May we meet you?
My name is Oliver Enwonwu. I am an artist, curator, art administrator, writer and brand strategist. I studied biochemistry, applied geophysics and art history at the University of Lagos. I serve as the current president of the Society of Nigerian Artists. I am the founder and director of Omenka Gallery, as well as publisher and editor-in-chief of Omenka magazine, Africa’s premium online magazine on culture and the business of art, which is also produced as a quarterly print edition.
In addition to these, I established The Ben Enwonwu Foundation in the memory of my late father, Prof Ben Enwonwu MBE, NNOM, one of Africa’s pioneer modernist artists. I am proudly from Onitsha in Anambra state and see myself infusing her rich culture into my art through masquerades and dance.
What was your inspiration for starting the Omenka Gallery?
The Omenka Gallery was set up sixteen years ago, and is named after my grandfather, Emeka Enwonwu who being gifted traditional sculptor was popularly known by the honorific Omenka, a name given to exceptional artists. While I was reading my late father’s writings after he passed away in 1994, I discovered it was his dream to open a gallery in the honour of his father. My decision to start Omenka Gallery was therefore born out my love for the visual arts and in fulfillment of my father’s aspirations.
The gallery exists to promote established and emerging African and international artists whose work resonates with the African continent. We have been able to achieve this through various exhibitions at home and abroad accompanied by critical publications, and by attending major international art fairs like Armory in New York, Art Dubai, Cologne Paper Art and LOOP in Barcelona.
How has it been following your father’s footsteps?
It has been a most enjoyable and fulfilling experience. I view my efforts in promoting the work of Nigerian and African artists as continuing in my father’s and grandfather’s accomplished footsteps. I am playing my part in a greater cause.
Talk to us about the visit of HRH Prince Charles to Lagos, and the historical sculpture that was again brought to lime light?
The Prince of Wales visited Nigeria primarily to promote the relationship between Nigeria and Britain. With the help of the Vice President of Nigeria, the British High Commission, Bonhams, Neil Coventry and Polly Alakija, I facilitated his viewing of a bronze portrait of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II made by my father Ben Enwonwu in 1957. The portrait, initially situated at the Parliament Building in Lagos commemorated her visit to Nigeria just before independence. My father was the first African artist to be accorded such an honour, with the Queen granting him initial sittings at the Buckingham Palace.
The sculpture had been in storage at the National Museum in Lagos, and so it was very exciting to have it displayed once again in public at the official residence of the Deputy British High Commissioner to Nigeria.
I was elated to be part of this historical moment, which exemplified the power of art in promoting peace and fostering cross cultural relations.
Tell us about your conversation with the Prince of Wales?
HRH Prince Charles expressed happiness about his visit to Nigeria. He was particularly excited that the son of the artist is not only following in his father’s profession, but was also presenting to him a portrait of his mother, the Queen. He advised me to continue well in preserving the family’s rich artistic legacy.
Talk to us about art in Nigeria?
Across the globe, there is currently increasing visibility and appreciation of art from Nigeria. Nigerian artists are embracing and excelling at less conservative and traditional media. They are also being represented by major international galleries and appearing at major art fairs, and in prestigious collections and museums all over the world. Notably, several accomplished Nigerians have been appointed as head curators of some of these important museums.
Back here in Nigeria, exhibitions are better produced and accompanied by exquisitely produced catalogues with critical text. In addition, there are more professionally-run art galleries, a professional body, Society of Nigerian Artists caters to the welfare of its members and the coming of privately owned museums of art.
We are also experiencing up surge in the monetary values in Nigerian art. In March 2018, my father’s Tutu, a portrait of an Ile-Ife princess sold for £1,205,000 ($1.7m) at Bonhams. it is now the world record for a work by a modern Nigerian artist.
How have you been able to juggle all your various responsibilities?
I am passionate about my work; art is second nature to me, and I see it as a calling.
Though my work may be multifaceted, much of it revolves around promoting art, which I do across several platforms including my gallery and publishing firm, Revilo.
Tell us what are you currently working on?
Amongst other exhibitions, I am currently planning one centered on environmental sustainability at the Yar’Adua Foundation in Abuja. I am also consistently striving to disseminate original content through my art publication, while pursuing my PhD in art history at the University of Benin.
What advice do you have to the artist trying to achieve success in the industry?
I would advise an upcoming artist to be more passionate about her/his work, spend more time researching and improving on technical skills by trying new materials and media. It is also important to apply for grants and residencies.
For those who teach art at our tertiary institution, it is important to ensure that students learn important entrepreneurial skills to survive outside the classroom, including proposal writing and portfolio building.