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Enwonwu in politics of representation, power of portraiture

By Gregory Austin Nwakunor
10 October 2021   |   3:01 am
Oliver Enwonwu has made an important mark on the Lagos art scene. He has been at the helm of art advocacy, first as chairman of the Society of Nigeria Artists (SNA) Lagos chapter

Portraits of Resistance, 2021, oil on canvas, 82.7 x110.4cm

Oliver Enwonwu has made an important mark on the Lagos art scene. He has been at the helm of art advocacy, first as chairman of Society of Nigeria Artists (SNA) Lagos chapter, and later, as National President of SNA, and in honour of his father’s artistic legacy, founded the Ben Enwonwu Foundation with a group of influential collectors, to increase art appreciation and education in Nigeria and beyond.

He has not only curated regular events, exhibitions and workshops as founder and Director of Omenka Art Gallery, but Oliver has also contributed to reportage of the African art market as publicist and Editor-in-Chief of Omenka magazine, one of the leading art platforms in the continent.

He comes from a long line of remarkable artists, such as his grandfather, a reputable traditional sculptor, and his father, Ben Chukwukadibia Enwonwu, widely known as Africa’s most celebrated pioneer modernist.

However, behind these professional accomplishments, he is a very private, almost a hermetic artist, painting quietly on the edge of the Lagos Lagoon. In fact, it is in this green oasis that Oliver’s studio sits nestled within a small lush tropical garden, almost completely hidden from the vibrant energy and traffic of Lagos city.

Ronke II, 2021, oil on canvas, 149.5 x 100cm


It was here, during the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown, that he took time to recharge his creative batteries by painting, drawing deep down into his personal artistic reservoir, which eventually became the corpus that resonated in his latest solo show, The Politics of Representation, an exhibition of paintings, which ends today at the Alliance Francaise Gallery, Ikoyi.

In Politics of Representation, his first solo show in 14 years, Oliver presents diverse portraits in the magnitude of visual classical poetry, exploring traditional dance as the ultimate form of creative expression, and tracing the history of female empowerment in West Africa, and its influence on trade and culture in Europe and beyond.

Portraiture is, without any doubt, one of the most important genres in the history of art. Together with landscapes, portraiture is probably the most used artistic genre in art in general. There are so many reasons for that, and all of them could be described by the powerful magic of portraiture.

He paints pre-dominantly female figures in aristocratic poise with a stoic expression, observing their onlookers with elegance, formality, and grace. There is a quiet aloofness, which exudes from their gaze, as if in defiance of being forgotten, and finally being celebrated with proper recognition.

Besides the information that a portrait transmits to its viewers regarding the appearance of the subject, it’s also important for contemporary art that a portrait contains context, identity questions, social issues.

Though for a few decades already, painting portraits has been targeted as being too conservative, passé and that it does not ‘fulfil’ the unwritten norms that define contemporary art. Nevertheless, portraiture (even the traditional kind that reached its peak in the 19th century) is still very popular among art collectors and art lovers.

Oliver’s works are inspired by the absence of Black personages in European art history. This glaring omission fueled his desire to fill this huge void with vibrant portraits depicting black excellence.

His female subjects are coiffed with elaborate, elongated and regal headwraps, like symbols of a heightened mental and moral strength and fortitude. He presents graceful, athletic forms, some in classical dance poses, their flawless dark skin engulfed by folds of rich draped fabric.

In his Black & Proud Series, he paints most of his subjects in profile with long, graceful necks and pronounced décolletés, high foreheads and prominent cheekbones. They are clothed in defiant red, regal purple, and rich earth tones, like Ebony, whose confidence is obvious, as she consciously turns her head and ignores her audience, like a modern-day Queen Nefertiti.

Many of these portraits are inspired by the history of the influential ‘signares’ of Senegal, who originated from the Island of Goree, and were ‘African and Afro-European women’ who owned property and achieved high social standing. Historian George Brooks describes signares as entrepreneurial women of means and ‘social consequence’.

It is no wonder that these legendary female business ‘tycoons’ inspired Oliver, somewhat echoing his fathers’ famous ‘Negritude series’, which reflected the African liberation movement spearheaded by the Senegalese politician and poet, Leopold Senghor.

Oliver’s portraits pay homage to the economic prowess and political leadership of women, and how they were the bedrock of trade across the African continent. He has taken the contemporary Black Lives Matter global movement and harnessed it against the 18th and 19th century West African political pioneers.

However, the portrait called Nne, is different. Here, we see a middle-aged woman sitting in a formal frontal pose, dressed in a traditional Igbo blouse and wrapper. This portrait of his mother, with low cut natural hair, is unusual in its direct gaze and lack of conical head-tie as if her seniority has afforded her the right of unadorned, natural beauty.

Her persona is set against a cloudy background, similar to his masquerade “spirit beings”, which he paints against brilliant cumulus clouds. In Nne, he imbues his mother with spiritual strength, her gaze transcending the burdens and responsibility of matriarchy.

