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Tutu: the risen phoenix goes for auction

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‘It is one masterpiece of my father that has eluded my sight’ – Oliver Enwonwu
‘The Bonhams Auction House, London is in touch with the Ademiluyi family in Nigeria’ – Princess Ronke Ademiluyi

By Chris Onuoha

The buyer was obsessed with the beauty of the girl in the painting. This drove his desire to possess and keep the painting. He did not acquire the work as an art piece for decoration but for the inner connection and  alluring beauty represented in the painting.

•‘Tutu’ painted by Ben Enwonwu (1974)
Inset: •Ooni Ademiluyi(Ajagun), the 48th Ooni of Ile Ife

He did not comprehend the socio-cultural message and political significance of the work. He was just lost in the power of its appeal.

This was the underlying feeling trailing the painting that has positioned itself as the newest sensation in the art auction market after the last auction of Picasso’s Femme Accroupie (Jacqueline) and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Jesus portrait trended.

Tutu is a painting of an African princess that has accomplished mythical status after decades of disappearance. It resurrected from obscurity in a quiet home in the city of North London, UK, with a noble entrant into higher recognition. The work discovered by Giles Peppiatt, the director of modern African art at the Bonhams Auction House, will go for auction on February 28, in London for an estimated offer of between £200,000 and £300,000.

The painting is a masterpiece done by Professor Ben Enwonwu in 1974 of an Ife princess, Adetutu Ademiluyi, known as Tutu which turned out to be a national icon in Nigeria, with poster reproductions hanging on walls in homes in the country. Tutu is the granddaughter of the 48th Ooni of Ife, Oba Ademiluyi (Ajagun). The artist, apparently in love with the sight of the princess while on painting expedition after the Biafra/Nigeria civil war, painted three versions of Tutu. The image became a symbol of national reconciliation. But all three original works were lost and became the subject of much speculation.

Nigerian international novelist, Ben Okri while reviewing the work said it amounted to the “the most significant discovery in contemporary African art in over 50 years. He (Enwonwu) wasn’t just painting the girl, he was painting the whole tradition – a symbol of hope and regeneration to Nigeria, a symbol of phoenix rising.” He argued that its worth is more than financial. “It is the only authentic Tutu, the equivalent of some rare archaeological find. It is a cause for celebration, a potentially transforming moment in the world of art,” Okri said.

Oliver Enwonwu, son of the late Prof. Ben Enwonwu in a chat with Vanguard’s Arts and Reviews disclosed that it is a welcome development for the Nigerian contemporary art image. “It’s something I am very happy about. Many of his works, their whereabouts I know, but this one, ‘Tutu’ is one major masterpiece of my father that has eluded my sight. This particular version going up for auction is not even the most world acclaimed Tutu done in 1973 in different positions with his signature beneath, that has been reproduced through print.

Oliver, who is the current president of Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) laments that government hasn’t done enough to save our heritage in the country. “I see this more as a call to the Federal Government of Nigeria to have a viable national gallery of art in the country where such masterpieces can be secured and preserved. Government should have a repository of our artworks. We don’t have to travel abroad to see and appreciate our masterpieces in foreign museums. We should have a functional museum to retain works of art like this.”

Princess Ronke Ademiluyi, the global ambassador of Queen Moremi legacy and member of Ademiluyi dynasty also spoke to Vanguard’s Arts and Reviews saying that the entire Ademiluyi royal family is happy and overwhelmed with this latest development. “It is really amazing to have one of our own being celebrated globally like this. This is beyond the Ademiluyi family. It is a national honour and pride for the entire African race. The Bonhams Auction House in London is in contact with the Ademiluyi family in Nigeria to have a thorough history behind Princess Adetutu. To them, it is a great history to have such a huge masterpiece from Africa going for auction. The world press is agog over the auction and to Bonhams, it’s amazing because the artist in question, Prof. Ben Enwonwu, is a foremost African artist who modernised art and has taken it to global recognition. In addition to that, Tutu is a granddaughter of a powerful and influential king. To them, it is a combination of royalty and rich history.”

Princess Adetutu was actually the granddaughter of Ooni  Ademiluyi(Ajagun), the 48th Ooni of Ile Ife Kingdom.  Ademiluyi family is a huge dynasty, but she is one of his grandchildren. She may probably be in her seventies by now, married out and bearing a different surname. All these we are researching to find out,” concludes Princess Ronke Ademiluyi.


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