Ben Enwonwu

Ben Enwonwu

The Making of an African Modernist

Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie


University of Rochester Press



An intellectual biography of a modern African artist and his immense contribution to twentieth-century art history.
The history of world art has long neglected the work of modern African artists and their search for forms of modernist expression as either irrelevant to the discourse of modern art or as fundamentally subservient to the established narrative of Western European modernist practice. With this engaging new volume, Sylvester Ogbechie refutes this approach by examining the life and work of Ben Enwonwu (1917-94), a premier African modernist and pioneer whose career opened the way for the postcolonial proliferation and increased visibility of African art.
In the decades between Enwonwu's birth and death, modernization produced new political structures and new forms of expression in African cultures, inspiring important developments in modern African art. Within this context, Ogbechie evaluates important issues such as the role of Anglo-Nigerian colonial culture in the development of modern Nigerian art, and Enwonwu's involvement with international discourses of modernism in Europe, Africa, and the United States over a period of five decades. The author also interrogates Enwonwu's use of the radical politics of Negritude ideology to define modern African art against canonical interpretations of Euro-modernism; and the artist's visual and critical contributions to Pan Africanism, Nigerian nationalism, and postcolonial interpretations of African modernity.
First and foremost an intellectual biography of Ben Enwonwu as a modern African artist, rather than an exhaustive critical exploration of the discourse of modernism in African art history or in modern art in general, Ben Enwonwu situates the artist historically and interprets his work in ways that surpass traditional discourse around the canon of modern art.

Sylvester Ogbechie is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


December 2008
9 colour, 51 black and white illustrations
333 pages
9x6 in
Rochester Studies in African History and the Diaspora
ISBN: 9781580462358
Format: Hardback
University of Rochester Press
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Table of Contents

Making Man: Aesthetics and the Mythic Imagination
Making Meaning: Foundations of a Personal Aesthetic
Making a Life: Civil Service and Professional Practice
Making Ideals: The Aesthetics of Radical Politics
Making Peace: Sins of the Father
Making History: The Cultural Politics of African Modernity


Winner, African Studies Association's 2009 Melville J. Herskovits Award.

A landmark work. The scholarship is superb. (.) The book is a seminal work that will stimulate numerous dissertations and monographs on modern African art and artists. H-NET REVIEWS, April 2010

Artist Ben Enwonwu, Nigeria's pioneering modernist, straddled the colonial and postcolonial eras, attempting to balance competing constituencies: the colonial establishment that supported him, the younger generation of artists who followed him, and his own creative and political needs. Deeply influenced and inspired by Igbo aesthetics and philosophy, Enwonwu repeatedly turned to the vigorous imagery of Igbo masquerades and dancers. Ogbechie's examination of Enwonwu's life and work challenges Eurocentric neglect of African modernists. Here was an artist who achieved international acclaim early in his career, received a royal commission for a statue of Queen Elizabeth II, became art advisor to the Nigerian government, befriended Leopold Senghor, and espoused Negritude. Clearly, this is an essential book for anyone interested in African art and modernism. --Janet L. Stanley, Warren M. Robbins Library, National Museum of African Art

An absorbing and critically informed account of the career of a major African modernist. In turn lionized and ignored in British and American art circles, Enwonwu's career serves as a primer on the West's reluctance to accept the validity of African modernisms on their own terms. --Sidney L. Kasfir, Department of Art History, Emory University

The scholarship is superb...a seminal work that will stimulate numerous dissertations and monographs on modern African art and artists. H-NET

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