Sold for £1,208,750 inc. premium
Own a similar item?
Submit your item online for a free auction estimate.How to sell
Looking for a similar item?
Our African Modern & Contemporary Art specialists can help you find a similar item at an auction or via a private sale.Find your local specialist
Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu M.B.E (Nigerian, 1917-1994)
signed and dated 'BEN ENWONWU/ 1974' (lower left)
oil on canvas
97 x 66.5cm (38 3/16 x 26 3/16in).
A private collection, London.
Lagos, Italian Embassy, An exhibition of Ben Enwonwu, February 1975.
Few artists experience the honor of having one of their works become a national cultural icon. Ben Enwonwu's portraits of Tutu have achieved this level of celebrity. And for good reason, the paintings are some of the most enigmatic works produced by a Nigerian artist in the 20th century.
In 1971, Enwonwu was appointed the first professor of Fine Art at the University of Ife. The violence of the Nigerian/Biafran conflict (1967-1970) was still fresh in public consciousness, and academic institutions were tasked with promoting a spirit of national reconciliation. Enwonwu embraced this duty, using Negritude ideology and imagery to explore issues of cultural identity and political contestation that the Nigerian civil war had laid bare. The artist created a number of his most famous works during this period, including three portraits – all titled Tutu – of a young Yoruba woman named Adetutu Ademiluyi, a granddaughter of a previous Ooni (king) of Ife.
Enwonwu frequently made trips to the countryside surrounding Ife, sketching the landscape and recording cultural traditions and practices. It was during one of these visits that he encountered Tutu. He was so impressed by her beauty and unusual features that he asked her parents for permission to paint her. Enwonwu may have also been motivated by her status as a royal princess of Ife - he was also of royal lineage, descended from the Umuezearoli of Onitsha. In addition, winning the approval of the Ife royal house would offer the artist protection from any problems arising from his Igbo ethnicity, a contentious issue in post-war Nigeria.
Although the Ife royal family was initially wary of Enwonwu's overtures, the artist finally received her parent's permission and executed three portraits of the young woman. In these paintings, Enwonwu depicts Tutu in formal and informal Yoruba attire. He captures her youthful visage in a three-quarter view, her long neck is brought into sharp focus against the folds of woven cloth draped over her left shoulder. The deft brushwork and diaphanous treatment of forms impart a haunting quality to her regal pose.
Recurrent images in Enwonwu's art usually indicate points of conceptual transformation and the Tutu portraits explore a new concept of femininity. Enwonwu considered the Tutu series very important to his development as an artist; they are the defining works of his postcolonial practice and late stylistic period. The principal painting in the series, Tutu (1973), was his most prized possession and remained in his studio until his death in 1994. Today, the painting's whereabouts is a mystery and ownership hotly contested.
Many collectors who made claims to the painting have been found to own print versions, produced between 1976 and 1978, no doubt to take advantage of the FESTAC '77 celebration (the 1977 World Black Festival of Arts and Culture held in Nigeria). The question, "where is Tutu?", is still asked to this day in Nigeria.
The appearance of Tutu (1974) is therefore a momentous occasion. It is important to note that this is not a copy; it is the second of the three original oil paintings that Enwonwu executed between 1973 and 1974. In this 1974 version, Tutu's expression displays a greater serenity than the 1973 portrait, suggesting that she had developed a more comfortable relationship with the artist.
We are grateful to Professor Sylvester Ogbechie from the Department of History of Art and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara, for his opinion and assessment of this painting.