Ben Enwonwu: Nigerian artist who created the bronze sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II

The year was 1956, and there was great excitement and anticipation for Queen Elizabeth’s first visit to Nigeria.

The young king and queen were only a few years into their reign and were making a highly anticipated visit to the West African country, which had not yet become a republic.

Prior to his arrival, renowned Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu received a royal commission to commemorate the visit with a statue, making him the first African artist to paint an official portrait of a member of the royal family.

The following year he began working on sculpture, visiting London’s Buckingham Palace in several sessions.

“In 1957, Queen Elizabeth II sat for Enwonwu for a large bronze sculpture,” said the Royal Collection Trust, which oversees the British royal family’s art collection.

Ben working on the bronze sculpture of Queen Enwonwu Credit: Courtesy of the Oliver Enwonwu/Ben Enwonwu Foundation

In total, Queen Elizabeth sat for Enwonwu 12 times, eight of which were at Buckingham Palace, according to the Ben Enwonwu Foundation website.

The remaining meetings took place in the private studio of Sir William Reid-Dick, Enwonwu’s Royal Society of British Artists colleague.

During that time, Enwonwu “completed a portrait bust and a sketch of the sculpture,” according to the foundation.

Ben Enwonwu and HM Queen Elizabeth II looking at the sculpture

Ben Enwonwu and HM Queen Elizabeth II looking at the sculpture Credit: Courtesy of the Oliver Enwonwu/Ben Enwonwu Foundation

“African Characteristics”

Enwonwu completed the sculpture in 1957 and raised some eyebrows at the time to depict the queen with fuller lips. His son Oliver said it was part of Ben Enwonwu’s signature style to “Africanize” his subjects.

“Some of the good reviews the sculpture received were that the artist portrayed the queen through her African eyes, that the work had African characteristics, which was a characteristic of his work,” Oliver Enwonwu told CNN.

Oliver, also a renowned artist, described the Queen’s sculpture as one of his father’s greatest works.

“My father was very proud. It was one of his masterpieces that showed his skill as an artist,” she told CNN.

“At the time, (Enwonwu’s sculpting of Queen) was a big deal because he was an African artist. But he was the most famous Commonwealth artist at the time, so it was very easy to nod,” Oliver added.

State inauguration in Nigeria

State inauguration in Nigeria Credit: Courtesy of the Oliver Enwonwu/Ben Enwonwu Foundation

While the sculpture was later completed in Nigeria, Queen Elizabeth acquired the bust and, according to the Royal Collection Trust, owned other Enwonwu sculptures and some of his paintings.

A bronze of the Queen was later placed in Nigeria’s parliament building before the country began preparing for independence from Britain in 1960.

The work is now in the Nigerian National Museum.

An influential African artist

Enwonwu has come to be regarded as one of Africa’s greatest modernists.

A portrait of Nigerian princess Adetutu “Tutu” Ademiluyi, dubbed the “African Mona Lisa”, sold for more than $1.6 million (£1,205,000) at a London auction in 2018.

Born in 1917, Enwonwu was born in the 20th century. They have described him as the most influential African artist of the 20th century.

He became a renowned artist before his royal commission, and in 1954 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by the Queen for services to art.

Enwonwu won a scholarship from Shell West Africa and the British Council in 1944 to study fine arts in the UK after a successful solo exhibition. He received a classical education at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and attended Oxford University. Enwonwu returned to Nigeria to become a teacher.

He was appointed Nigeria’s first professor of arts by the University of Ife, now known as Obafemi Awolowo University, in 1971 and received the Nigerian Government’s National Merit Award nine years later.

He died in 1994 at the age of 77.