In The Cult of the People, the largest work in the exhibition, Oliver presents a group of female dancers in traditional attire, adorned with ivory bracelets on their wrists and ankles.

These women represent the titled members of the Otu-Odu Women’s Society of Onitsha, who traditionally wore large, extremely heavy elephant tusks on their wrists and ankles, as a sign of the highest form of female achievement, prominence, and power.

However, Oliver presents these women with lithe, youthful bodies, backs curved in elegant performance, wearing their heavy adornment seemingly effortlessly. His exploration of their leadership and power is unusual as the women dance with closed eyes, stepping out in self-righteous confidence.

As a counterpoint to his female subjects’ elan and dignity, Oliver’s masquerades are painted in classical dance poses, exhibiting athletic agility mid-air. The artist is clearly influenced by his late father’s exploration of the ogolo masquerade, but his rendition centres around the spectacle of their performance, dance, costume, and music, pivoting around an epicenter of traditional and spiritual energy.

In Spirit in Flight, Oliver paints a lythe masquerade dancing against a thunderous cloudy sky, a masked spirit-being in full cultural regalia. It is from this rhythmic performance that Oliver’s art captures our imagination as if we are bystanders enjoying a frenzied traditional dance in the village square, the heat rising as the masquerade twirls with lightning speed.

These masquerades are in contrast to Oliver’s male portraits, of Tuareg men from Nigeria’s northern Sahel region. His fascination with these mysterious subjects was inspired during childhood, by the highly skilled Tuareg security men who guarded his family home and captured his imagination. These powerful portraits of faces wrapped within a complex circuit of rich twisted fabric reveal only piercing wise eyes. They appear to know much more than they care to reveal. Their dry parched skin reflects the dips and troughs of their nomadic journeys, steeped in an age-old tradition.

His artistic roots as the son of the famous Enwonwu, one of the most important African artists of the 20th century, become glaring. To portray a pan African state of mind, a colourful and romantic story of the Enwonwu in interrogation with the Ademiluyi.

Not only are they strikingly vibrant in terms of tones, colours and brushstrokes, he equally reconstructs the birth of one of his father’s famous works, Tutu. Tutu is said to have fetche £1.2 million in a London auction. Instead of Princess Tutu Ademiluyi, Ronke Ademiluyi sits for Oliver.

In his work, 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.

“Oliver is a talented artist drawn to classic portraiture celebrating black excellence through the human form. I first came across Oliver’s art when my husband and I acquired a large portrait, Frame, he showcased at the Crosscurrents exhibition at the Lagos Civic Center in 2011. It was a portrait of a man, his gaze as magnetic as his skin, painted in rich stirring and simply unforgettable dark purples and blues. His brushstrokes were full of movement, echoing in my collectors’ imagination, and registering Oliver as an artist to watch,” said Sandra Mbanefo Obiago, curator, founder and artistic director, SMO Contemporary Art.

Through Enwonwu’s strong figurative style, Politics of Representation interrogates the complex layers of history connecting the African continent with the West. His powerful portraiture celebrates the cultural, political, and socio-economic achievements of Africans and how these have affected the identity of the global black race.

The exhibition contains works from Enwonwu’s Body of Power, Signares, Belle of Senegal, and Wanderers series, which explore the effects of migration, eventually “dissolving boundaries and our notions of time and space.”

“His works are odes to beauty, excellence and regality, reminding one of visual poetry in the style of a classical Shakesparen sonnet,” said Obiago. “His brush strokes express stoic grace, poise and formality, at a time when figurative art in celebration of the black body have formed a critical backbone of the global movements around black identity, such as the recent Black Lives Matter generational cry of affirmation and power.”

“In adapting 16 century old Masters’ modes of representation and techniques, I explore how for example, the mixed heritage French-African women of the Island of Gorée in Senegal negotiated their identities during the 18th and 19th centuries,“ explained Enwonu jewelry, adornment, and apparel, drawing on historical narratives of black female defiance against cultural and political imperialism.”

Some of the works in the exhibition are a homage to his late father’s masquerade series, highlighting the spirituality and rhythmic movement of the dance of the masquerade, a performance which transcends time and space to rest on a sensory level of liberation.

“In Oliver Enwonwu’s solo exhibition, one encounters a unique archive of portrait paintings inspired by queries of absence of African personages in the artistic milieus of 16th – 19th century Western art history,” stated Samuel Egwu Okoro, Art History Professor in the Department of Fine Art and Design at University of Port Harcourt.

“Oliver finds ways to imbue his imaginary sitters with a sense of identity, allowing their distinctive features, clothing and compelling posture to give the otherwise unknown character a clear sensibility. Oliver’s vivid portraits, depicted in stylish, colourful attire, imbue his subjects with a strong sense of regality, autonomy and self-assertiveness,” commented Hannah O’Leary, Director of Sotheby’s.

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