Uzo Egonu was born in 1931 in Nigeria and settled in England in 1945. His work embodies a post-war artistry that was stylistically cognisant of European modern art while remaining informed by his birthplace. Egonu studied at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, remaining linked to his homeland through the West African Students Union. After his graduation in 1952, he travelled widely to places such as Denmark, Finland, Italy and Paris. This likely introduced him to the modernist and avant-garde styles of Europe that can be traced in his work.
Egonu’s paintings recall the aesthetics of Nigeria, such as his paintings’ geometric abstractions and mask-like faces. His strong personal style that recalls his West African heritage was drawn from memory and experience, rather than the colonial artefacts that inspired countless modernist artists associated with movements such as Cubism, Fauvism and Futurism. This arguably accounts for his work’s organic flow, colouration and movement, referenced from experience rather than remote observation. Stateless People (an Assembly) (1981–82) is an example of this style. Egonu’s work repeatedly challenges the assumptions of African “primitive” artists. His transcontinental style was also informed by England, where he settled, allowing him to depict the contemporary landscape of London, from Trafalgar Square to Piccadilly Circus.
No Colour Bar featured one of his few figurative works, Guinean Girl (1963). A young girl is dressed in West African attire, her towered headdress appearing as a crown, her matching dress looking like a regal sash. The strong frontal pose and depth of colouration gives the woman a monumental, immovable feel. The painting depicts a romanticised image of “Mother Africa”, communicating a virtuous beauty, stoicism and spirit representative of the artist’s homeland, an increasing theme in his work. Equally, his subtle characterisation through the piercing stare and pursed lips, as well as her idiosyncratic pose that engages directly with the viewer, gives the painting a relatable humanism not often seen in depictions of Black females of the time.
Uzo Egonu’s work is private and public collections worldwide, including the Victoria and Albert Museum and Tate Collection, London. He has exhibited at establishments such as the Commonwealth Institute, London (1973), Ljubljana Graphic Art Biennial, Slovenia (1975), and House of World Cultures, Berlin (2001). His work was also included in significant shows such as The Other Story at the Hayward Gallery, 1989. Egonu died in 1996.
Uzo Egonu (1931–1996)
Guinean Girl, 1963
This portrait is a rare example of Egonu’s figurative work. It resonates with the surge of Black identity and African consciousness that emerged in this period.
Oil on canvas