In Rediscovering the Art of Ben Enwonwu by Farah Nayeri – Decades after his death, one of Africa’s most famous artists is gaining renewed attention, and his pieces are bringing big prices.
In 1971, an American hair stylist living in Lagos posed for a portrait by the artist Ben Enwonwu of Nigeria. Christine Elizabeth Davis (who was the wife of a British missionary) wore an elegant Nigerian gele, or head wrap, and sat so still that the painting was completed in a week. The finished work, “Christine,” then moved with the Davis family to Texas in 1978.
Four decades later, after her death, her stepson — who was a little boy when the portrait was done and always lived with it — reached out to Sotheby’s via its online-valuation platform to see what “Christine” might be worth. The answer was, quite a lot.
Mr. Enwonwu’s market prices had recently soared. His 1974 portrait of a Yoruba princess, “Tutu,” sold for 1.2 million pounds ($1.49 million) in a February 2018 auction at Bonhams, four times its high estimate, setting a record for the artist.
So when Sotheby’s holds its sale of modern and contemporary African art on Oct. 15, “Christine” will go on the auction block for an estimated £100,000 to £150,000 — a price that Sotheby’s describes as deliberately conservative to maximize bidding.
The portrait is “a personal heirloom, so not such an easy decision to make,” Hannah O’Leary, Sotheby’s head of modern and contemporary African art, said of the stepson’s wish to part with the painting. “But the time is great to sell it.”
“If you told me that my painting of my grandmother was worth six figures, I would feel a little less sentimental about it,” she said. For most people, “it’s a life-changing amount of money.”
Ms. O’Leary said that because the international market for Nigerian and African art was growing, Mr. Enwonwu was being rediscovered as an artist, and his pieces were being spotted in private collections around the world.
“These works are coming out of the woodwork,” she said.
Mr. Enwonwu (who died in 1994 at 77) was, for much of his life, one of Africa’s most famous artists. He was originally trained as a sculptor.
He produced a sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II for which the queen sat a dozen times, including at Buckingham Palace; the sculpture was completed in 1957. In 1966, he presented a tall bronze sculpture of a female figure, “Anyanwu,” to the United Nations in New York, where it is still on display.
While Mr. Enwonwu’s stature in Nigeria remains undiminished, he has faded out of the international spotlight in the last couple of decades, Ms. O’Leary said. The “Tutu” auction record is bringing him renewed attention.
“I’m very happy that my father is getting his due, but there’s still a long way to go,” said the artist’s son Oliver Enwonwu, a 44-year-old figurative painter and gallerist based in Lagos. He noted that contemporaries from other parts of Africa who were far less recognized in their lifetime were worth more on the international art market today.
“Christine,” the artist’s son noted, was “much more than the portrait of a woman.” It was an important precursor to pieces such as “Tutu,” and painted in the wake of the Nigerian civil war, a time of conflict, bloodshed and tribal tension, he said.
Through its serene depiction of beauty and femininity, it symbolized a certain “national consciousness,” and was destined to “bring our peoples together,” Mr. Enwonwu added. It was part of a series of works in which the artist “promotes all things black and all things beautiful.”
When Oliver was young, growing up as the son of a celebrated artist was rewarding and enriching. Yet it could also be intimidating.
His father was “a very, very hard-working man” who “liked absolute quiet,” his son recalled. The children “always scampered away” to avoid disturbing him, to show that they were keeping busy, too.
“He didn’t like you just lying around,” Mr. Enwonwu said. “He always believed that you have to be reading or doing something, not just hanging out.”
It was even more challenging for the young boy to follow in his father’s footsteps, and to prove that he had what it takes to be an artist in his own right.
“He didn’t believe I could draw,” the son said. “He asked me to repeat a drawing in front of him, because he thought I was tracing. He then told my mom: ‘Oliver is drawing with mathematical precision.’ From that day, he was more accepting of my development as an artist.”
The father then started lending a hand with his son’s school art assignments, helping him paint foregrounds or backgrounds, or the sky. One important lesson, Oliver Enwonwu said, was that “sometimes, when working, you must learn where to stop, because if you add a few more touches, you might spoil the work and disrupt the energy.”
As a gallerist promoting Nigerian and African art today, Mr. Enwonwu said, he has high hopes for the “Christine” auction at Sotheby’s.
“I’ll be very happy if it eclipses ‘Tutu,’” he said. “It’s a beacon of hope for a Nigerian artist who has a practice: He can work and earn good money for his work.”
He added, “It makes my work as a promoter of art in Nigeria much easier.”
Rediscovering the Art of Ben Enwonwu by By Farah Nayeri for NYT