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Tutu breaks African record in global art mart, amasses £1.208m

By Chris Onuoha

…Ooni of Ife, Grillo, Onobrakpeya, Oshinowo, others react

In a live video and audio simulcast monitored in Lagos at Wheatbaker hotels and held at Bonhams salesroom in London at 17 hours GMT, Bonhams Africa Now auction sales of Modern and Contemporary African Arts made huge impression in the global art space with array of works from African masters in their own rights.

With a sizeable number of bidders, diplomats, artists and enthusiasts that filled both Lagos and London salesrooms, there was excitement and mixed feelings as to what the outcome of the bidding would be. And with the much hyped buzz of Tutu’s painting estimated at £200,000–£300,000, there was optimism based on the previous performance of Enwonwu’s Spirit of Ogolo that sold for £235,000 at Bonhams auction.

Yusuf Grillio’s Evangelist: Cymbal, triangle and tambourine

Giles Peppiatt, Director, Bonhams African Art, functioning as the auctioneer, started the bidding with Ben Enwonwu’s pastel and watercolor painting titled Fulani girl. With much speculation on the most featured works only Enwonwu’s paintings turned the table around. Yusuf Grillio’s Evangelist: Cymbal, triangle and tambourine sold for £56,750 falling under £50 – 70,000 estimated. El-Anatsui’s work, Ancestor’s Conference also made it to £47,500 while Cheri Samba’s Le Democratie generated £27,000. Ablade Glover, a Ghanaian famous painter also hyped the sales. Others made slight impression in the bidding making the wholes sale worthwhile.

Meanwhile, Professor Benedict Chukwukadidia Enwonwu broke a new record in African contemporary art auctioning selling a whooping £1,208,750 from £200,000–£300,000 estimate, while his other works, Negritude and Female form made it to £100,000  and £110,000 respectively. This feat, according to some school of thought, shows that Africa has come of age as an emerging market in the global art mart.

Ooni of Ife, His Imperial Majesty, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, while reacting to the good news said, “I am very happy with the outcome of the sales, although it was expected. It is a great new development coming from Africa. The House of Oduduwa has played a pivotal role in keeping and bringing African heritage to limelight. I am happy and believe that this is the beginning of more good things coming from Africa.

As prominent an artist as Yusuf Grillo, whose work performed better in last year October 2017 auction in London, his works dipped in this February 2018 sales. His works barely rose above its estimates. When asked whether he is satisfied with the sales, he told Vanguard Arts & Reviews that, “I am a studio artist and not an art dealer. More so, the auction did not happen in my gallery to determine the biding criteria.”

Bruce Onobrakpeya who commented on factors that determine values of artworks said, “Certainly, artworks appreciate very much after the death of artists. In the case Ben Enwonwu, he has virtually enjoyed the benefits, patronage and appreciation after his death. The nature of art is that sometimes, the art that appreciates very high in value at a particular time can also come down in value during and after the death of the artist.

The works of Rembrandt as an example sold heavily in his life time and went down after some years. In most time, if the artist is very famous and doing very good works, whichever one that comes out can always appreciate in value particularly after the death. But personally, the value of artworks can go down in the future.”

For Ben Enwonwu’s painting that made landmark sales, it is a good thing for us as artists in Africa. There’s a lot of hope for all of us. You will notice that before, some of our artworks appreciate more in Nigeria than abroad. But now this one has really come up high; it is a good development for the Nigerian contemporary art. That is to say the Nigerian contemporary art has value in Africa and across the globe.”

Ben Enwonwu’s ‘Tutu’
sold for £1,208,750

The work of Kolade Oshinowo, who is still in the mood of his 70th birthday celebration, was also auctioned. He sees the success of Tutu and other African artworks in this February auction “is a new development for the African art. It has put African contemporary art where it should be. It has raised the bar and it is well-deserved because contemporary African art has come to be reckoned with in the world. But my worry is that I hope it will not be what I may call ‘A one day wonder’. I hope the trend continues.

For me personally, Tutu is not the best work that Uncle Ben painted but then, there are mysteries to this work. Just like Monalisa, it is not the best from Leonardo Da Vinci, but as it stands, Monalisa has been surpassed by the recent auction that almost fetched half a billion dollars. In auction sales, you can’t predict.

Sometimes it doesn’t give you a realistic situation because a lot goes into auctions when you have two competing buyers who want to outdo themselves resulting in soaring price. But then, like I said, it is a welcome development because the benchmark is high for African art now.”

Similarly, renowned painter, printmaker and Dean, School of Art, Design and Printing, Yaba College of technology, Dr. Kunle Adeyemi says that African art is actually an emerging market: “It will still be much better because what we are seeing is just the preliminary.

What happened in this Bonhams sales has portrayed that there’s a lot of art that has to do with Africans, and more importantly, that can compete favourably with the global space. Our future is so bright particularly in the art industry. People from here will believe and begin to invest in African art.

“When a market is buoyant but not discovered, the discovery will come gradually. We may not be able to say the market is saturated, whether it is in Europe, America, UK, Asia or any other place, but right now, there’s a discovery of art market in Africa and that’s the most important thing that has happened to African art and appreciation.

Ben Enwonwu’s Female form

I want you to know that even the impressionist – Picasso, Michelangelo and others discovered so much aesthetic materials in African art that was incorporated in their art and that changed the global art space. For this one, I am not surprised because we have all it takes to emerge as the art of the day for the future.

“The Tutu we are talking about today is very symbolic. It is actually a work of an artist that goes to tell you that art goes beyond ethnic chauvinism, nepotism, corruption and all that. Ben Enwonwu, for instance, is an Eastern Igbo. He came to Ife and worked on the portrait of Tutu, a Yoruba who is a royal princess.

At that, you can see the connectivity of art with the human angle. What it means is that visual art is something that unites and takes away some of these vices that we bind ourselves with. A good artist, irrespective of who he is or where he comes from – whether he is your friend, enemy or rival – is a good artist. Art in the global space does not respect war.

It tells people that there’s beauty in life, human race and space and that there has to be unity all over the world. Some of these things are stories telling us that as Africans, we can reform our society through art.”


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