A missing Nigerian masterpiece has been randomly found in a ‘modest north London flat’. ‘Tutu’, a portrait of a princess, was painted by Nigeria’s best known modern artist Ben Enwonwu in 1974.
It appeared at an art show in Lagos the following year, but it then vanished for 44 years. Now, the artwork has resurfaced at a flat in London. ‘It was his greatest masterpiece, and people have been asking “where is Tutu?” – so to have this image turn up is extraordinary,’ Giles Peppiatt, an expert in modern and contemporary African art at Bonhams auction house, said.
Peppiatt said he had been sent on several wild goose chases in the past in search of the painting, so he was shocked to find the original hanging in a home in London. The portrait shows Adetutu Ademiluyi, the granddaughter of a revered Yoruba ruler. Her portrait holds special significance in Nigeria as a symbol of national reconciliation after the Biafran War of 1967 to 1970.
Enwonwu was Igbo, the largest ethnic group in the southeastern region of Nigeria that had tried to secede under the name of Biafra. The Yoruba people, from the southwest, were mostly on the opposing side of the war. He painted three versions of the portrait, but the other two remain lost. However, prints first made in the 1970s have been in circulation ever since, and the images are familiar to many in Nigeria. Enwonwu passed away in 1994.
Oliver Enwonwu, the artist’s son, is now president of the Society of Nigerian Artists. ‘This is a very significant discovery, given my father’s contribution to Nigerian art and African art more broadly,’ he said. The painting will be sold on February 28 at an auction in Bonhams, with an estimated hammer price of £200,000 to £300,000.