‘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.


My Ramadan with Safi Enayat: Experiencing the Holy Month in Copenhagen

Updated 22 May 2018
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My Ramadan with Safi Enayat: Experiencing the Holy Month in Copenhagen

  • Safi Enayat came to Copenhagen as a refugee from Afghanistan in 2001
  • This Ramadan, he’s hosting a pop-up iftar with chefs from Baker & Spice Dubai

COPENHAGEN: Safi Enayat came to Copenhagen as a refugee from Afghanistan in 2001 and found a job washing dishes in a restaurant kitchen before working his way up to become head chef and a restaurant owner in his own right. His cooking is a reflection of the diverse cultural influences that have characterized his life, from the traditional Afghan dishes with a modern twist he cooks for friends to the Indian-inspired cuisine served in his restaurant chain dhaba.dk, as well as the international fare he has encountered in Europe. This Ramadan, he’s hosting a pop-up iftar with chefs from Baker & Spice Dubai which aims to attract a mixed crowd of Muslims and non-Muslims to break bread over delicious Arabic food.

Read on to experience Ramadan in the European city in his own words...

Everyday life goes on as normal during Ramadan in Copenhagen because the Muslim community here is not that big. In general, people congregate at the city’s larger mosques to pray and break the fast together. There are a few larger events that I look forward to, such as Iftar på Rådhuspladsen, when everyone gathers in City Hall Square and brings a dish to share with their family and friends. It’s an amazing feeling, sitting on the floor in front of this beautiful venue with people from all cultures — Danish, Afghan, Arabs… usually several hundred people attend. Here, you have the right to enjoy your religion as you want and while Danes might be curious to know why we fast, they are very accepting. Last year one of my Danish friends called during Ramadan to say he was fasting for the day to understand it better. I was touched. I think it showed a lot of respect for my religion, which is something I often find here.

Since coming here, I feel like Ramadan has become more visible, people are more aware of what is going on and more interested in why Muslims are fasting and why they do it for so long. It’s a friendly interest. With the long days at this time of the year, many Muslims in Denmark choose to take some of their summer holidays during Ramadan so they have less work and can enjoy the Holy Month.

We’ll be hosting a pop-up iftar called The Opposite Kitchen with Baker & Spice from June 2 to June 8, which is something new to the city. We’ll invite everyone from all cultures and religions to come and learn about the meaning of Ramadan. For me, the beautiful message behind Ramadan is that when you fast, you can see what it’s like for someone who is starving on the other side of the world and can’t put food on the table, and I think it’s important to understand that. I also think that food is an important way of bringing people together. It’s something we all share and enjoy. I found my way into the Danish community through food, it was an easy way to become a citizen of the city and a part of life here. I’ve been here for so many years that this is home for me now.

Fact Box: Safi Enayat's Ramadan

Age: 30

Profession: Political science student and hobby chef

Earliest fajr this year: 2.28am

Latest maghreb time this year: 2.28am to 21:55pm

Fasting tip: It’s not easy. The days are really long here. We don’t do that much activity in Ramadan, you spend your day doing prayers, but what I do normally is come home from work, relax, then go to the mosque for prayers. You can’t do that much, so my tip is taking it easy!

Favourite restaurant iftar: An Arabic restaurant called Mahalle Birkegade. The food is really authentic, it’s cozy, and a lot of Danish people go there too.

Best Ramdan dish: I’m an Afghan, so we do spinach and we do Qabli Palui.

Most-watched Ramadan show: It depends, Afghans watch a channel called Tolo television — there’s a religious talk show with an imam on in the evenings and people can call and ask different questions about Islam and spiritual matters.