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THE MODERN ARTS: Ben Enwonwu's Mona Lisa

(By Solomon Mahoi, [Pseudonym, "Abck Obba"])

June 11, 2024

Reflecting on the Stone Age era’s footprints left behind on rock art, which artistry encompasses vision, resilient craftsmanship, and of course artistic beauty, modern arts too with its emergence around the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, inspires its finish works to resonate the artist’s vision, the artist’s work resiliency, and the artist’s level of standard in artistic beauty; but with a more abstract approach that allows the artist to be more experimental rather than the artist confining his or her artwork to reflect traditional styles alone, or the academic artistic conventions of the time.

Influential to this artistic revolt or movement were modernist artists like Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kadinsky, Salvador Dali, and Marcel Duchamp, all whose artworks embody vision, resilient craftsmanship, as well as artistic beauty. Another modernist artist who was also influential to the modern arts movement was Ben Enwonwu, a former Nigerian master painter and sculptor who, based on exhibition archives as well as artist awards, is perhaps considered Africa’s most influential artist with artworks such as the “Court of the Oba of Benin,” the “Statue of Queen Elizabeth II,” "Three African Women Dancing," "Girls in Waiting," "Ije Village," "Yoruba Women Pounding Cassava," "Alusi Ogugu (vision)," "Anyanwu," and the Ben Enwonwu’s “Mona Lisa,” all ushering proof of the worthiness of his artistic ingenuity.

Interestingly, centuries before modern arts emerged (of its use of vibrant colours and bold brushstrokes when expressing forms and shapes), Leonardo da Vinci had painted an art piece known as the Mona Lisa, which was a live portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Florentine merchant Francesco Giocondo, as this was the sort of typical gesture of wealthy folks to their spouses or children, as a form of gift in commemoration of anniversaries or of other forms of social status achievements. And like civilisation which evolves into another civilisation through the dictations of the trend of time which an era finds itself adopted by or adapted to, arts too has been known to evolve era after era, with traces of artworks from one era overlapping into another era, just the way we sometimes see traces of renaissance arts blending in with some of the artworks of modern arts.  And apparently, Ben Enwonwu did notice this era-by-era replicative trends of the arts, which was why it was a delight to him to create his own Mona Lisa painting, but not out of contention of da Vinci’s version but rather to showcase his mastery of the arts as well.


Ben Enwonwu’s Mona Lisa was completed in 1974, and is a live portrait of African royalty of the Yoruba Princess Adetutu Ademiluyi, who was the granddaughter of a Yoruba king, the Ooni of Ife.  Considered a national masterpiece, the painting’s details are self-explanatory, from Tutu’s headtie to her dress, not forgetting her tilted head along with the mild smile on her face, including her beautiful facial features, all worn with the utmost ease of confidence, altogether making the artwork a true masterpiece that is worthy of admiration equally to da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

But at some point in time, Ben Enwonwu's Mona Lisa painting was missing for over 40 years, but was eventually recovered and was sold in 2018 at an auction in London, England, for a whopping sum of one million two hundred thousand pound sterlings. 

Arguably the most decorated African artist in the 1950s and 1960s, Ben Enwonwu was born Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu in Onitsha, Anambra State, Nigeria, on July 14 1917.  He passed away in Ikoyi, Lagos, Nigeria, on February 5 1994 at age 76.  And like an apple which doesn’t fall far from its tree, Ben Enwonwu was born to a sculptor father and a cloth merchant mother, both evidently leaving a DNA of artistry in his genes that started exhibiting itself in Ben from a young age. 

At age 17 he enrolled at Government College in Ibadan, studying fine art under the supervision of art tutor Kenneth C. Murray, and two years later he received a scholarship to study at the Slade School of Fine Art at the university of London in the United Kingdom.  He also studied at Goldsmiths university and at Oxford university, and later completed postgraduate work in social anthropology at the London School of Economics.

Ben Enwonwu's paintings and sculptings have certainly left a mark on the world of arts, for they continue to inject inspiration in future sculptors and painters across Africa and across the rest of the world, ultimately influencing their specific artistic styles, including their general artistic creativity. For this reason he is considered a father of modern arts, a distinguished accolade that shall forever remain sacred to both students and admirers of the arts, including his home country Nigeria, and of course the African continent as well.

Long live his artistic legacies.

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