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Enwonwu’s the court of the Oba of Benin for sale in New York

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The masterpiece, The Court of the Oba of Benin, by Nigeria’s most famous and revered artist Benedict Enwonwu has been discovered in the USA and is due to be sold for up to $180,000 by Bonhams, New York on May 2, 2019.This work, which was recently discovered in a US collection, is expected to attract huge interest in the auction of Modern & Contemporary African Art at the Madison Avenue headquarters of Bonhams in New York.

Ben Enwonwu’s The Court of the Oba of Benin (1972) is an important image in his body of work. It shows a Benin king (identified by the royal ceremonial sword he holds) in the foreground, attended by chiefs bearing ceremonial swords. The group walks through a corridor of a building with red earthen walls, which indicate their location within the great palace of the Benin king.

Dressed in folds of white cloth and a white skullcap rather than the formal red coral-bead royal regalia of Benin kings and ivory bangles on each wrist, the king appears to be on his way to a palace ceremony. The large figure of the king is in the foreground and painted a dark tone with yellow tints reflected from the yellow-coloured sword he holds. The large white robes of the king and his chiefs fill the lower foreground and contrast with the red earth tones of the wall and the yellow swords. The top part of the painting is taken completely by the palace’s wood-beam rafters, which are rendered in sharp perspective.

Images of royalty from the Edo kingdom of Benin began to appear in Enwonwu’s art from 1941 onwards, when he secured a teaching appointment at Edo College Benin City. As someone from Onitsha whose people claim descent from a Benin noble, Enwonwu considered his sojourn in Benin City among the most significant experiences of his career and a spiritual homecoming.

The kingdom of Benin ranked highly among pre-colonial African kingdoms. It was a powerful independent kingdom that was at one time actually an empire. It dominated the southern part of Nigeria from Lagos to the River Niger, and parts of the Niger Delta. Its dynasty was centuries old and it had an amazing tradition of brass/bronze casting. Benin bronzes include bronze heads, carved ivory tusks, and a large number of plaques in which were recorded the histories of its great kings.

The kingdom’s foreign relations were encapsulated in images of Portuguese merchants and soldiers, as well as the Portuguese nobility depicted on the tiara of its most famous artwork – the ivory pendant mask of Iyoba (Queen Mother) Idia, mother of King Esigie who ruled from 1504-1550. Benin’s cultural calendar was filled with important festivals and ceremonies supervised by the King with important chiefs in attendance, and each drew large crowds.

The yearly Igue festival was the most important of these and it is full of pomp and pageantry. The festival is held in December to offer thanks to the ancestors for the passing year and to celebrate the New Year. After a period of seclusion, the king appears in public in his full royal regalia and is greeted by chiefs who perform complicated dances during which they throw into the air and catch their eben (swords of rank). Edo peoples claim Igue has been celebrated for more than a thousand years and will often travel great distances to return home for the festival.

Enwonwu was impressed by the pageantry, large crowds and songs used in these festivals. He painted images of Benin royalty, landscape and culture for the rest of his career, and would often insert images of Benin bronze heads of its kings into his Negritude paintings. These bronze heads were cast by a specialized guild –Iguneromwon, and Enwonwu apprenticed with them for a while, learning how to cast bronze using the lost-wax technique. He was invited to witness palace ceremonies and subsequently created many artworks focused on palace ceremonies and rituals. Above all, he travelled widely and created many paintings of the Benin countryside.

The years Enwonwu spent in Benin had a great impact on his creativity. He derived a great store of images and themes from his immersion in Benin culture and these resurfaced in various forms throughout his career. This particular painting, Oba of Benin, was painted in 1972 and dates from his tenure as a professor at the University of Ife, during which he produced his most iconic Negritude paintings. Enwonwu’s painting of Benin royalty therefore represents an important motif in his art, and ranks alongside his paintings of masquerades as one of his most iconic subjects.


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Ben EnwonwuOba of Benin
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