Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu M.B.E (Nigerian, 1917-1994) Tutu
Africa's Mona Lisa

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 54, Spring 2018

Page 8

The greatest work of contemporary African art vanished for 50 years. Ben Okri tells the story of Ben Enwonwu's masterpiece – and how it re-emerged

There has recently been discovered, in London, a legendary African painting that had been lost for nearly 50 years. Its discovery is a significant cultural event which could alter the perception of African art.

The story goes back to the summer of 1973. It was three years after the end of the Nigerian civil war. The mood of despair and destruction that hung over the country was beginning to be dispelled.

In the western town of Ile-Ife, one of the spiritual centres of Yorubaland, a 56-year-old artist was walking in the countryside when he encountered a beautiful young woman. Ben Enwonwu was at the height of his powers, already world-renowned as the greatest living African artist. He was an easterner in the west, a man of the secessionist tribe in the heartland of the nation. His presence there was the sign of the beginnings of a modest national reconciliation.

The young woman he met had extraordinary poise. She possessed an African beauty that combined serenity with an uncanny sense of self-worth. He asked if he could paint her. She was taken aback by this unusual request. But being properly brought up she replied that she would allow it if her parents gave their approval.

That was not the response the artist was expecting. He was used to asking women if he could paint them, and on the whole they were delighted at the prospect. After all, he was one of the most famous artists of the continent. At an exhibition of his in London, he was hailed as a great modernist. He was celebrated as a sculptor and painter. He had made a controversial sculpting of Queen Elizabeth. His interest was piqued. He duly sought out her parents. They were as surprised by the request as their daughter. They made inquiries, found that the artist was highly respected, and they gave their permission.

The artist painted an astonishing portrait of her. History does not record the number of sittings, but the result became justly famous. It is a portrait of a fresh young African lady, looking over her shoulder at the viewer. She is wearing a head tie. She has a piquant beauty.

Her gaze is dewy and hopeful and a little detached. This is a precious moment in youth, between girlhood and womanhood. The painting is executed in gentle touches of yellows and browns. The background has this spring-like light. The touch is delicate, the paint applied thinly. The lightness of the brushstrokes approximates the lightness of the young lady's spirit. The mint-fresh light, the three-quarters pose, the centrality of youth, made it a meditation on the fragility of a moment and a contemplation of African beauty. Some have seen in this painting hints of the philosophy of Negritude. There was something surprisingly joyous about it, something even untypical in the oeuvre of Enwonwu, that quickly established a special status for the work. The painting is known as Tutu.

This is where the mystery begins. The sitter's full name is Adetutu Ademiluyi, abbreviated to 'Tutu'. As it happened, she was not just any young lady. She happened to be the daughter of the previous Oni of Ife, which meant that she was a princess. We do not know the nature of the relationship between the artist and the sitter, but the depth of affection in the painting is infectious.

Some things in the work are especially worth drawing attention to. First, the pose. It is not unusual to see that three-quarters pose, with the sitter looking over their shoulder. But one thing that strikes you is that it avoids a frontal confrontation and preserves a certain modesty and distance. It shows off the fine length of Tutu's neck, which in a traditional African sculpting might have been elongated to emphasise her beauty and nobility. This pose also reveals her profile, the sweep of back, and the rich texture of her Yoruba dress and head tie. This is not a society portrait. It is a symbol of hope. It constituted for the artist a kind of renewal.

Since the 1940s, Ben Enwonwu had been one of the most important African artists. Born in 1917, in Eastern Nigeria, he inherited from his father the spirit of sculpture and the Igbo gnosis of making. He trained under Kenneth Murray in Nigeria and at the Slade in London; and at Ruskin in Oxford. He was of the generation that straddled the colonial and the African world. Coming into maturity in the years after the catalytic effects that African art had in the creation of modernism, it was his generation that had to find a new direction for African art in the contemporary world.

He came to painting early. Legend has it that, like Giotto, he used to draw elaborate figures in the sand when he was a child. He made his first art sale when he was three. He had his first group show of African arts at the Zwemmer Gallery, in London, in the 1940s. Max Ernst, the surrealist, attending the exhibition, throwing up his hands in admiration, said: "Why go on?".

