A painting by a Nigerian artist has been sold for $1.4 million at an auction in London after the family who owned it googled the signature and realised its importance.
Christine – the name of the painting – was created by the master of African modernism Ben Enwonwu in 1971.
“The family were unaware of the significance of the painting or the importance of the artist, until a chance “googling” of the signature led them to Sotheby’s free Online Estimate Platform,” said the London auction house.
According to reports, the painting precedes the artist’s 1974 work of Ife royal princess Adetutu “Tutu” Ademiluyi. That piece of work sold in 2018 for $1.6 million.
Christine Elizabeth Davis, the subject and inspiration of the painting was born in New York, the stepdaughter of a renowned Ghanaian lawyer. According to auction house Sotheby’s, she moved back to Ghana to live with her stepfather in the early ’20s. She would soon relocate to Lagos in 1969 with her husband and developed a close friendship with the artist.
The artwork is a product of a friendship between Christine, her husband, and Enwonsu, as well as her innate ability to stay composed and immobile for as long as the latter required for his loose brushstrokes and vibrant oil to capture her transient beauty.
The portrayal of her long-neck, glowing skin, curved lips, and delicate smile are the testament of the warmth and grace of the sitter.
Who’s Ben Enwonwu?
Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu was born a twin on July 14, 1917, in Onitsha, Anambra State, Nigeria. His father, Odigwe Emeka Enwonwu was a reputable traditional sculptor and his mother, Iyom, a successful cloth merchant.
After his early education at Saint Mary’s School, Onitsha, Enwonwu enrolled at Government College, Ibadan in 1934, where his genius as an artist was greatly encouraged by Kenneth C. Murray, an Englishman, who was an education officer in charge of art education in the colonial civil service and later director of antiquities. He completed his secondary education at Government College, Umuahia in 1939.
Murray in July 1937 exhibited the works of his students including Enwonwu at the Zwemmer Gallery in London. Enwonwu’s work was also shown at the Glasgow Empire Exhibition in 1938, and the following year, he was awarded prize money and a bronze medal for his work now in the art collection of the International Business Machine Corporation in San Francisco.
In 1944, he was awarded a Shell Petroleum scholarship to study in the United Kingdom. In England, he enrolled at the Goldsmith College of Art, Lewisham, London and later the Ruskin and Slade Ashmolean, Oxford, where he studied fine art, aesthetics, history of (Western) art and anthropology, graduating with first-class honors in sculpture. He continued his studies in London at the University College and the London School of Economics where he completed postgraduate work in social anthropology.
On the invitation of Sir Julian Huxley then director of UNESCO in 1946, Enwonwu represented Africa at the International Exhibition of Modern Art held at the Musee D’Art Moderne in Paris.
In 1947, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Anthropology Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (FRAI). He was also made a member of Hampstead Arts and Artists International.
Enwonwu lectured widely in the United States including Harvard University and New York University. In recognition of his contributions to the advancement of art in Africa and the world, Ben Enwonwu was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 1954.
At the height of his fame in 1956, he was commissioned to sculpt a bronze portrait of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, making him the first African to be so honored. The sittings began at the Buckingham Palace and the resulting full-length bronze statue was shown at the Tate Gallery. Enwonwu was also a member of the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA).
His other major works include Anyanwu at the headquarters of the United Nations (UN) in New York, (Nigeria’s gift to the UN in promotion of world peace), Sango at the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) headquarters in Lagos and The Drummer at the Nigerian Telecommunications headquarters (NITEL) in Lagos.
Throughout his career, Enwonwu held several exhibitions in Nigeria and abroad and in 1991, a retrospective show spanning 50 years of creativity was held in his honor at the National Museum in Lagos.