Bonhams : Nigerian Symbol of African Pride
Nigerian Symbol of African Pride

A powerful portrait of the actress, Marianne Inness, by Nigeria's most famous artist, Ben Enwonwu, is being offered at Bonhams Modern & Contemporary African Art sale in London – and by live link in Lagos – on Thursday 3 October. Estimated at £150,000-200,000, it is one of Enwonwu's most iconic paintings.

Marianne was a close friend of the artist - they occupied neighbouring apartments in Camden during the 1960s - but in this portrait, she is transformed into the poster girl for post-independence Nigeria. The painting's full title 'Marianne Inness: Présence Africaine' is in itself a clarion call. 'Présence Africaine' was a political and literary magazine founded in 1947, and was a vital forum for discussions about de-colonisation, the potential for political union, and the need for 'Black consciousness'.

Enwonwu was invited to contribute to the publication by the poet and first President of Senegal, Leopold Sedar Senghor. He was tasked with providing a visual expression of Senghor's concept of Negritude: a consciousness of the value of black African identity. With this portrait, Enwonwu gives the movement a face. Transplanted from London, Marianne stands against a backdrop of Nigerian forest. Her attire is striking in its similarity to the outfits made fashionable by the Black Power movement in the late 1960s. The painting could be an advertisement for James Brown's 1968 funk hit 'Say it Loud -I'm Black and I'm Proud', Black Power's unofficial anthem.

Marianne's status as a symbol of black pride is undeniable, but very little is known about the woman herself. She disappears from public records when she moved away from Camden. Giles Peppiatt, Director of Modern & Contemporary African Art at Bonhams, says that her whereabouts is still a mystery: "It would be wonderful if someone recognised her, and we could reconnect her with the portrait after all these years."

A link to the sale catalogue can be found here: https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/25443

Ben Enwonwu (1917-1994) is the Father of Nigerian modern art, and is regarded as its greatest exponent. Tutu, a long-lost portrait by 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 world record for the artist's work at auction, achieving £1,205,000 at Bonhams Africa Now sale in London in February 2018.

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