Painter and sculptor Ben Enwonwu MBE was born in Onitsha, Nigeria on 14 July 1917; his father was a sculptor of masks and religious imagery, and his mother a successful textile merchant. He studied art under Kenneth C Murray at Government College, Ibadan and Government College, Umuahia (1939-44), and while still a student, his work was included in a group exhibition at Zwemmer Gallery, London in 1937. He held his first solo exhibition in Lagos in 1944 prior to relocating to England on a graduate scholarship to study at Goldsmiths, London (1944); Ruskin School of Drawing, Oxford (1944-46); and the Slade School of Fine Art, London (1946-47), followed by postgraduate studies in anthropology in 1948. He became a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland the same year.
Enwonwu also exhibited in group exhibitions with the London Group (1945-46) and a show of 'modern art' in Paris in 1946. In 1947 he held the first in a series of exhibitions at Berkeley Galleries, London, followed, in 1950, by a further series in New York, Boston, Howard University in Washington DC, and Gallery Apollinaire in Milan, consolidating his reputation as a pioneering African modernist. His son, Oliver, has observed that Enwonwu was ‘credited with inventing a Nigerian national aesthetic by fusing indigenous traditions with Western techniques and modes of representation’ (cited Naima Mohamud, Ben Enwonwu: The Nigerian painter behind 'Africa's Mona Lisa' (BBC News, 17 October 2019).
In the 1950s he travelled, lectured and exhibited extensively, especially in the USA and Africa. He was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth II to sculpt her portrait, executed in London in 1957, and unveiled at the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA) later the same year. In 1958 he became a member of the RBA and was awarded an MBE. He maintained a London studio, also lecturing at Lagos University and acting as cultural advisor to the Nigerian government. He was also a visiting artist at the Institute of African Studies at Howard University, Washington, DC, and Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Ife, Illife, Nigeria.
Ben Enwonwu died in Ikoyi, Lagos, Nigeria on 5 February 1994. His work is featured in numerous public collections including the National Gallery of Modern Art, Lagos, in Nigeria and in UK collections including the Ben Uri Collection, the Government Art Collection, and the University of Birmingham.