‘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
0

‘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.


Performance artist Marina Abramovic returns to native Belgrade for retrospective

Updated 21 September 2019

Performance artist Marina Abramovic returns to native Belgrade for retrospective

  • ‘You know for me it’s very emotional to be here, and it’s not easy, there’s lots of nostalgia, lots of memories that are forgotten’
  • Doling out advice for youth, the artist said: ‘It is very important to follow your heart, your ideas, without compromising’

BELGRADE: The boundary-pushing performance artist Marina Abramovic returned to Belgrade Saturday to inaugurate the final exhibition of a major touring retrospective, marking her first professional homecoming in nearly 50 years.
Dressed in black, the 72-year-old invited reporters to Belgrade’s Contemporary Art Museum at dawn for the “symbolic cleansing of her career.”
The retrospective, titled “The Cleaner,” exhibits more than 100 works from Abramovic’s past 50 years of provocative performances, many of which saw the artist put her own body on the line.
“You know for me it’s very emotional to be here, and it’s not easy, there’s lots of nostalgia, lots of memories that are forgotten,” she said of her return to the Serbian capital, a place she said shaped her outlook as an artist.
“I learned three things here: from my grandmother I learned spirituality … from my father I learned bravery, and from my mother willpower and discipline,” she said.
The exhibition, which has been touring Europe since 2017, features photo montages and video reels replaying many of Abramovic’s most daring works, including one where she laid out a table of 72 objects, among which figured scissors and a loaded gun, and invited spectators to use them on her “as desired.”
Another piece from 1997, titled Balkan Baroque, saw her sit and clean 1,000 beef bones while singing folk songs from her youth, earning her a Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale.
Young Serbian artists also re-enacted some performances live on Saturday, including one in which a naked man and woman stand inside a doorway, forcing museum-goers to squeeze past their bodies.
Doling out advice for youth, the artist said: “It is very important to follow your heart, your ideas, without compromising.”
“To live for your art, which requires a lot of sacrifice,” she added.
At the start of the exhibition, Abramovic briefly sat down to re-enact a 2010 performance in New York named “The Artist is Present.”
That three-month-long piece saw her sit silently, without moving, for seven hours a day, six days a week, as visitors took turns sitting across her.
Asked if she would use her fame to bring more support to Serbian artists, Abramovic said:
“I am not a politician, but an artist, and I believe that this exhibit will show politicians that investing in culture will bring it to higher levels.”
The exhibit will be open in Belgrade until January 20, 2020.