From the beginning, Ben Enwonwu worked in a variety of forms. He was a painter, sculptor and draughtsman, and his output was astonishing. His responses to the cultural and historical realities of Nigeria were rich and unique: from masquerades to iconic images of dancers, from sculptures of Yoruba and Igbo gods to life-size statues of queens and politicians. His oeuvre defies easy categorisation. For his contribution to art, a crater on Mercury was named in his honour in 2009. But at the heart of his oeuvre stands this mysterious work, Tutu.

One of the sources of its mystery is that the original is lost. There is no African painting whose loss has generated so much interest. The painting is as famous for its absence as for its beauty. Every now and then the painting would turn up, there would be high expectations, and it would be a print. More than eight prints of this famous painting have turned up in the last 20 years. Like the Mona Lisa, whose fame grew after it was stolen in Paris and people queued round the block to see the empty space where it had been, Ben Enwonwu's Tutu grew in reputation for the fact that it lived in the imagination, lost to view.

One year after he painted Tutu, he was so fascinated by the subject that he did two other versions. There were three versions of Tutu, constituting a royal series. This fact was known to specialists. But all three were presumed lost.

Then one day, in December 2017, something magical happened. A painting had been hanging these last 30 years in the modest apartment of someone who prefers to be unidentified. A chance visit from a friend, who noticed the name on the painting, led to calls to an expert. After rigorous checks and thorough verification, it turned out that this painting in a modest north London apartment was the only version of Tutu in existence. The expert – Giles Peppiatt, Director of Modern and Contemporary African Art at Bonhams – said: "I was absolutely staggered when I first saw the piece. The owners, who had inherited it, had no idea of its current value."

It amounts to the most significant discovery in contemporary African art in more than 50 years. 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.

The discovery of the lost painting could also pose fundamental questions about the relationship between the African artistic contribution and the story of modern art. For the modern African dimension of that relationship has been absent. 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. 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.

The rediscovery of Tutu, 1974 – which is offered at Bonhams' Africa Now sale in February – is an excellent place to begin that revaluation. It was painted one year after the first version that now seems lost forever. It is a more confident and, in some ways, a darker painting. In the Tutu of a year before the young lady was fresh and innocent. In this painting something mysterious has happened: the artist has caught that delicate, almost imperceptible moment in which a girl changes into a woman. It is only a year later, but the depths of her character are more evident. The three-quarters pose is the same. But here the young woman is present in an extraordinary way. In the earlier painting she was a generic image of youth; here she is a strong, determined woman who knows her own mind and grasps her own power. She is not someone to be taken lightly. She is more than the powerful image of African womanhood. She is perhaps the secret image of a nation coming back into the light after a time of darkness. There is resilience on her face and perhaps the first consciousness of mortality. She is no longer innocent. The layered brushstrokes suggest struggle. Revisiting the subject suggests that something eluded Enwonwu the first time that he strives to capture the second time. The first painting has the lightness of a chance encounter, a charming brush with something fleeting and joyous and unaware. The second painting has the enchanting sobriety of a conscious work
of art, a rigorous dance with truth.

This painting is unique in Enwonwu's oeuvre. He never rises to this level of mastery in portraiture again. Perhaps he never encounters a more fascinating subject. Perhaps it was something about the times. For after the civil war, the nation enjoyed, without knowing it, a second, bruised innocence – what Yeats might have called a terrible innocence. It existed between the end of carnage and the resumption of a lost unity.

But then maybe the painting conforms to something private in the artist, of which those muted yellows and those ambiguous browns and that steady, slightly forbidding gaze are but deflected signs of inward troubles. All true portraits are self-portraits.

"On discovering the long-missing work," continued Giles Peppiatt, "I felt a little like Howard Carter peering into Tutankhamen's tomb. When Carter was asked by Lord Carnarvon 'What can you see?', Carter replied 'Wonderful things...Wonderful things.' And so it was for me on that dark December night."

This beautiful young woman, who has risen from loss like a phoenix, gazes at us with the imperative that we take her seriously. Perhaps her time has come to start a fire in the heart.

Ben Okri's latest work is The Magic Lamp (Apollo, 2017), a book of fables and paintings

Sale: Africa Now
Wednesday 28 February at 5pm
Enquiries: Giles Peppiatt +44 (0) 20 7468 8355

  1. Giles Peppiatt
    101 New Bond Street
    London, United Kingdom W1S 1SR
    Work +44 20 7468 8355
    FaxFax: +44 20 7468 5839

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