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The Africanized Queen: Metonymic Site of Transformation

by Nkiru Nzegwu

Introduction

Race as a category of classification has an infamous history of injustice and domination. In late nineteenth century Africa, it was deployed in a violent agenda of empire-building, in which European superiority became the organizing principle of the new political order. Following colonization, European cultural values, social norms, and conception of reality provided the privileged frame of representation, and the standpoint for understanding Africans whom Europeans considered to be subhuman. In the views of then Governor of Lagos, Sir Hugh Clifford, Africans lacked the organizing and creative abilities that were “the particular trait and characteristic of the white man” (1). Vestiges of this racist legacy persist today in the West in the critical reception of the works of African artists. It underwrites the reluctance to accord intellectual sophistication to African artists, and the hesitance to grant the legitimacy of Africa’ s cultural paradigms in shaping the evaluative lens by which the creative expressions of Africans are framed. Nowhere is this ideological posture most evident as in the evaluation of the works of Nigerian’s preeminent artist, Benedict Chukwukadiba Enwonwu.

In the colonial quest to position Europe at the center of analysis, minimal attention is paid to the creative politics of modern African artists. Instances of the artists representation of a white man or white woman are often unimaginatively explained away as instances of Africans’ fascination with, or reverence for, the white man. The pervasive depictions of Tarzan on the side of mammy wagons, lorries, and luxurious buses are rarely seen for what it is, which is, the lunacy of a half-naked white man running around aimlessly in a jungle with animals for relatives and companionship. In an attempt to occupy the cultural high ground, hardly do the EuroAmerican interpreters of African visual forms of representation consider the rationale of art from the African perspective. For this reason, most miss the possibility that African artists could harbor revolutionary aspirations, or that they may be engaged in subversive activities even as they feign civility. Race representation, the depiction of white people in paintings and sculpture, in fact, has provided occasions in which imperial power relations are dramatically reversed so that the white oppressor becomes the loser in counter-hegemonic narratives.

In this essay I shall investigate the revolutionary anti-colonial politics underlying the production of the bronze portraits of Queen Elizabeth II by Enwonwu. I shall focus on the performative role these sculptures, formerly at the House of Representatives in Lagos, Nigeria, were designed to play. Of special interest is the symbiotic relationship of art and ritual, and the subversive way art production metonymically created a context for ritual invocation. The use of the naturalistic style achieved revolutionary potentials in shielding anti-colonial goals. This atavistic struggle between the colonizer and the colonized becomes obvious once we abandon both the colonizer’s imperial gaze and its simplistic racialized interpretations. Shifting, as Enwonwu had insistently urged, from the Western conception of art and aesthetics to the appropriate Onitsha-Igbo conceptual framework reveals a different explanatory terrain. Indeed, culturally centering this artist and his work, as is routinely done for artists in Europe and the United States, constitutes the only meaningful way to apprehend the counter-narratives of resistance and anti-domination uprisings that informed the production of the Queen’s bronze portraits.

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