‘African Mona Lisa’ mesmerises after surprise rediscovery

Nigerian author Ben Okri poses with a work of art by Nigerian painter and sculptor Ben Enwonwu entitled 'Tutu'. (AFP)
Updated 07 February 2018
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‘African Mona Lisa’ mesmerises after surprise rediscovery

LONDON: “I think of it as the African Mona Lisa,” said award-winning novelist Ben Okri, gazing at the long-lost portrait of a Nigerian princess which recently turned up in a London flat.
Ben Enwonwu’s 1974 painting of Adetutu “Tutu” Ademiluyi, daughter of a Yoruba king, has taken on almost mythical status in the painter’s native Nigeria.
It was last seen in 1975 but is now up for sale after its surprise rediscovery.
“It has been a legendary painting for 40 years, everybody keeps talking about Tutu, saying ‘where is Tutu?’,” the Booker Prize-winning writer Okri told AFP.
As a prominent Nigerian cultural figure on the world stage, Okri viewed the painting at prestigious London auction house Bonhams, where the work will be sold on February 28.
“He wasn’t just painting the girl, he was painting the whole tradition. It’s a symbol of hope and regeneration to Nigeria, it’s a symbol of the phoenix rising,” he said.
“I spent hours looking at it, making up for the time that we hadn’t seen it. It’s been a work of rumor, but here it is, crystallized.”
The work was uncovered by Giles Peppiatt, director of Modern African Art at Bonhams, after a north London family contacted him following lucrative recent sales of Nigerian artworks.
“It was quite remarkable when I walked into this flat in north London and saw it hanging on the wall, it was about the last thing I expected to see,” he explained.
“As soon as I saw it I knew it was authentic, but I couldn’t say that at the time to the owners because you can’t just blurt that out.”
After confirming the search for “Tutu” was over, the family “were, not surprisingly, pretty astounded,” he revealed. “It’s a missing masterpiece.”
Enwonwu, who died in 1994, is considered the father of Nigerian modernism. He made three paintings of “Tutu,” the locations of all of which had been a mystery until the recent discovery.
The works became symbols of peace following the clash of ethnic groups in the Nigerian-Biafran conflict of the late 1960s.
“The sitter is Yoruba and Ben Enwonwu was Ibo, so they were of different ethnic tribes,” said Eliza Sawyer, specialist in Bonhams’ African Art department.
“It was an important symbol of reconciliation.”
Enwonwu was from a politically-connected Ibo family and his father was a traditional sculptor. The painter stumbled upon his most famous muse by accident.
“He would go around local villages and sketch local scenes and figures, and he encountered this young woman whom he thought was just entrancing and requested to paint her, not knowing her stature,” explained Sawyer.
“She was a little taken back by the request,” she added.
“It is the peak of the artist’s career, there’s also the sitter’s status as a princess and thirdly the painting had been lost. That all creates an awful lot of mystery.”
The rediscovered painting was last displayed at the Italian embassy in Lagos in 1975, and was bought by the father of the north London family during a business trip.
“It was pretty much regarded as his prize work,” explained Peppiatt.
“I think he was secretly in love with the sitter. She is a very pretty lady.
“It’s pretty audacious, with the light under the chin, which focuses you on the head. As a bit of painting it stands on its own anyway, without any of the other stories,” he added.
The painting is expected to sell for around £250,000 ($347,000) when it goes on sale jointly in London and Lagos on February 28, but Okri argued that its worth was more than financial.
“It gives us a glimpse of an important African reconfiguration of the art of portraiture,” he said.
“It’s going to start a fire, start a debate. Never have they given proper due to African painters. This is the perfect work to start” to ask why, he added.


Manganiyar musical experience connects Saudi Arabia with ancient India

Ithra takes visitors to the magical world of Manganiyar, an Indian folk music, in Dhahran on Wednesday. (Photo/Supplied)
Updated 17 November 2018
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Manganiyar musical experience connects Saudi Arabia with ancient India

  • There were challenges, Abel said. “As an ‘intruder’ going to the Manganiyar not knowing fully what this kind of art is, in the beginning I had to learn so many things and try to understand the musicians and help them to understand me”

DHAHRAN: The King Abdul Aziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) in Dhahran has been transporting its visitors to the magical world of the Manganiyar from Nov. 14-17. The Manganiyar is a timeless Indian orchestra originally born in the region of Rajasthan in north India, which has continued over many generations.
The basic song on which the show is based comes from a poem by the 17th-century Sufi poet, Bulleh Shah. The resulting folk music is an audio-visual feast that mixes light and voice and features more than 40 musicians in one performance.
The first Manganiyar show in Ithra was sold out.
“It was the first time in my life that inspiration dawned on me; it was like a heavenly gift,” Roysten Abel, the director of the musical show, told Arab News when he was asked how the band started their touring and performance journey.
“I was in Spain working as a street performer. One day I was resting and I heard wonderful music, which I thought was a dream. Then I realized that there were two musicians outside my room singing to wake me up. I then proposed the idea of forming this Manganiyar band,” Abel said.
Abel went to the Manganiyar’s hometown to create the band.
“I went to Rajasthan, auditioned almost 200 musicians and finally selected 50 to have our first show in 2006. Since then, if I ever listen to an old Manganiyar musician or a new one, I still weep because they haunt me with their singing.”
There were challenges, Abel said. “As an ‘intruder’ going to the Manganiyar not knowing fully what this kind of art is, in the beginning I had to learn so many things and try to understand the musicians and help them to understand me.”
Creating the performance and the harmony between the band members and the director took time.
“The musicians needed to know what this guy who is coming from outside wants? What is he going to make us do? Building the relationship took around a year and a half, and so it took us year and a half to build up the show.”
“I always say the Manganiyar selection was God’s gift to us because it was actually given to us and it runs on its own.”
Abel said that the Manganiyar show always sells out anywhere it goes due the experience it offers. “There has not been one show where we have not received a standing ovation.”
“We even performed in Hyde Park, Sydney, where nobody knew what to expect,” Abel said. “There were a good 10,000 people in the park, and when the show was over these 10,000 started clapping and even stayed for the second performance!”
Abel shared the band’s insights about their first visit to Saudi Arabia: “We were very curious to see how it was going to be received, but it turned out to be one of the best performances and the audience was thrilled. So, there’s always a lot of surprises and I tend to never expect. I just love to see what happens.”
Abel urged everyone to turn up and have their own experience of the Manganiyar. “People should all come and tell their friends to come, and live the show, because at the end of the day the show is not like any other music concert; it’s an experience of its own.”
Abel said that people’s responses to the show varied; some left in tears while others “jumped with joy.”
What matters to him, he said, is that people get the essence behind the show, which is love.