20 Jan Onitsha and London

Uzo Egonu (1931 – 1996)

An introspective, deeply private artist in his lifetime, Uzo Egonu’s reputation has grown steadily in Nigeria in the past decade or so.  Part of the reason for this is the increased interest in the art of modernist pioneers like Ben Enwonwu, Abayomi Barber, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Yussuf Grillo, Jimo Akolo and Uche Okeke who practiced in the fifties, sixties and seventies.

The limited supply of artworks by these masters has encouraged a search for hidden gems from that period – artists who would have been of equal stature and talent but who may not have received quite the same attention.

Egonu probably falls into this category. He was by all accounts a successful artist in England in his lifetime, but since he rarely exhibited in Nigeria there was limited knowledge about his art for many years.

Egonu was born in Onitsha in 1931 and moved to England in 1945 as a teenager to study art. He eventually enrolled at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, London where he studied painting and typography between 1949 and 1952. He travelled across Europe after his education absorbing the modernist movements in Europe and studying African artefacts in museums. He lived for a brief period in Paris before returning to London to set up his studio.

He only visited Nigeria once as an artist – in 1977, as part of the black artists and photographers whose work represented the UK at the second world festival of black arts and African culture (FESTAC) in Lagos. Yet Nigeria, and Onitsha in particular, would play a central role in his art. He painted about the customs and ideals he had left behind in Onitsha. He painted about the struggles of a post-colonial Africa adapting to independence. He painted about the searing pain of the civil war in Nigeria.

Onitsha and London Hourglass Gallery
Still life with silver teapot

He may have left Nigeria at a young age, but his art explored the life he had left behind, and he continued to follow events in Nigeria closely. He also explored his new life in London. He created paintings about the sites of London and the customs of his new society.

His paintings are an interesting mix of the abstract and the figurative, taking his cues from the modernist styles of his day and infusing ideas from his Nigerian roots like the forms of Nok terracottas.

The four linoprints in our collection provide an idea of this mix of Onitsha and London. The two ‘Sacrificial cocks’ artworks are quintessentially African. They express the idea of customs, traditions and strong human bonds that typify African societies, especially in that period. This is the Onitsha tradition and culture of his childhood expressed as a fundamental part of his being.

The first ‘Sacrificial cocks’ artwork is more figurative. He expresses the idea of the sacrificial cocks clearly. The second, is far more abstract employing the geometric shapes common in many of his linoprints.

Onitsha and London Hourglass Gallery
Second sacrificial cocks

The linoprints, ‘Old spinning wheel’ and ‘Still life with silver teapot’ provide a different aspect of Egonu. This is Egonu, the British artist, employing the objects around him to tell a story about the customs and culture of England.

There are two different worlds represented in these artworks – Onitsha and London. Yet he would have felt no dissonance in these differing worlds and themes. These were simply an expression of who he was: not a past or a present, just an amalgam of who he was as a human being and an artist. Decades later, his artworks still present an evocative visual story of Nigerian culture and an immigrant’s England.

Onitsha and London Hourglass Gallery
Old spinning wheel