Saturday 10 February 2018

Fact, Fiction Of Enwonwu's Iconic 'Tutu' Paintings

...holder of the stolen version 'known'.   

'Tutu' (1973) by Ben Enwonwu. Pic: from the artist's family.
 Contrary to the 'Eureka' in the air of Nigerian art, about the 'discovery' of an iconic painting titled Tutu, the search is not over. On Tuesday, many newspapers reported that one of the leading auction houses in Europe, Bonhams, announced it has found Tutu, a 44-year-old missing painting by Ben  Enwonwu.

 The artist painted the mystery princess, Tutu Ademiluyi in 1973 when he was Professor of Fine Arts at University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Osun State,  South-west of Nigeria. Sources from Nigerian art lexicon - over the decades - say that Enwonwu (1917 -1994) painted three versions of Tutu.

 However, so much interest has been released to unravel the identity of the princess as well as recovery of the painting since 1994 when the index version 1973, allegedly disappeared from thfe artist's studio. But a source in Lagos, few days ago,  has assured that the holder of the "stolen" Tutu (1973 version) is known.

 In 2011, late Chief  Rasheed Gbadamosi showed
more interest with intention to launch a hunt for the painting. No clue was found till the death of Gbadamosi in 2016.

 On Tuesday, Giles Peppiatt, director of modern and contemporary African Art at Bonhams was quoted by The Guardian of U.K. as saying "... this was an enormous surprise." He must have been excited after getting  anticipated for a long period that the 1973 version painting was declared missing. "It is a picture, image-wise, that has been known to me for a long time, so it was a real lightbulb moment; I thought: Oh my god, this is extraordinary.’”

 Howevecr, there are issues over the said 'discovery' of Tutu by Peppiatt. Between 'missing' and 'stolen', lies the clarification. The iconic missing Tutu said to have been stolen from Enwonwu's studio in 1994 is not the version 'dicovered' by Peppiatt. The stolen and widely known version of Tutu that became a subject of controversy and research is dated 1973 while the one announced by Bonhams for its February 28, 2018 auction in London is dated 1974. Clearly, the index Tutu is still missing.

 While Peppiatt was modest in his choice of words to describe the real status of the Tutu he 'discovered', the distortion was widened in a statement credited to Nigerian novelist, Ben Okri. It is the only authentic Tutu, the equivalent of some rare archaeological find," the novelist was more specific in error.

In fact, the errors came in high currents. For example, Enwonwu is not the founding father of Nigerian  modernism , contrary to what  Mark Brown, Arts Corresponndent at The Guardian wrote. If there should be any need for such sobriquet as 'founding father of Nigerian modernism', Aina Onabolu (1882 - 1963) fits better into such epithnet.

Tutu  (1974) by Ben Enwonwu as published in The Guardian.
 As cultural objects of nations keep defining the people's history and identity, the controversy  surrounding Tutu could generate Africa's own 'Mona Lisa', from the iconic Enwonwu painting just in case the index 1973 version is eventually found. Whoever holds the 1973 Tutu is not exactly hidden from searchlight. A  Lagos-based businessman and   follower of Enwonwu, who would not want his name disclosed, has hinted, few days ago, that "I know who is holding the stolen one." More interesting, the source also disclosed how Enwonwu altered the natural facial look of Adetutu. "Am aware of three paintings by him of the same lady," the businessman who is also a keen observer of the Nigerian art market stated via chat online. "Yes, her name was Adetutu Ademiluyi and she was made up to look older," he said, specifically adding: "I am definitely aware from the artist himself."

 More curious is the anonymity of the holders or family 'owners' of the 1974 version. It makes the issue or definition of 'missing' more interesting. Oliver Enwonwu, son of the late artist confirmed, on Wednesday, that the version stolen from his father's studio is dated 1973, but added "the two other versions were actually missing too."

 Yes, 'missing' in art parlance is open to diverse interpretations. Perhaps 'missing' in the context of the 1974 version does not suggest stolen, but means that the collectors or holders are unknown. Indeed, with so much constant movements of works of art - strengthening provenance - the identity of subsisting collector of a specific piece is difficult to track, and perhaps unnecessary. But when such piece is as iconic and controversial as Tutu,  tracking its provenance becomes an issue.

 With the complexity of drawing a line between a 'stolen' and a 'missing' Tutu painting, perhaps, the disclosure of the holders of the consigned version for the Bonhams sale may strengthen provenance. Again, the same source that claimed knowledge of the holder of the stolen version also guessed the identity of the owner of the 1974-dated painting that is heading for the hammer at Bonhams. He said someone from a well known Nigerian family who has the largest number of Enwonwu collection most likely consigned it to the auction house.

 When the Bonhams' sales open in London and beamed live to Lagos, the 1974 Tutu is expected to sell for between £200,000 and  £300,000. But it could  go beyond the estimated figures and perhaps "set new record for a modern Nigerian artist," Bonhams predicted.

  As cultural objects become strong tools in international transactions, modern and contemporary Nigerian art need to be properly tracked. And if past records at Bonhams are  anything to hold on to, Tutu (1974), may just be on its way back to Nigeria. Reason: Quite a number of top sales of Nigerian-origin art pieces at Bonhams in the past were known to have been bought by Nigerians, home or Diaspora. 
 -Tajudeeen Sowole

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