Lost and Found: “The African Mona Lisa”

The 1974 painting of a Nigerian Princess resurfaced at the start of February and was sold at Bonham’s auction house in early March for £1.2m, £900,000 more than had been estimated.

The painting, of Princess Adetutu Ademiluyi, known as ‘Tutu’, is one of three versions that were all lost soon after their creation. The first version was made in 1973 by Ben Enwonwu, an artist referred to as “The Father of Nigerian Modernism”. Enwonwu had to convince Tutu’s family to allow him to paint her, as it was unusual for a woman of her status to sit for a portrait, and considered the work his masterpiece, hanging it in his bedroom. It is almost certain that Princess Adetutu is still alive today, however her whereabouts is unknown, with members of her family continuing to search for her.

Upon the creation of the first version, ‘Tutu’ became a cultural icon in Nigeria, thus leading it to be dubbed the “African Mona Lisa” with reproductions of the painting being displayed in homes across the country. The painting was so popular that Enwonwu created two more versions so that he could make money without having to get rid of the first work he prized so highly, both of which were sold soon after being created. After the original work was stolen in 1994, the year of Enwonwu’s death, the work gained an almost mythic status as the whereabouts of all three versions remained unknown. That is until, at the beginning of last month, a London family approached Giles Peppiatt, the director of modern African art at Bonhams auction house, claiming that they had a work by Enwonwu. Peppiatt was skeptical at first, regularly receiving ‘Tutus’ that turned out to be prints rather than originals, however soon realised that the painting, belonging to the family’s father, was indeed an original painting, the second version of ‘Tutu’ made in 1974. Whilst estimates for the sale price of the work were around the £300,000 mark, when the painting was auctioned off last week it fetched quadruple that, being sold for £1.2m. The Nigerian novelist and booker prize winner Ben Okri described the find as “the most significant discovery in contemporary African art in over 50 years. It 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”. Okri also said that he hoped the rediscovery would shed light on modern African art, stating how: “Traditional African sculpture played a seminal role in the in the birth of modernism the early years of the 20th century, but modern African artists are entirely absent from the story of art,”.

Whilst the whereabouts of the two other ‘Tutus’ is still unknown today, the rediscovery of the second version of the painting is a triumph for the African art scene, allowing a long forgotten (in the Western world) modern masterpiece to gain the recognition it deserves within the contemporary art scene.

Hannah Stokes

(Image courtesy of Ben Enwonwu/Bonhams Press Office)