For the local aficionados, Oliver Enwonwu’s fourth solo outing should be a big deal despite his long absence from the exhibition circuit’s limelight, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
Not even a long absence from active studio practice could have so easily effaced Oliver Enwonwu’s achievements and fame from the industry’s consciousness. Ever since his very first solo outing at the now-closed Victoria Island-based Iola Gallery in 1999, this scion of the late legendary artist Ben Enwonwu virtually dropped off the local exhibition circuit’s radar. And this was for good reasons. A deft balancing act saw him managing Omenka Gallery while leading the Society of Nigerian Artists, first at the state level and eventually at the national level and all the while having a finger in nearly every pie in art activism. There were, of course, his brief – albeit, noteworthy – cameos in several local top-level group shows, which were interspersed with his forays into international exhibitions in the UK and the US. Then, two solos – following closely on the heels of each other in 2006 and 2007 – in Dublin further primed him for the big league.
So, this is why his much-trumpeted return with a fourth solo exhibition – which is the second in the local art scene – should be a big deal. For besides reaffirming his presence, after apparent time-off, the exhibition – which opened on Monday, September 20 at the Alliance Française premises in the leafy Ikoyi neighbourhood – also reprises the same old themes for which his father was renowned. Indeed, it would be hard, if not impossible, not to recognise this latest effort as an endeavour to follow in the latter’s footsteps.
Even back in 1999, the artist had acknowledged his late father’s influence in an exclusive interview at the venue of his exhibition. “The son of a carpenter ought to know his father’s trade even when he doesn’t grow to be one,” he said.
His early exposure to art under the tutelage of his father, which initiated him into the realms of visual experiences, explains the fact that his first degree from the University of Lagos was in biochemistry rather than in fine arts. “I learnt better under my father informally than I would have learnt in a classroom,” he affirmed, adding that biochemistry offered him a deep understanding of art.
Back to The Politics of Representation, as the exhibition, which ends on Sunday, October 10 is titled. It features 20 portraits, each of which strives to outdo each other in their celebration of blackness. If they seem rather too reminiscent of the works of the Renaissance-era paintings, it is because Enwonwu appropriated a representational form of expression that is often associated with European masters. This, Hannah O’Leary, the Sotheby’s Director/Head, Modern & Contemporary African Art, aptly described as “centring on West African subjects depicted in the manner of Western portraiture”.
In a manner of speaking, the exhibition is Enwonwu’s sally against the unflattering depictions of black people in Western historical art. “When we were featured, we were depicted mostly as slaves,” he says in an interview published in the exhibition’s catalogue. “I try to celebrate what is good about Africa. Even when my subjects are ordinary people, I put them in a stately fashion using the same tools and the same style of working that Europeans historically used to turn ‘the gaze’ on us. So that’s why I engage portraiture and why you see that the background is ‘classical’, poses are ‘classical’, and the figures elevated; they’re strong, proud and regal.”
Obviously, the good-time feel of the Negritude doctrine – known from the outset to have been a stock-in-trade of the 2012 University of Lagos MA Visual Arts holder, who specialised in art history – still resonates with him.
Nonetheless, it is gratifying that the artist, in a nod to the fact that true progress for a people can only be achieved in the advancement of its own culture and not through imitation, depicts his subjects in their native attires. Thus, he unconsciously refutes some of the old Western portrayals of the African in European clothes, which seem to reinforce the stereotype of a people without a culture of their own.
A most easily-grasped feature of his paintings, meanwhile, is the elegant representation – which sometimes verges on romanticisation – of the African female figure. In the 2021 oil on canvas paintings “Ronke” and “Ronke II”, for instance, he portrays a prominent princess from the Ile-Ife royal family, whose aunt Adetutu was the subject of his father’s highly-prized and much sought-after portrait series, titled “Tutu”. Perhaps, it is in a nod to her royal pedigree that he positions her elegant figure in a royal chair against the backdrop of an opulent setting, inserting his father’s portrait of Tutu at the painting’s top left corner. “I remember when one iteration of ‘Tutu’ sold for $1.6 million, Ronke, a good friend and I had a conversation about initiating a generational dialogue; while I’m the artist’s son, she is a niece of the famous Tutu,” he says.
The same sentiments, swirling around the urge to celebrate the accomplishments of African women, inspired the artist’s series of paintings of the svelte figures in the “Signares” and “Belle of Senegal”. Ironically, the Signares – Mulatto women of French and African descent, who lived in Gorée Island and Saint-Louis in the 18th and 19th centuries – wielded so much authority and influence in the hierarchies of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The artist celebrates them not only for that reason but also for material assets and endowments.
But, womanhood – endowed by the Creator with the most delicate intuitive faculty –deserves to be honoured for better reasons! Indeed, all her vaunted earthly accomplishments pale in comparison with her Divinely-assigned task, which has nothing to do with her visibility in public life. A true queen, due to her unhindered access to radiations from the Light, she has been naturally primed for the upliftment of earthly surroundings.
Hence, Enwonwu’s visual tribute to African womanhood should have had a more rousing effect on the viewer if it had been focused on her inner strength rather than on her material circumstances.
Because the artist scours for subtle expressions of inner values, he sees beyond the actual physical features of his live sitters. Sometimes, he even transposes them to time-and-space specific locations.
With dark, muted colours, which should have the effect of dimmed lights on his viewers, he draws them to a closer and deeper contemplation of the works. “There’s a sense of mystery as opposed to when they’re too vibrant, where you see everything at a glance. I want people to keep appreciating a painting as the more you look, the more things you should see. A good painting literally unfolds before you as time goes on.”
The “Wanderer Series” displays the only two portraits in the exhibition depicting male figures. These portraits of turbaned male subjects evoking nomadic Tuaregs were produced from the several evolving features of the artist’s former gateman Ali. Metaphorically speaking, the artist probes deeper beyond Ali’s gross material cloak and circumstances in search of the real human being. And, despite his apparent destitute conditions, he celebrates him nonetheless.
The exhibition, curated by SMO Gallery, is supported by Alliance Française and Louis Guntrum wines.