Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu M.B.E (Nigerian, 1917-1994) Nigerian Symphony
Lot 63
Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu M.B.E
(Nigerian, 1917-1994)
Nigerian Symphony
Sold for £ 112,500 (US$ 149,045) inc. premium

Lot Details
Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu M.B.E (Nigerian, 1917-1994) Nigerian Symphony
Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu M.B.E (Nigerian, 1917-1994)
Nigerian Symphony
signed and dated 'BEN ENWONWU 1963-64' (lower center right)
oil on board
61 x 182.5cm (24 x 71 7/8in).


  • Provenance
    Gifted in 1965 by Shell-BP to Mr David Fleming CBE., (1914-2004), MD of Shell Nigeria;
    Thence by direct descent to the current owner.

    David Fleming was Managing Director of oil operations for Shell-BP Nigeria from 1957-65. He was an highly important figure in the creation and development of the Nigerian oil industry and championed the preparation of Nigerians for active roles in leadership within this burgeoning sector.

    He worked his way through the political complexities of a newly emerging state, this gave him close contact with many of the key figures at the time. In the early 1960s, during a nationwide strike he journeyed to the North to meet with the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa and persuade him to return to Lagos and resume control. This the Prime Minster did and the crisis passed.

    For his achievements in Nigeria he was recommended by the Nigerian government to be awarded a C.B.E., which was later bestowed by H.M. The Queen. The above work was gifted to Mr Fleming by Shell-BP in recognition of his distinguished service on leaving Nigeria in 1965.

    In the immediate post-independence period (1960-65), Ben Enwonwu was Senior Art Adviser to the Nigerian government and worked as a sort of art ambassador for the new nation. He was very much interested in crafting a new art for Nigeria based on Negritude ideals but also on the idea of synthesizing the divergent cultural and ethnic orientation of the country into a notable and identifiable Nigerian art. He imagined such synthesis could come about by incorporating images and cultural symbols of principal Nigerian ethnic groups into singular paintings and sculptures. Enwonwu first experimented on this approach in works produced in the 1950s during the nationalist struggle for Nigerian independence. His famous Chair for the Nigerian House of Parliament combined cultural motifs from major Nigerian ethnic groups. He continued to produce work in this style until 1967 when he abandoned this approach due to the unfortunate descent of the newly independent country into civil war.

    Nigerian Symphony reflects the nationalist attitude of Enwonwu's post-independence art, offering an ideal vision of a unified Nigerian identity. The painting represents the various peoples of Nigeria with a principal focus on Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa, which form the three largest ethnic groups in the country. The central figure in the foreground, clad in white with a turban, represents Hausa peoples but specifically affiliates of the Sokoto Caliphate ruling class of northern Nigerian. The figure wearing a gold embroidered red cap represents Yoruba peoples. Strangely enough, this figure wears a "Dutch Wax" print cloth (the so called "African cloth"), which by this time was becoming more popular than the expensive strip woven-cloth of Yoruba textiles. Two figures in the painting wear red caps, which identify them as Igbo Ozo titleholders. We see also a man in a Western style business suit and in the right hand corner, a man in a hat wearing a striped long-sleeve dress, which identifies him as an Urhobo man though other Niger Delta ethnic groups also use this fashion. The women in the middle foreground of the painting are Fulani; other women in the painting wear textiles reminiscent of Yoruba and modern Nigerian fashions. This aggregation of different ethnic groups speaks to the overall desire for a cohesive Nigerian identity and reflects Enwonwu's aspirations for the new nation in a period of great social transformation.

    The painting's horizontal format is significant because Enwonwu usually deploys this format only in paintings of cultural events, or major landscape paintings. The size of the artwork is also significant because it suggests Enwonwu saw the painting as an iconic piece. Furthermore, its identification with the goal of national unity makes it a politically charged artwork. Enwonwu's vision of a bucolic Nigerian identity was famously criticized for its idealism, rightly so given the country's swift descent into internecine warfare, which arose specifically because of tribalist contention.

    It had been obvious that the British amalgamation of over 250 ethnic groups into the modern nation of Nigeria was bound to have, at the very least, serious growing pains. In spite of that history, Enwonwu's vision of a united Nigeria was important to efforts to stabilize the country in the post-independence period. His dedication to Negritude aesthetics meant he saw Nigeria as a country that could play a major role in international affairs if it could tame its ethnic divisions. The ideal of national unity forms a basis for a larger ideal of global black unity, which Enwonwu considered an imperative for the African and African Diaspora peoples' struggle against neo-colonialism and Western imperialism. He may be accused of undue idealism for his views, but artworks like Nigerian Symphony shows he could never be accused of a lack of belief in his vision of a better world.

    We are grateful to Prof. Sylvester Ogbechie from the department of History of Art and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara for his opinion and assessment of this work.
Auction information

This auction is now finished. If you are interested in consigning in future auctions, please contact the specialist department. If you have queries about lots purchased in this auction, please contact customer services.

Buyers' Obligations


If you have any complaints or questions about the Conditions of Sale, please contact your nearest customer services team.

Buyers' Premium and Charges

For all Sales categories excluding Wine, Coins & Medals and Motor Cars and Motorcycles:

Buyer's Premium Rates
25% on the first £175,000 of the Hammer Price
20% from £175,001 to £3,000,000 the Hammer Price
12.5% from £3,000,001 of the Hammer Price

VAT at the current rate of 20% will be added to the Buyer's Premium and charges excluding Artists Resale Right.

Payment Notices

For payment information please refer to the sale catalogue.

Shipping Notices

For information and estimates on domestic and international shipping as well as export licences please contact Bonhams Shipping Department.

  1. Eliza Sawyer
    Auction administration - African, Modern and Contemporary Art
    101 New Bond Street
    London, United Kingdom W1S 1SR
    Work +44 20 7468 5881
Similar Items