Yesterday, the long-lost work of late Nigerian artist, Ben Enwonwu, was sold at the Bonhams auction house, London, for £1.2 million ($1.4m), a record sale for the artist. The sale exceeded prior estimates of the work for £200,000 to £300,000. Enwonwu’s work, Negritude, also sold for £100,000 in the same sale.
The work “Tutu” is a portrait painting of a princess, Adetutu Ademiluyi, the granddaughter of a revered traditional ruler from Ife, a Yoruba ethnic group. The painting was recently discovered in a flat in north London by Giles Peppiatt, the director of modern African art at the Bonhams auction house.
“Tutu”, often described as the ‘African Mona Lisa’, was painted in 1974 by Enwonwu, who is considered the founding father of Nigerian modernism. The painting is said to have been shown at an art exhibition in Lagos in 1975 after which it disappeared for over four decades.
According to award-winning Nigerian novelist, Ben Okri, Tutu is legendary and of huge cultural significance in Nigeria, a symbol of reconciliation after the country’s civil war. “He (Enwonwu) wasn’t just painting the girl, he was painting the whole tradition. It’s a symbol of hope and regeneration to Nigeria, it’s a symbol of the phoenix rising”, Okri said.
Enwonwu’s record sale demonstrates the increased global recognition and value of contemporary African art, particularly Nigerian art. “We are very happy that modern Nigerian art has begun to get its actual value”, Oliver Enwonwu, president of the Society of Nigerian Artists, and Enwonwu’s son told Reuters.
His sentiment was echoed by ARTX organiser, Tokini Peterside, “To have Enwonuwu’s work validated in the global marketplace is almost a coming of age for Nigerian modern art.”
Indeed, the global recognition and value of Nigerian art are on a steady high with a lot of value coming into the Nigerian market. In November 2016, “Drown” by Njideka Akunyili Crosby made a record sale of $1.1 million at the Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale in New York, exceeding estimates of up to 300,000 dollars. Last year, her work, “The Beautyful Ones” sold for £2.5 million, almost three times her sale for Drown.
Enwonwu’s masterpiece, “Tutu”, has been described as rare and remarkable, and the most significant discovery in contemporary African art in over 50 years. The artist who died in 1994 is said to have made three paintings of Tutu, but the whereabouts of the other masterpieces remain unknown.