As part of Black History Month, I would like to discuss the background to an intriguing piece at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, that once formed part of the Derbyshire School Library Service. This is a wooden bust called “Nigerian Ancestor” by Ben Enwonwu.

Nigerian Ancestor by Ben Enwonwu at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery (accession number M210)

Born in 1917 in a Nigeria that was subjected to British colonial rule, Enwonwu proved to be something of a prodigy. His father was a sculptor and his mother a successful merchant. From a young age, Enwonwu displayed a talent for art, and this was actively encouraged by his parents. At the age of 17 he enrolled at the Government College in Ibadan, where he studied fine art. Two years later, in 1934, he received a prestigious scholarship to study at the Slade School of Art, University of London. He also studied at Goldsmiths and Oxford, and later completed a postgraduate qualification in social anthropology at the London School of Economics.

The decision to study anthropology was partly fuelled by his encounters with racism in London, and it was this encounter with racism that also led to him being a campaigner for black rights, and the independence of Nigeria from British rule.

The bust “Nigerian Ancestor” that is at Buxton Museum, was on display prior to the pandemic as part of the temporary exhibition “Between two Worlds.” This exhibition highlighted individuals, and indigenous communities, who were marginalised because of their religion, sexuality, political beliefs, the colour of their skin, or because they just didn’t fit in to what the world thought was normal at the time. The title of the exhibition sums up quite well the position of Enwonwu in the art world, and especially his struggle to be accepted by both the British and Nigerians. Enwonwu tried to bridge these gaps with an art style that fused both Western and African traditions.

Ben Enwonwu working on the statue of Elizabeth II © Ben Enwonwu Foundation

This struggle to be accepted is perhaps most clearly seen when he created a statue of the queen. British critics said that he had tried to “Africanise” the queen by giving her vaguely African features. In Nigeria, many viewed him as seeking validation from colonial masters at a time when Nigeria was on the brink of gaining independence.

His relationship with the West was complicated, but from reading his speeches, and looking at the work that he created, what is certain is that Enwonwu was a force to be reckoned with and who stood up for what he believed. He was the most decorated African artist of the 1950’s and 60’s, and this benefited him in forging a career in a profession dominated by privileged white men. However, as an African, he felt undervalued.

In an interview with the BBC in 1958, he said, “I will not accept inferior position in the art world. Nor have my art called ‘African’ because I have not properly given expression to my reality.”

He used his position as a well-known artist to voice his opposition to British colonialism, particularly in his homeland of Nigeria. This was a brave thing to do as it could easily have been the undoing of his career and standing in the British art scene. At a political meeting he said “I know that when a country is suppressed by another politically, the native traditions of the art of the supressed begin to die out. Then the artist also begins to lose their individual and the values of their own artistic idiom. Art, under this situation, is doomed.”  

Nigerian Ancestor by Ben Enwonwu, at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery (accession number M210)

“Nigerian Ancestor” is a very early piece. It was purchased by the School Library Service in 1948, a time when Enwonwu was still a student and before he found fame. Compared to other busts by him, it displays experimentation in Western Modernist art, alongside a strong African style. The results of this early experimentation works well, and what we have is a serene image of beauty. The subject recalls the busts from Benin, in Nigeria, which were worshipped as part of an ancestor cult, and which now reside in the British Museum.

The call by many indigenous communities to have their cultural treasures returned from Western museums is ongoing, and many face an uphill battle that may never be resolved in our life time. Ben Enwonwu himself voiced his opinion on the matter: “While Europe can be proud to possess some of the very best sculptures from Africa among museums and private collectors, Africa can only be given the poorest examples of English art particularly, and the second rate of other works from Europe.”