Published On: Wed, Feb 7th, 2018

Enwonwu’s ‘Nigerian princess’ gets £300K price tag

Ben Enwonwu’s 1974 painting of an Ile-Ife princess will be auctioned in London on 28 February and may fetch a record price of between £200,000 to £300,000.

The painting was that of Princess Adetutu Ademiluyi and had been declared missing for decades until it was found in a North London flat recently.

A Nigerian family gave out the paint to Giles Peppiatt, the director of modern African art at the auction house Bonhams. The family members said it was inherited from their father.

Such is the anticipated interest in the paint that “its appearance on the market is a momentous event”, said Peppiatt – the sale will also be broadcast live to bidders in Lagos.

It is expected to sell for between £200,000 and £300,000. If it goes over the upper limit it will set a new record for a modern Nigerian artist.

Known as Tutu, the paint is a national icon in Nigeria, with poster reproductions hanging on walls in homes all over the country.

The artist, Enwonwu, regarded as the founding father of Nigerian modernism, painted three versions of Tutu and the image became a symbol of national reconciliation. But all three were lost and became the subject of much speculation.

The Nigerian novelist Ben Okri said it amounted to the “the most significant discovery in contemporary African art in over 50 years, according to theguardian.com.

It is the only authentic Tutu, the equivalent of some rare archaeological find. It is a cause for celebration, a potentially transforming moment in the world of art.”

Okri, writing in the forthcoming Bonhams magazine, said he hoped Tutu’s rediscovery would help bring about a wider re-evaluation of African art.

“Traditional African sculpture played a seminal role in the birth of modernism in the early years of the 20th century, but modern African artists are entirely absent from the story of art,” he said.

“This is an oversight that urgently needs rectification if the art world does not want to imply that contemporary Africa has made no contributions to the world’s artistic achievements.”

Okri said Enwonwu was already world-renowned as the greatest living African artist when, in the summer of 1973, three years after the end of the Nigerian civil war, he encountered the princess and was entranced, asking to paint her portrait.

Enwonwu was a student at Goldsmiths, Ruskin College, Oxford, and the Slade in England in the 1940s.

He became more widely known when he was commissioned to create a bronze sculpture of the Queen during her visit to Nigeria in 1956, a work that now stands at the entrance of the parliament buildings in Lagos.

However, Tutu is regarded as his greatest masterpiece – the image was on display at his funeral in 1994.

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