Tutu, the long-lost portrait by Ben Enwonwu of the Ife royal princess Adetutu Ademiluyi – described by Booker Prize winning Nigerian novelist, Ben Okri as Africa’s “Mona Lisa” – set a new record for the artist’s work at an auction, selling for £1,205,000 (N520.2 million, €1.4 million, $1.7 million) at Bonhams Africa Now sale in London Wednesday.
Before the auction, Bonhams had set an estimate of £200,000-300,000 for the painting.
The auction, which was broadcast live to a Bonhams auction event at The Wheatbaker Hotel in Lagos, in a pioneering move which allowed bidders participate in the auction in real time, kicked off at about 5 pm in London and started broadcasting live to the Lagos participants at 6 pm.
Expectedly, the identity of the winning bidder was not disclosed.
The record-breaking painting, which was one of the three original versions of Tutu painted by Enwonwu, was produced in 1974.
According to Neil Coventry, the Bonhams Lagos coordinator: “It is a well deserved prize for a well renowned artist.”
Enwonwu, who was influenced by the Negritude after his encounter with its key actors at the first Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris, held in 1958, was known for his brazen romanticisation of the African womanhood.
The painting depicts a coffee-complexioned damsel with her back half-turned to the viewer. She strikes a regal pose in her traditional Yoruba attire. Aficionados believe that Enwonwu’s interest in her must have been elicited by her straight narrow nose and thin lips – features which are not normally associated with the Negroid race.
The maiden, who could easily have passed for a Fulani girl, was none other than Adetutu Ademiluyi, a member of the Ile-Ife royal family. She was, as the late Nigeria’s iconic artist would later discover, the granddaughter of the then O’oni of Ife.
This encounter, which took place sometime in 1973 when Enwonwu was on a visit to the Yoruba monarch’s palace, paved the way to the production of the paintings.
His bid to get Adetutu to sit for a portrait was at first not enthusiastically considered by her parents. But the latter’s reluctance soon caved in to Enwonwu’s persistence.
Hence, between that year and the following year, three versions of this portrait painting – which became so to speak Nigeria’s equivalent of Mona Lisa – were produced.
There were other reasons why Tutu generated so much interest among the bidders. Enwonwu, as the story goes, never sold the original Tutu.
Indeed, this painting reportedly never left his private collection until his passage in 1994. Even so, signed copies of this 1973 oil on canvas painting have found their way into many private collections in Nigeria.
Consequently, the whereabouts of all the three original paintings remained hitherto officially unknown. This would explain the legendary long search for Tutu, especially for the original of this oil on canvas painting done in 1973.
Also a mystery is the whereabouts of the third Tutu. So, that leaves the version up for sale at Bonhams as the only known original example of the image.
It is, therefore, not hard to figure out why the discovery of this record-breaking painting would stir up such a maelstrom of interest among aficionados.
“It amounts to the most significant discovery in contemporary African art in over fifty years,” Okri was quoted to have said in the spring edition of Bonhams magazine. “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 portrait of Tutu is a national icon in Nigeria, and of huge cultural significance,” Bonhams Director of Modern African Art, Giles Peppiatt had corroborated. “It is very exciting to have discovered the only painting of the series that we now know still exists. Its appearance on the market is a momentous event and we expect it to generate enormous interest.”
That the painting, which was obviously of great personal significance to Enwonwu, would later be seen as a symbol of national reconciliation for a post-conflict Nigeria was not surprising.
After the bitterly-fought 30-month Nigeria civil war of the late 1960s, such wound-healing symbolic gestures like an ethnic Igbo artist romanticising a Yoruba princess in a painting were welcome.
There were the obvious traces of Enwonwu’s romance with the Negritude movement on his depiction of the Ile-Ife princess. In a nod to the artist’s adherence to the cultural movement launched in Paris in the 1930s by Francophone African and Caribbean intellectuals, Tutu’s aristocratic mien proclaimed the dignity of African womanhood.
In her traditional attire, the dark-skinned beauty celebrates the African ideal, which references with pride.
Enwonwu’s other work Negritude, also painted in the 1970s, sold for £100,000 (€113,000, $138,000) in the same auction.