Through his paintings, Oliver Enwonwu projects an idealistic image of the African and, referencing the same themes as his late dad, hopes to dispel the negative Western stereotypes of the black man. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes
An oil painting of an Obitun dancer… That is what Oliver Enwonwu calls his first painting. But that is not entirely accurate, because he had previously created works in watercolour and pastel. Nonetheless, he would rather that the painting be known as his first since it was his first full-fledged oil painting. The Obitun dance, by the way, is a maiden dance from Ondo State in southwest Nigeria.
The painting, which depicted a maiden performing a solo dance against a backdrop of blue hues, was produced sometime in June 1994. This was shortly after he and the rest of his family had returned to Lagos from Onitsha, where they had gone to bury his father, the late legendary Professor Ben Enwonwu. “It wasn’t a very good painting, but my mother, of course, was very supportive,” the 47-year-old narrates. “I remember spilling a lot of medium. The oils were all over the place…”
While he worked on this painting, his mother would occasionally pose for him so he could capture the dancer’s movement on canvas. She, as an ever-supportive mother, eventually purchased the painting and resold it for a profit two years later.
Over time, a sort of partnership developed between mother and son, with the mother buying up his subsequent paintings whenever he needed money for his desires as an undergraduate, which were mostly nice pairs of jeans and designer shirts. “This was what money was good for when one was in the university,” he quips.
A flashback to when, as a much younger boy, he made himself useful around his father as he painted the portrait of Nigeria’s first chief justice, Adetokunbo Ademola, that was to adorn the walls of the Metropolitan Club in Victoria Island, Lagos. “I remember that he would mix some paints for me and ask me to do the books in the library, to demarcate the books with straight lines, because at the time he was doing the painting his hands were shaking due to the advancement in age.”
Before then, he recalls, his father’s studio used to be a sanctum of some sort for a very long time while he was growing up. “I remember that… he wouldn’t want anyone around him because he believed in absolute quiet to inspire creativity.”
To enforce this “absolute quietness”, the late renowned artist would go around the house to make sure the children were engaged in some useful activity. The latter used to dash off to find something to do whenever they heard the sound of his footsteps and walking stick approaching. “Stop loitering around! Make yourselves useful, make yourselves useful!” he would say.
Not even their friends, who came to visit or called them on the phone, were spared from their dad’s stern reprimand. He would ask them if they didn’t have anything useful doing at home. But this only lasted until he noticed that his son, who was then a student at Kings’ College, Lagos, had the artistic gift. He not only encouraged him but even helped him with his class assignments. “Of course, I would do extremely well and better than all my classmates,” Enwonwu reminisces.
Obviously, it was a source of pride for the elderly Enwonwu in the fact that his son could draw. As a result, he did everything he could, to teach him the fundamentals. He even once proudly announced to his wife that their son, Oliver, could draw with mathematical precision. This was after he had allowed the latter to redraw on a piece of paper to ensure that he wasn’t tracing.
Thus, the elderly Enwonwu, impressed by his son’s abilities, would often advise him when to consider a painting finished. He believed that as an artist, the latter ought to know when to stop and when not to add anything else to a painting. He would occasionally exclaim that his son’s painting was done in the classical style.
None of this, however, was enough to make the younger Enwonwu hesitate about choosing biochemistry over fine arts as a university major. He believed studying biochemistry would be more challenging than fine arts because he had virtually learnt the rudiments of art at his father’s feet. Besides, while still in secondary school, he was an all-rounder who excelled in both science and the arts, graduating with distinction in all disciplines. So, why would he not do something he could enjoy?
Looking back years later, he says, “It has been a very enriching experience for me because I sharpened my observatory skills,” and alludes to his love of research and the interdisciplinary nature of the talks he gave under the auspices of the Ben Enwonwu Foundation and Omenka Gallery to buttress his point.
Enwonwu, who now holds a Master’s degree in visual arts with distinction from the University of Lagos, seeks to elevate black culture through his works to challenge racial injustice and systemic racism in the tradition of his late father. This, he says in his brief bio, is “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.”
Having served the Society of Nigerian Artists as its president from 2009 to July 2021, he is now more focused than ever on his studio practice and proclaims, by way of explaining the Afro-centric tinge of his paintings: “I can only express who I am.”
He sees himself first as an African before considering himself a global citizen. Having spent most of his life in Lagos, he deems it extremely important to share his narrative the way he wants it, not only for himself but for the generations coming after him. Now, he feels a compelling need to dispel the negative media stereotypes of Nigeria as a corrupt nation and as a land of poverty and hunger.
Hence, his paintings—the portraits, especially—have become tools to project the true image of Africa. “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,” he further corroborates in a statement.
About possible influences of his father’s works on his paintings, he acknowledges that they both share a central theme: womanhood. Like his famous father, he painted the Onitsha masquerade, Agbogho Mmuo, capturing its lithe and graceful movement while dancing on canvas. Indeed, masquerades and dances feature in the works of both father and son. But that’s where the parallels end. While the elderly Enwonwu, who was also a sculptor, appeared to prefer warmer colours such as yellow, his son seems more inclined to subdued tones. The younger Enwonwu, unlike his father, neither repeats lines nor outlines his figures with strong, bold lines. “While his works have a more painterly effect, mine is tilted towards realism,” he says. “My works are a contemporary interpretation of my father’s works. Or, better still, I’d like to see my works as a conversation with his.”