‘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.


Startup of the Week: Creatively promoting anime culture in Saudi Arabia

Updated 19 February 2019
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Startup of the Week: Creatively promoting anime culture in Saudi Arabia

  • 40 percent of Saudi youths are fans of Japanese anime, according to Ahmad Hawssah, founder and project manager of Kio Market

Most people in Saudi Arabia have watched Japanese anime on TV during their childhood. Japanese anime series dubbed in Arabic used to be widely aired on Arabic channels for children. Those series became an important part in the lives of young Saudis especially millennials.
With the increasing growth of the internet in Saudi Arabia in the 2000s, Saudis began to learn more about the anime culture, Japanese culture, and language. The created their own communities for anime fans, translated and spread the culture in society mainly relying on illegal streaming sites.
40 percent of Saudi youths are fans of Japanese anime, according to Ahmad Hawssah, founder and project manager of Kio Market.
An average Saudi individual has definitely watched dozens of Japanese anime during childhood. The most popular series include Detective Conan, One Piece, Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, Hunter X Hunter and Captain Tsubasa, etc.
Ahmad with his otaku friends, (a Japanese term for people with obsessive interests in anime) founded Koi Market because they were frustrated with the poor presentation of anime culture in Saudi Arabia.
Hawssah said that he and his friends attended an event that showcased anime culture in 2013. “That experience was very disappointing to us and we decided that we should do something about it,” he added.
Koi Market (@koi_market), which stands for “Kingdom of Imagination” was established in 2015. It is an anime online store based in Jeddah that sells anime-themed accessories and gifts online such as posters, mugs, T-shirts, stickers, notes and pins.
“There are many things that distinguish us from other Saudi businesses focusing on anime,” Hawssah said.
“Ninety percent of our products are made by Saudis in Saudi Arabia, we make everything by ourselves. We collaborate with local artists with real talent to draw for us,” he added.
“We found that what’s available in the local market by other competitors is very expensive and is not worth the price. Most of those businesses import goods from Japan and sell it at high prices, we wanted to fix that problem.”
“Our business is about investing in local talents, and offering products with very good quality and at reasonable prices, because we believe anime is for everyone; we do not want anyone to wish to own something that he or she likes but feel they cannot afford,” Hawssah said.
The other 10 percent of Koi market products are imported stuff from Japan such as the 3D anime models and cosplay outfits.
Hawssah with his team of five aspires to have a strong presence in the industry to sell original Japanese products, and to introduce new Arab characters to the market.
“There are so many Saudi and Arab animators and artists in the region, we want to support and market their work with our products,” he said.
Hawssah believes that the Middle East is very rich in history and culture that can be a real substance for great projects.
“We can produce amazing things by creating characters that highlight our Arab identity and culture; it will be interesting for the whole world.”
He said it is obvious that most people around the world have a good idea of American, Japanese, and Chinese cultures, but their assumptions about the Arab region and culture are flawed.
He wants to change the situation and believes the youth can play an effective role in this regard by using their creativity to highlight the true culture and identity of the region.
Koi Market products can be found on (https://salla.sa/koi_market), they ship to anywhere in Saudi Arabia. They can also be followed on Instagram (@anime_legion7).