmonwu. Two dominant strains characterise the masquerades; the graceful female Agbogho-mmuo and the more aggressive male Ogolo. My 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 my engagement with African dance. Here, I draw 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."

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