Imagine finding an almost-forgotten portrait of your mother in your family house, doing a Google search on the artist’s name and discovering that what you own is a precursor to the artist’s best-known work that sold in 2018 for $1.6 million.
This is exactly what happened very recently to one of the members of the Davis family in Texas.
The portrait, Christine, is the latest remarkable find of work by one of the most revered African artists of the 20th century, Ben Enwonwu. The captivating sitter is Christine Elizabeth Davis, an American hair stylist of West Indian descent. Christine travelled a lot in her life, working in Ghana before moving to Lagos with her British husband in 1969. There, they befriended Enwonwu and Christine’s husband commissioned the work as a gift for his wife in 1971 before they eventually moved back to the US a few years later.
The work was completed in under a week as Christine was able to hold her pose for as long as needed. Christine, who was in her mid-30s at the time, passed away in Texas thereafter. But the painting has remained in the family ever since. The portrait is valued at up to £150,000 ($200,000) and will be on auction at Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary African Art Auction on Oct. 15 in London.
Ben Enwonwu was a Nigerian artist whose career spanned 60 years seeing the journey of Nigeria from a British colony to an independent nation. His story is unique in that not only did he become famous in his own country, but also in the UK where he studied. In Nigeria, he is best known for his famed depictions of Nigerian royal princess Adetutu Ademiluyi (Tutu), often dubbed the ‘Nigerian Mona Lisa.’ Prints of Tutu adorn the walls of living rooms across Nigeria.
The 2017 discovery of Tutu is an equally fascinating story as the discovery of Christine. The long-lost painting was found in a modest London flat and the owners had no idea of its importance or value. It sold at a record $1.6 million in 2018.
Enwonwu was born in 1917 in Onitsha, eastern Nigeria, to a mother who ran a successful textile business and a father who was a retired technical assistant and a reputable sculptor, from whom the artist learned his early carving skills. The artist studied fine arts at the Government College Umuahia, eastern Nigeria in 1934, before receiving a scholarship to study in the UK in 1944, where he attended Goldsmiths College, London and Ruskin College Oxford, and the Slade School of Fine Arts. Despite being widely celebrated as a painter and sculptor, Enwonwu was also a distinguished writer and art critic.
His writing is as important today as it was decades back when he first wrote it. He bemoaned the pigeon-holing of African art and its relegation to second-class status, despite the fact that it was a source of inspiration for world-renowned artists from the West.
He wrote, “I will not accept an inferior position in the art world…European artists like Picasso, Braque and Vlaminck were influenced by African art. Everybody sees that and is not opposed to it. But when they see African artists who are influenced by their European training and technique, they expect that African to stick to their traditional forms even if he bends down to copying them. I do not copy traditional art. I like what I see in the works of people like Giacometti but I do not copy them… I knew he was influenced by African sculptures. But I would not be influenced by Giacometti, because he was influenced by my ancestors.”
It’s unlikely that this will be the last discovery of a lost Ben Enwonwu portrait. It reopens up discussions about the place of art from the continent in the global world. According to Hannah O’Leary, Sotheby’s head of Modern & Contemporary African Art, African art only accounted for 0.1% of global sales in 2016. While data is not available for how that figure has changed in the past few years, much more still needs to be done.
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