From September 20 to October 10, 2021, SMO Contemporary Art presents Politics of Representation, a solo exhibition by award-winning artist and art advocate Oliver Enwonwu at the Alliance Francaise Gallery. “His works are odes to beauty, excellence and regality, reminding one of visual poetry in the style of a classical Shakespearean sonnet,” said Sandra Mbanefo Obiago, the exhibition Curator, Founder & Artistic Director of SMO Contemporary Art.
The exhibition contains portrait paintings inspired by a desire to address the almost complete absence of Black personages in Western art history. To make his address more direct and potent, he adapts for his paintings the modes and techniques of the 16th century old masters.
Through Enwonwu’s strong figurative style, Politics of Representation interrogates the complex layers of history connecting the African continent with the West. His powerful portraiture celebrates the cultural, political, and socio-economic achievements of Africans and how these have affected the identity of the global black race. The exhibition contains works from Enwonwu’s ‘Black Victoria,’ ‘Signares,’ ‘Belle of Senegal,’ and ‘Wanderers’ series, many of the subjects of which are idealistic or drawn from memory.
Hannah O’Leary, Director of Sotheby’s says of the paintings in the exhibition: “Oliver finds ways to imbue his imaginary sitters with a sense of identity, allowing their distinctive features, clothing and compelling posture to give the otherwise unknown character a clear sensibility. Oliver’s vivid portraits, depicted in stylish, colourful attire, imbue his subjects with a strong sense of regality, autonomy and self-assertiveness,”
Enwonwu’s work is informed by a committed conversation with history. He writes: “‘Black Victoria’ focuses on Black cultural identity in the Victorian era… .Closely related are the ‘Signares’ and the ‘Belle of Senegal,’ which deal conversely with the effects of European Imperialism in Francophone West Africa. The former explores how the Mulatto French-African women of the Island of Gorée and the city of Saint Louis in French Senegal negotiated their identity in the 18th and 19th centuries. The latter category engages present-day women of Senegal, chronicling their increasing hybridity that absorbs and transforms global fashion trends yet retains the best aspects of their culture.”
The heritage out of which the works stem is also complex and duly acknowledged. “In tribute to my father [Ben Enwonwu],” he writes, “[there is] an incursion into the metaphysical … based on contemporary interpretations of traditional African dance and the Onitsha-Igbo masquerade pantheon, Mmonwu… My chief interest lies not in the decorative qualities of their costume but in the rhythmic movement and spirituality of their dance, as well as in their role in bridging the spirit and physical worlds.”
Oliver Enwonwu is the president of the Society of Nigerian Artists, the umbrella professional body for all practicing visual artists in Nigeria. Enwonwu holds a Master’s degree in visual arts with distinction from the University of Lagos, Nigeria. He comes from a long line of artists; his grandfather was a reputable traditional sculptor and his father Ben, widely celebrated as Africa’s pioneer modernist. In his work, Oliver Enwonwu elevates Black culture to challenge racial injustice and systemic racism by celebrating the cultural, political and socio-economic achievements of Africans through an examination of African spirituality, Black identity and migration, contemporary African politics, Pan Africanism and the global Africa empowerment movement.
Politics of Representation is supported by Alliance Francaise and Louis Guntrum wines, and is open at the Alliance Francaise Gallery, Lagos from September 20, 2021 to October 10, 2021.