The year was 1956, and there was a lot of buzz and anticipation for Queen Elizabeth I’s visit to Nigeria.
The young queen had only been a few years into her reign and was making a highly anticipated visit to the West African country, which has not yet become a republic.
Prior to her arrival, the famous Nigerian artist, Ben Inuno, received a royal commission to commemorate her visit with a statue, making him the first African artist to make an official portrait of a member of the royal family.
He began work on the sculpture the following year, and visited Buckingham Palace in London for several sessions.
Ben Inuno working on a bronze sculpture of the Queen attributed to him: Courtesy of Oliver Inono/Ben Inono Foundation
The rest of the sessions were held in a private studio belonging to Sir William Red Dick, Inono Fellow of the Royal Society of British Artists.
During this time, Enwonwu finished “a portrait bust and a sketch model for sculpture,” according to the foundation.
Ben Inono and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II look at his statue of the Queen attributed to him: Courtesy of Oliver Inono/Ben Inono Foundation
Enwonwu completed the statue in 1957 and raised some eyebrows at the time for the depiction of the Queen with plump lips. His son Oliver said that Ben Inono’s distinctive style is the “Africanism” of his subjects.
“Some of the enthusiastic reviews the statue received was that the artist portrayed the Queen through his African eyes, and the work had African features, which is what distinguishes his work,” Oliver Inouno told CNN.
Oliver, also a famous artist, described the statue of the Queen as one of his father’s greatest works.
“My dad was very proud of it,” he told CNN. “It was one of his masterpieces that showed his prowess as an artist.”
“At the time,[Enwonwu making a sculpture of the Queen]was important because he was an African artist. But he was the most famous in the Commonwealth at the time, so it was very easy to give him the nod,” Oliver added.
Statue unveiled in Nigeria attributed to him: Courtesy of Oliver Inono/Ben Inono Foundation
While the bust was later finished in Nigeria, Queen Elizabeth acquired the bust and, according to the Royal Collection Trust, had another Enwonwu sculpture in addition to a number of his paintings.
The Queen’s bronze was later placed in the Nigerian Parliament building ahead of the preparations for the country’s independence from Britain in 1960.
The work is now in the Nigerian National Museum.
Influential African artist
Enwonwu became known as one of Africa’s greatest modernists.
Born in 1917, Enwonwu has been described as the most influential African artist of the 20th century.
He had become a notable artist even before his royal commissioning, and in 1954, he was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by the Queen for his services to art.
Enwonwu was awarded a scholarship in 1944 by Shell West Africa and the British Council for the Study of 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 later returned to Nigeria to become a lecturer.
He was appointed as Nigeria’s first Professor of Art by Ife University, now known as Obafemi Awolowo University, in 1971 and was awarded the National Award of Merit by the Nigerian Government nine years later.
He died in 1994 at the age of 77.