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Uzo Egonu

Born, 1931 in Onitsha, Nigeria. Died, 1996

Perhaps the most significant pioneering African artist to settle in London and contribute to the British art scene was Uzo Egonu, born on 25 December 1931 in the Nigerian city of Onitsha. Like Frank Bowling some years later, Egonu came to the UK whilst still in his early teens.  He was very much “an African artist in the West”, as Olu Oguibe described him. Indeed, so acculturated was Egonu, to life as a British artist, that he was one of the eleven practitioners whose work was sent from London to Lagos for Festac’77: The work of the artists from the United Kingdom and Ireland. As mentioned earlier in this study, Festac’77 was an international festival of arts and culture from the Black world and the African Diaspora. All of the artists were London-based, and Egonu exhibited in the company of another Nigeria-born artist, Emmanuel Taiwo Jegede, and other artists from the United States and the Caribbean who had made London their home.

Egonu has the distinction of being, as Araeen puts it, “perhaps the first person from Africa, Asia or the Caribbean to come to Britain after the War with the sole intention of becoming an artist.” (Rasheed Araeen, Recovering Cultural Metaphors, The Other Story catalogue, 1989: 86).  He was introduced to art at an early age and was painting in Nigeria before coming to the UK. Within several years of his arrival he had completed his schooling in Norfolk, and then studied Fine Art, Design and Typography from 1949 to 1952 at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in London. Egonu was a prolific painter and his work consistently reflected a distinctive fusion of modernist influences and art reflective of his West African heritage. Like other artists from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, Egonu’s work was in essence a blend of the abstract and the figurative and the representational. He had a remarkable ability to render landscapes and cityscapes as compelling and fascinating geometrical configurations, each very different in its representational aspects.

Uzo Egonu was the subject of several features that appeared in the magazine African Arts. One such piece was in the Winter 1973 issue of the magazine (Volume VI, Number 2). A work by Egonu, Hair Plaiting appeared on the cover of the magazine. Egonu was in this issue because he was a 1972 Prizewinner. The feature appeared on pages 8 - 13 of the magazine. The other prizewinners were Cyprian Shilokoe, Tito Zungu, Louis Khehla Maqhubela and Ahmed Louardiri. The piece was illustrated with a number of colour and monochrome plates of work by the artists. The text opens as follows:

“Our annual competition is clearly getting better known across Africa, as can be seen not only by the increase in the number of entries but by the ever greater geographical spread of the regions they represent. The winners, not selected for any artificial intention of demonstrating the range of the countries contributing, give evidence enough of the many nations which joined in our project. As varied as the countries was the mix of styles and techniques in the field of art. There were prints and etchings, batiks, oils and even, as will be seen on the inside front cover, envelope decoration.”

At the front of the magazine the feature was introduced as, “Our fifth annual competition is again proof of the abundant and diverse creative talents to be found in Africa today. While the individuality of each artist is displayed in the subject matter, style and media, all of the prizewinners are nonetheless united by elements which mark each work as distinctly African.”

About Enogu, the text states (in part), “Uzo Egonu will be known to readers of African Arts from the illustration of his prizewinning painting that achieved the distinction of first prize in the BBC African Art Contest, as was described by George Bennett in African Arts, Volume 5, Number 1. He [Egonu] is now living in London and during the last ten years has built up a major reputation as an artist in Europe. He has had a series of one-man showings in London and other British towns - Leicester, Brighton, Edinburgh and Stroud - besides having made a large number of contributions to group exhibitions in major galleries such as the Royal Institute, and exhibitions such as the Camden Exhibition of African Art.”

Elsewhere in the magazine is a colour reproduction of Egonu’s Northern Nigeria Landscape, oil on board, 38 x 60”

Egonu was a member of Rainbow Art Group, an intriguing new initiative of the late 1970s, involving a number of London’s artists. Briefly, the history of the group was as follows: “In the Spring of 1978 MAAS (Minorities’ Arts Advisory Service) held its second London conference. This conference which took place on the 14th April 1978, summoned together people from ethnic groups living in London who were involved with the arts of London’s ethnic groups… The visual artists recognised the main problem that exists in relation to the work and aspirations of all ethnic minorities in the art world, including their own. This is the difficulty that all find in getting their work considered seriously and supported through established channels. They therefore decided, at the Conference, to form an organisation with the aim of promoting their work and, by joint efforts, to make a positive contribution to the cultural life of the country. In this way they hope eventually to create a climate of knowledge and appreciation that will allow the work of the future generation to be admired and sought after on its own merits and not simply because it happens to be the work of an ethnic minority. The first tasks were to find a name, qualify aims and objectives and work out a constitution. At the group’s second meeting held on the 24th June 1978 at the Keskidee Centre, the members agreed that the group should be named ‘Rainbow Art Group’ thereafter.” (1)

The group consisted of Indira Ariyanayagam, Uzo Egonu, Lancelot Ribeiro, Taiwo Jegede, Errol Lloyd, Yeshwant Mali, Gordon V. de La Mothe, Durlabh Singh, Suresh Vedak, Ibrahim Wagh, and Mohammad Zakir. Rainbow Art Group undertook several exhibitions during the time of its existence.

Egonu’s work was included in the landmark exhibition The Other Story: Afro-Asian artists in post-war Britain, Hayward Gallery, London, 1989. He died in London on 14 August 1996.

(1) Rainbow Art Group exhibition leaflet, for a show of “Paintings and Sculptures” at Action Space, London, 22 May – 9 June 1979.

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Lithographs: Once Upon a Time in Ibo-Land

Book relating to a publication, 1971
Published by: Uzo Egonu
Year published: 1971
Unpaginated.

image of Lithographs: Once Upon a Time in Ibo-Land

Small self-published story book by Uzo Egonu. On the front cover: LITHOGRAPHS: Once Upon a Time in Ibo-Land  Original short story  Uzo Egonu. The inside cover states Copyright Uzo Egonu 1971. Five original plates by Egonu appear between the story in the booklet. The original images were colour, but here they are reproduced in monochrome. The story (which appears in short sections, ‘A’ to ‘E’) is a typical traditional African story tale, in which animals take centre stage and become the central characters of the story. 

The story began, “Once upon a time in Ibo-land, the King asked all the animals and birds in his kingdom and foreign lands to attend a feast in his palace for the harvest festival. The King requested that all the animals should assemble at the crossroads leading to his palace, where the tortoise, whom he had appointed to direct them to the palace, should wait.”

The plates are all uncredited.

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»  Uzo Egonu

Born, 1931 in Onitsha, Nigeria. Died, 1996

Related venues + view all 12

»  Caribbean Cultural Center

United States of America

»  Cornerhouse

Manchester, United Kingdom

»  Hayward Gallery

London, United Kingdom

»  Manchester City Art Gallery

Manchester, United Kingdom

»  Wolverhampton Art Gallery

Wolverhampton, United Kingdom