Ben Enwonwu’s masterpiece painting rakes in $1.6m at London auction

Ben Enwonwu’s “Tutu”, described as the African Monalisa, which was recovered from a London apartment has sold for over $1.6 million (NGN 508,358,310). The famous painting which was found in a north London apartment in December last year, exceeded sale estimates at an auction in London on Wednesday.

Credit: Ben Enwonwu Foundation

The second of three paintings of the princess created by Enwonwu during the aftermath of Nigeria’s bloody civil war, “Tutu” depicts Adetutu Ademiluyi, an Ile-Ife princess who is presumed to be alive as subsequent searches are being carried out to find out Enwonwu’s muse.

According to Bonhams, an international auction house based in London, “Tutu” was painted after Enwonwu encountered the princess walking down the roads of Ile-Ife. The artist created two other pictures of Ademiluyi, the first which was stolen in 1994, and the third which remains at large.

After the second version of Tutu was gotten from the family who chose to remain anonymous, and authenticated, it became a part of Bonhams’ “Africa Now” sale. The London auction house initially predicted a price tag of between $275,000 to $413,000 which is less than a quarter of the amount realised in the “20-minute bidding frenzy” on the telephone during Bonhams’ Africa Now auction on February 28. And for the first time, the auction was opened to bidders in Lagos, who took part in real time at the Wheatbaker hotel, Lagos, and finally closed out with the identity of the buyer remaining unknown.

An employee at Bonhams auctioneers poses next to Tutu,” by Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu, ahead of its sale (Reuters/Peter Nicholls)

Oliver Enwonwu, the son of the late artist is also a painter, publisher of Omenka Online and director of Omenka Gallery, located in former home and studio of Ben Enwonwu also located in Lagos. He expressed his excitement following the news, describing it as “a pride to Nigerians both at home and in diaspora”.

He went on to say that it was “an encapsulation of his career and a recognition that is long overdue”. Citing Enwonwu’s contributions to modern art alongside the likes of Picasso, he went on to express disappointment in the Nigerian government’s failure to establish a museum of modern art, where people from all over the world can come to view, understand and appreciate Nigeria’s rich, cultural heritage.

Oliver described his father as a visionary genius who believed in excellence and professionalism. He continued that the portrait of Tutu is so significant because of its role in unifying the Nigerian peoples after the Nigerian civil war, pointing out that the work still wields the same power today as Nigerians all over the world are celebrating its discovery and world record prize, as evident in the global media frenzy.

“No one remembers that the work was painted by an Igbo man from Onitsha and that the sitter was a Yoruba princess from Ile-Ife. The greatness of “Tutu” lies in unifying Nigeria, a country of diverse tribes and languages.”

Importantly, Oliver adds that the painting epitomises the artist’s exploration of the philosophy Negritude, as espoused by Senegal’s first president Léopold Sédar Senghor. “He captures the svelte, graceful, elongated features of the sitter, as well as her black velvety skin. Enwonwu’s fame was used in support of Black nationalists struggles all over the world, and in “Tutu”, he celebrates blackness and enjoins the Black race to take pride in their beauty while challenging Western stereotypes thrust on us, as we were judged not on our merits but on the colour of our skin.”

Ben Enwonwu’s personal items together with his paint brushes and work clothes are presently displayed at the leading art gallery which overlooks the lagoon in Ikoyi, Lagos, a representation that his legacy lives on even in death.

Ben Enwonwu. Credit: Ben Enwonwu Foundation
Credit: Ben Enwonwu Foundation

The eventual discovery of “Tutu” is partly thanks to the efforts of Giles Peppiatt, Director of African art at Bonhams. Peppiatt uncovered the work after a family in north London contacted him following recent lucrative sales of Nigerian artworks at auction. Peppiatt then made a visit to the apartment in north London and discovered the painting which had been hanging there for the last 30 years. According to Bonhams, Peppiatt said: “I was absolutely staggered when I first saw the piece. The owners, who had inherited it, had no idea of its current value.”

“The portrait of Tutu is a national icon in Nigeria, and of huge cultural significance,” said Giles Peppiatt, Bonham’s director of modern African art. “I am delighted that it generated so much interest and set a new world record for the artist.”

“Tutu” was among 20 artworks by Enwonwu made available at the Bonham’s sale. His paintings “Negritude” and “The Female Form” sold for $138,000 (NGN 48,187,411) and $151,000 (NGN 46,406,152) respectively with proceeds going to the owners who bought the artwork and the auction house.