Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu M.B.E (Nigerian, 1917-1994) 'Spirit of Ogolo'
Lot 42*
Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu M.B.E
(Nigerian, 1917-1994)
'Spirit of Ogolo'
Sold for £218,500 (US$ 294,791) inc. premium

Lot Details
Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu M.B.E (Nigerian, 1917-1994)
'Spirit of Ogolo'
signed, titled and dated 'SPIRIT OF OGOLO/ BEN ENWONWU 1988' (lower left)
oil on canvas
140 x 195.5cm (55 1/8 x 76 15/16in).

Footnotes

  • Provenance
    Acquired directly from the artist by the current owner.

    Ben Enwonwu's Spirit of Ogolo is the culmination of the artist's lifelong fascination with masking performers, and represents the most sustained interrogation of their iconic form by any modern African artist. The subject of masquerades emerged early in Enwonwu's art, and by 1949 images drawn from the Onitsha pantheon of masquerades were already appearing in his Agboho Mmo paintings. Over the next five decades, Enwonwu returned to the theme again and again, establishing a body of work that shows the steady development of his technical and conceptual skills.

    In his final years, Enwonwu worked almost exclusively with the subject of Ogolo, depicting the masking performers in a series of large canvases that captured their supernatural charge. These late paintings represent the high point of Enwonwu's mature style and are considered some of his best artworks.

    Spirit of Ogolo depicts two central masquerades supported by ambiguous background imagery suggesting unformed or emergent figures. Enwonwu used this technique often to convey movement, which in the case of the Ogolo paintings, captured the vigorous dance and supernatural energy of the performers. There is an abstract quality to this painting; the brightly colored applique costume of Ogolo has been simplified to its basic yellow tone. The faces of the figures are not the conventional stark white, but are tinted blue and subsumed in the overall yellow color scheme, offset by the dark shades around the masquerade's body and bursts of light in the background. The mass of dark blue around the masquerades directs attention to the bright cerulean tints at the bottom of the canvas, which sets up a counterpoint to the blue-toned mask of the figure in front. Whilst many of his earlier paintings clearly demarcate the foreground and background, these Ogolo performers float in indeterminate space, seeming to emerge from a spiritual realm.

    Enwonwu's late style inclines towards stylized abstract forms, but also reflects his formal education and interest in the history of painting. The central Ogolo converges with the figure in profile, their shapes and dimensions echoing Leonardo da Vinci's seminal sketch of the Vitruvian Man. The dynamic lines and ghostly forms in the background reference the aesthetics of Italian Futurism. Spirit of Ogolo also employs a unique structural symmetry developed by the artist in the last decade of his life. A bold line of yellow paint enhances the highlights in the central figure's mask and splits the canvas into two equal halves. However, this bilateral symmetry is tempered by the diagonal stance of the masking performers and the swirl of dark colors that surround them.


    The masquerade motif was of great personal significance to Enwonwu, and his many variations on the theme register key moments of transformation in his art. The late burst of masquerade paintings Enwonwu produced between 1987 and his death in 1994 benefited from a concurrent sculptural exploration of the Ogolo theme. The artist described the painting of Spirit of Ogolo as a period of metamorphosis, an experience that would result in full artistic maturity. Enwonwu expresses the physical grace and acrobatic prowess of the masquerades like no other artist, celebrating on canvas a ritual still considered the pinnacle of beauty in Onitsha Igbo culture.

    We would like to thank Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie, Ph.D, Professor in History of Art and Architecture at the University of California Santa Barbara, for his assistance in the cataloguing of this lot.
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