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Ben Enwonwu painting sold for $1.4 million at an auction.
Ben Enwonwu painting of Christine Elizabeth Davis sold for $1.4 million at an auction.

A painting by the late Nigerian master painter and sculptor Ben Enwonwu this week sold for $1.4m at an auction in the British capital, London. The painting, titled Christine, was the portrait of Christine Elizabeth Davis, an American hair stylist of West Indian descent. The painting was completed in under a week in 1971. Christine, who was in her mid-30s at the time, passed away shortly thereafter in Texas. The family discovered the painting in their home in Texas and three months ago it was valued by Sothebys at around $200,000.

Ben Enwonwu who died at the age of 77 in 1994 is now the most influential African artist of the 20th century. He was one of the first African artists to win critical acclaim for his exhibition not only in Africa but also in Europe and the United States.

In 1956, the young artist was commissioned to do an official portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, becoming the first African artist ever to produce an official portrait of any European monarch.

Ben Enwonwu (right) unveiled his portrait statue of Queen Elizabeth at the Royal Society of British Artists in 1957.
Ben Enwonwu (far right) unveiled his portrait statue of Queen Elizabeth at the Royal Society of British Artists in 1957.

Another national masterpiece painting by Enwonwu called the ‘African Mona Lisa’ was sold for $1.5m at an auction in London in 2018 after being lost for decades. The painting is of the Ife princess Adetutu Ademiluyi, known as Tutu, and was painted in 1974. He painted three portraits of her, all of which disappeared, and became national cultural icons. Poster reproductions of the works hang on walls all over Nigeria, representing peace after the Nigerian-Biafran conflict of the 1960s.

Award winning novelist Ben Okri described the painting as Africa’s Mona Lisa. “It amounts to the most significant discovery in contemporary African art in over fifty 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,” he said.
A worker at Bonhams auctioneers poses next to Tutu, by Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu (Image courtesy Reuters/Peter Nicholls).
A worker at Bonhams auctioneers poses next to Tutu, by Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu (Image courtesy Reuters/Peter Nicholls).

Tutu is part of a set of three paintings created by Enwonwu around 1973, just a few years after Nigeria’s civil war ended. Enwonwu was reportedly walking in the Nigerian countryside when he met a beautiful young woman whom he just had to paint. The woman Tutu was a princess of Ife, in present day Osun state.

Enwonwu Notable works
1951 – Portrait of Chief Candido Joao Da Rocha exhibited during FESTAC LAGOS 1977
1956 – Bronze sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II
1964 – Sango: the Yoruba god of lightning and thunder
1971 – Christine: Sold in 2019 for $1.4 million.
1973 – Tutu: Sold in 2018 for $1.5 million
1986 – Risen Christ: Displayed at the University of Ibadan but later torched due to political-religious riot. Enwonwu’s work is displayed in the National Gallery of Modern Art in Lagos. His works can also be viewed at the Virtual Museum of Modern Nigerian Art.

Enwonwu Awards
1944 – Shell Petroleum Scholarship: to study in the United Kingdom
1954- National Merit Award: for academic and intellectual attainment in Nigeria
1958 – Commonwealth Certificate in London: for contributions to art by the Royal Institute of Art
1958 – Member of the Order of the British Empire
1971 – Officer of the National Order of the Republic in Senegal
1980 – National Order of Merit in Nigeria: for contributions to art in Nigeria

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