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Missing Nigerian Masterpiece, Tutu Found in London Flat
Okechukwu Uwaezuoke with agency report
The long missing painting of an Ife princess that attained an almost mythical status after going decades unseen has been discovered in a north London flat, the London-based Guardian newspaper reported Tuesday.
Ben Enwonwuâ€™s 1973 painting of the Princess Adetutu Ademiluyi, known as Tutu, is a national icon in Nigeria, with poster reproductions hanging on walls in homes all over the country.
The artist, 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.
Reacting to the discovery of what might be the original Tutu, renowned Nigerian novelist and Booker Prize winner, Ben Okri, said it amounted to the most significant discovery in contemporary African art in over 50 years.
â€œIt 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,â€ he said.
According to The Guardian, the discovery was made by Giles Peppiatt, the director of modern African art at the British-based auction house Bonhams.
He estimated he gets sent a Tutu every eight weeks and it invariably turns out to be a print. But late last year, a family in north London approached him asking him to come and see a painting they said was by Enwonwu.
â€œSometimes you go somewhere on a wing and a prayer, you donâ€™t know what you are going to see … this was an enormous surprise.
â€œIt is a picture, image-wise, that has been known to me for a long time, so it was a real light bulb moment; I thought: â€˜Oh my god, this is extraordinaryâ€™,â€ he said.
The family have asked to remain anonymous, but Peppiatt described them as perfectly ordinary. The painting was something their father had acquired, he said, adding: â€œAs is often the way, there are things your parents buy and you havenâ€™t a clue why they bought it or what the value of it is … you just inherit it.â€
The painting will be sold at Bonhams in London on February 28 but such is the anticipated interest â€“ â€œits appearance on the market is a momentous eventâ€, said Peppiatt â€“ that the sale will also be broadcast live to bidders in Lagos.
It is expected to sell for between Â£200,000 and Â£300,000. If it goes over the upper limit it will set a new record for a modern Nigerian artist.
Okri, writing in the forthcoming Bonhams magazine, said he hoped Tutuâ€™s rediscovery would help bring about a wider re-evaluation of African art.
â€œTraditional 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,â€ he said.
â€œThis 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 worldâ€™s artistic achievements.â€
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, University of Oxford, and the Slade in England in the 1940s. He became more widely known when he was commissioned to create a bronze sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II 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 â€“ the image was on display at his funeral in 1994. The whereabouts of the other Tutu paintings remain a mystery.