Rediscovering the Art of Ben Enwonwu

In 1971, an American hair stylist residing in Lagos posed for a portrait by the artist Ben Enwonwu of Nigeria. Christine Elizabeth Davis (who was the spouse of a British missionary) wore a chic Nigerian gele, or head wrap, and sat so nonetheless that the portray was accomplished in per week. The completed work, “Christine,” then moved with the Davis household to Texas in 1978.

Four a long time later, after her loss of life, her stepson — who was a bit of boy when the portrait was achieved and at all times lived with it — reached out to Sotheby’s through its online-valuation platform to see what “Christine” could be value. The reply was, rather a lot.

Mr. Enwonwu’s market costs had not too long ago soared. His 1974 portrait of a Yoruba princess, “Tutu,” bought for 1.2 million kilos ($1.49 million) in a February 2018 public sale at Bonhams, 4 instances its excessive estimate, setting a document for the artist.

So when Sotheby’s holds its sale of fashionable and modern African artwork on Oct. 15, “Christine” will go on the public sale block for an estimated £100,000 to £150,000 — a value that Sotheby’s describes as intentionally conservative to maximise bidding.

The portrait is “a personal heirloom, so not such an easy decision to make,” Hannah O’Leary, Sotheby’s head of fashionable and modern African artwork, mentioned of the stepson’s want to half with the portray. “But the time is great to sell it.”

“If you told me that my painting of my grandmother was worth six figures, I would feel a little less sentimental about it,” she mentioned. For most individuals, “it’s a life-changing amount of money.”

Ms. O’Leary mentioned that as a result of the worldwide marketplace for Nigerian and African artwork was rising, Mr. Enwonwu was being rediscovered as an artist, and his items had been being noticed in non-public collections round the world.

“These works are coming out of the woodwork,” she mentioned.

Mr. Enwonwu (who died in 1994 at 77) was, for a lot of his life, one of Africa’s most well-known artists. He was initially skilled as a sculptor.

He produced a sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II for which the queen sat a dozen instances, together with at Buckingham Palace; the sculpture was accomplished in 1957. In 1966, he introduced a tall bronze sculpture of a feminine determine, “Anyanwu,” to the United Nations in New York, the place it’s nonetheless on show.

CreditLois Conner/UN

While Mr. Enwonwu’s stature in Nigeria stays undiminished, he has light out of the worldwide highlight in the final couple of a long time, Ms. O’Leary mentioned. The “Tutu” public sale document is bringing him renewed consideration.

“I’m very happy that my father is getting his due, but there’s still a long way to go,” mentioned the artist’s son Oliver Enwonwu, a 44-year-old figurative painter and gallerist primarily based in Lagos. He famous that contemporaries from different components of Africa who had been far much less acknowledged of their lifetime had been value extra on the worldwide artwork market right this moment.

“Christine,” the artist’s son famous, was “much more than the portrait of a woman.” It was an essential precursor to items equivalent to “Tutu,” and painted in the wake of the Nigerian civil battle, a time of battle, bloodshed and tribal stress, he mentioned.

Through its serene depiction of magnificence and femininity, it symbolized a sure “national consciousness,” and was destined to “bring our peoples together,” Mr. Enwonwu added. It was half of a collection of works by which the artist “promotes all things black and all things beautiful.”

When Oliver was younger, rising up as the son of a celebrated artist was rewarding and enriching. Yet it may be intimidating.

His father was “a very, very hard-working man” who “liked absolute quiet,” his son recalled. The youngsters “always scampered away” to keep away from disturbing him, to point out that they had been holding busy, too.

“He didn’t like you just lying around,” Mr. Enwonwu mentioned. “He always believed that you have to be reading or doing something, not just hanging out.”

It was much more difficult for the younger boy to observe in his father’s footsteps, and to show that he had what it takes to be an artist in his personal proper.

“He didn’t believe I could draw,” the son mentioned. “He asked me to repeat a drawing in front of him, because he thought I was tracing. He then told my mom: ‘Oliver is drawing with mathematical precision.’ From that day, he was more accepting of my development as an artist.”

The father then began lending a hand along with his son’s college artwork assignments, serving to him paint foregrounds or backgrounds, or the sky. One essential lesson, Oliver Enwonwu mentioned, was that “sometimes, when working, you must learn where to stop, because if you add a few more touches, you might spoil the work and disrupt the energy.”

As a gallerist selling Nigerian and African artwork right this moment, Mr. Enwonwu mentioned, he has excessive hopes for the “Christine” public sale at Sotheby’s.

“I’ll be very happy if it eclipses ‘Tutu,’” he mentioned. “It’s a beacon of hope for a Nigerian artist who has a practice: He can work and earn good money for his work.”

He added, “It makes my work as a promoter of art in Nigeria much easier.”

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