Uzo Egonu

Woman in Grief

1968

In Tate Modern

Artist
Uzo Egonu 1931–1996
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 482 × 1202 mm
frame: 607 × 1345 × 35 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Hiltrud Egonu 2014
Reference
T13897

Summary

Woman in Grief 1968 is an oil painting on canvas, painted in London, that dates from the early period of Nigerian-born artist Uzo Egonu’s career. A large leg emerges from a cream form at the centre of the canvas and dominates the painting. Several geometric lines suggest the rear and back of the woman of the title, bent double in distress, the red shape above the knee resembling a head tucked inwards. The figure is abstracted and set against large areas of solid colour, predominantly cobalt blue, cream and red, and other zones of geometric patterning. During the early 1960s Egonu made a number of works, such as Northern Nigerian Landscape 1964 (Tate T13898), which combined a modernist approach to painting with his childhood memories and nostalgia for Nigeria through references to the Nigerian landscape and local traditions. In other works, such as this one, he responded directly to events Nigeria as well as to his own personal circumstances as an expatriate in Britain.

This work was painted in the same year as the two Battles of Onitsha, large-scale military conflicts between Biafran and Nigerian forces which resulted in high casualties on both sides. These events had particular significance for Egonu, who was born in Onitsha but left Nigeria in 1945 at the age of thirteen to pursue an education in the United Kingdom. Without the means to return, but deeply concerned for his family, he closely followed developments in Nigeria and much of his work from this period relates to the Biafran War (1967–70).

Having settled in Britain, Egonu studied fine art, design and typography at the Camberwell School of Arts in London from 1949–52. Although he lived out his life in England as an expatriate and only returned to Nigeria once for a brief visit, he maintained ties to Africa, utilising Nigerian Igbo imagery as well as responding to events there. He also participated in the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal in 1966 and the Second World Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Lagos, Nigeria in 1977. In paintings like this one, as well as the earlier Northern Nigerian Landscape, Egonu synthesised his formative years growing up in Nigeria with his academic training in European modernism. He belonged to a generation of non-European artists who chose to live and work in London, but nevertheless struggled to receive institutional recognition for their contribution to the modernist discourse. As such, his work was featured in the landmark exhibition The Other Story, curated by the artist Rasheed Araeen (born 1935) at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1989, alongside other Black and Minority Ethnic artists including Egonu’s long-term friend, Ronald Moody (1900–1984).

Further reading
Olu Oguibe, Uzo Egonu, An African Artist in the West, London 1995.
Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie, ‘Review of Oguibe, Olu, Uzo Egonu, An African Artist in the West,’ H-AfrArts, H-Net Reviews, February 1997, http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=838, accessed August 2013.

Kerryn Greenberg
August 2013

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Display caption

T13897

Much of Egonu’s work from this period relates to the Biafran War (1967–70). Woman in Grief was painted in the same year as the two Battles of Onitsha in Nigeria. These were large-scale military conflicts between Biafran and Nigerian forces with high casualties on both sides. The events had particular significance for Egonu who was born in Onitsha. He left Nigeria at the age of thirteen to study in the United Kingdom. Deeply concerned for his family but without the means to return, he followed developments in Nigeria closely.

Gallery label, April 2019

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