Enwonwu 'Tutu' (1974)
Enwonwu 'Tutu' (1974)
Image: Bonhams, London

A seminal work by the Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu, now famously unearthed in a modest flat in London and heralded as the African Mona Lisa, goes on sale today. The work, a portrait of the Ife princess Adetutu ‘ Tutu’ Ademiluyi, has not been seen for several decades. Enwonwu, enamoured with her beauty, painted three portraits of her in 1974, this is the first of which is to come to light, and to auction.

The image of Tutu has since become a symbol of Nigerian reconciliation and is the most widely produced print in Nigeria, adorning the walls of most middle class homes.  The discovery of this symbol of Nigerian independence is being celebrated as the most important discovery in modern African art in the last 50 years.

The portrait, which is being auctioned by Bonhams in London today, is predicted to fetch a new record for modern Nigerian art. The piece, which is the seminal piece in the auction catalogue entitled Africa Now, includes contemporary pieces from a variety of African artists. Indeed the popularity of African contemporary art is so high that the auction house Strauss and Co held the first dedicated contemporary art featuring South African, African and diaspora artists, over the period of  the Cape Town Art Fair.

This reflects a rising trend in the popularity of African contemporary art, with the current world record being for a sale of South African artist Jane Alexander sculpture which sold in 2011 for R5,456,640. The Tutu piece is expected to sell for roughly R500,000.

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