An Enwonwu Is Bonhams Top Lot



Olufunke Adepuji

All local aficionados’ eyes are riveted on a rare Ben Enwonwu painting. This painting, titled “Nigerian Symphony”, is the top lot at Bonhams Africa Now – Modern & Contemporary African Art. It will be up for sale, among others, at the auctioneers’ New Bond Street saleroom in London. This will be on October 5.

Close up on this rare painting by the iconic Nigerian artist. The 48×178cm work – dated 1963-64 – depicts a busy street scene, which swarms with Nigerians cutting across all social strata. Hovering above these men and women sporting traditional attires and business suits are dark, sullen rain clouds. Yet, in the midst of this gloominess, a viewer discerns a hint of optimism and euphoria in the crowd scene.

It’s not difficult to figure out why. Nigeria had just gained its political independence in 1960. Self-rule still shimmers with promise. Hence, the people in the painting seem united in their expectations of a harmonious republic.
The painting is meanwhile estimated at £100,000-150,000.

Still on the painting, Bonhams Director of African Art, Giles Peppiatt describes it as a “powerful and exuberant celebration of the Nigerian people’s strength and resilience by the country’s most beloved artist”.

He also enthused: “Painted at a pivotal moment in the country’s history, I anticipate the work will be of great interest to collectors both in Africa and further afield.”

Also featuring at the auction is an oil from Enwonwu’s celebrated Negritude series. The painting, entitled “Negritude on Red”, which is estimated at £60,000-90,000. Recall that Enwonwu’s romance with the Negritude ideology dates back to when he was studying in Paris. This was where he met the ideology’s key thinker, the poet Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor, who would later become the president of Senegal.

Yet, Enwonwu was not known to have been a political activist. Perhaps, his romance with the ideology can be traced to the fact that the movement’s pride in black culture and opposition to colonial rule resonated with him. Little wonder the artist’s depiction of the black African woman appears to be pulsate with his pride in his cultural identity and heritage in “Negritude on Red”.

Among the auction’s other lots is a rare work by Demas Nwoko, titled “Metro Ride”. This painting, which has never before been put up for auction, depicts a European couple embracing at the entrance of a Parisian metro station and is estimated at £60,000-90,000. The fact that the couple in the painting evokes a modern-day Adam and Eve attests to Nwoko’s exploration of race and common history through allegorical and biblical references.

Bonhams is the first international auction house to host stand-alone modern and contemporary African art sales. Among others, Bonhams currently holds the world record for a work by Ben Enwonwu (Seven wooden sculptures commissioned by the Daily Mirror in 1960, sold for £361,250) and the world record for a painting by the artist (Spirit of Ogolo, £218,500). Demas Nwoko’s Adam & Eve also sold for a world record price of £22,500.

Founded in 1793, Bonhams has wormed its way into collective consciousness as one of the biggest and notable auctioneers of fine arts, motor cars and jewellery. Besides its saleroom London, it has three others in New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. Its sales are, in addition, held in Knightsbridge, Edinburgh, Paris, San Francisco and Sydney.
• Adepuji writes from Lagos