The masterpiece “Anyanwu” dated 1956 by late artist Ben Enwonwu has made an impressive record of £353,000 (including premium) at the February 15 Bonhams ‘Africa Now: Modern Africa’ evening auction in London. Anyanwu was estimated for sale at £150,000 – £200,000.
The magnificent bronze piece is widely considered one of Enwonwu’s best works ever.
Titled after the Igbo word for ‘the sun’, Anyanwu references the traditional practice of venerating ChiUkwu (the Great Spirit) by saluting the rising sun. Enwonwu depicts the female deity rising up out of the ground, her lithe body arching towards the sky. This upward trajectory was intended to symbolise the aspirations of the soon-to-be independent nation. Her noble bearing is underlined by her ‘chicken-beak’ headdress and coral jewellery: the royal regalia of the Bini people. Enwonwu described his vision for the sculpture thus:
“My aim was to symbolise our rising nation. I have tried to combine material, crafts and traditions, to express a conception that is based on womanhood – woman, the mother and nourisher of man. In our rising nation, I see the forces embodied in womanhood; the beginning, and then, the development and flowering into the fullest stature of a nation – a people! This sculpture is spiritual in conception, rhythmical in movement and three dimensional in its architectural setting – these qualities are characteristic of the sculptures of my ancestors.”
Several smaller versions of the sculpture have passed through Bonhams’ salerooms, most recently in Africa Now: Modern Africa, May 2016. This lot is the first full-size cast to come to market. At 6ft10 high, the sculpture dwarfs the later editions. Enwonwu sculpted and cast the work in 1956 at the London studios of the acclaimed British sculptor, Sir William Reed Dick. The previous year, Enwonwu had received an MBE from HM Queen Elizabeth II, raising his international profile to an all-time high. He sculpted a portrait of the monarch in the same year the masterpiece was cast.
The first full-size Anyanwu was commissioned in 1954 by the Colonial Government of Nigeria to celebrate the establishment of the National Museum at Onikan in Lagos by the acclaimed artist and archaeologist, Kenneth Crosthwaite Murray. Enwonwu had been one of Murray’s first students in the 1930s and shared his commitment to reviving Nigeria’s art and craft traditions. Inspired by the shrine carvings of his sculptor father, Enwonwu’s work represented a return to traditional Igbo aesthetics.
Update: The evening sale made a total of more than £1.4 million. Other highlights of the sale included The Duet, by Yusuf Grillo sold for £87,500, Negritude by Enwonwu sold for £83,750, The Glory of Ancient Benin, Song of the City by Enwonwu Sold for £75,000 and Adam and Eve by Prof. Uche Okeke which sold for £56,250 against an estimate of £20,000-30,000.