“Tutu”, the iconic Nigerian painting reappears in London

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Tutu, Ben Enwonwu, 1974. Courtesy Bonhams
Details Tutu, Ben Enwonwu, 1974. Courtesy of Bonhams

One of Ben Enwonu’s lost portraits of an Ile Ife princess, “Tutu”, has been found in London and will be sold at Bonhams‘ upcoming “Africa Now” sale in February.

The Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu painted a series of three portraits of an Ife princess Adetutu Ademiluyi soon after meeting her in 1973. The dazzling paintings became a source of national pride, with copies hung on walls all over Nigeria. The images were embedded in Nigerian collective visual memory as symbols of a newfound unity after the Biafra war. Over time, the original masterpieces disappeared and their whereabouts, shrouded in mystery.

This week, Bonhams, the Auction house based in London, partly lifted the veil of mystery. Giles Peppiatt, director of modern African art, explained to the Guardian how “a family in North London approached him asking to come and see a painting they said was by Enwonwu”. They had inherited it from their father although it is not clear how he came into possession of the painting. The piece, confirmed as a genuine, is the second of the “Tutu” Series.

For Ben Okri, the Nigerian novelist, it is “the most significant discovery in contemporary African art in over fifty years.” He reckons the discovery can have far reaching consequences and will potentially transform the world of Art.

Left: Negritude. Right: Female forms, Ben Ewonwu.
Left: Negritude. Right: Female forms, Ben Ewonwu.

The painting will be the leading piece in Bonhams’ “African Now” sale scheduled in London on February 28th. It is likely to fetch between £200,000 and £300 000 – close to the artist’s records of £361,250 established for a series of seven wooden sculptures sold in 2013. The sale will also include “Negritude”; another painting by Enwonwu’s estimated between £60,000 and £90,000. The depiction of black nude bodies is a positive affirmation of a black pan – African identity; a visual interpretation of the principles of the Negritude movement, a school of thoughts that called for a cultural “decolonization” of Africa and a celebration of the continent’s culture.

Peppiatt is expecting the sale to “generate enormous interest”. In response, it will be broadcast in Lagos with the ability for the Nigerian collectors to bid in “real time” for this historic piece of Art.

The sale will hopefully set the stage for a reevaluation of Ewonu’s contribution not only to African Art (he rejected the categorization when he was alive because he viewed it as a way to undervalue his work) but also to the overall modernist movement of the 20th century.

From birth in 1921, Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu was immersed in Art, as his father was a traditional sculptor. He would go on to study at Ruskin College in Oxford before joining the Slade Art School, the first African to do so. He was renowned for his mastery and use of light in his paintings. His sculptures were a balanced amalgamation of western techniques and his Nigerian cultural heritage. In 1956 the commission to create a statue of Queen Elizabeth, during her visit to Nigeria, further cemented his status as one of the most preeminent artists of his country.

However, as an artist without strong political affiliation in an era of stark political pronouncement, his legacy and works have been widely misunderstood, undervalued and at times rejected. The latest surge of interest in African art has put the spotlight back on his work. The emergence of this astonishing piece of art will put the focus back on the talents and legacy of this unrecognized master of the 20th century.

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