In 1971, the preeminent modern artist Ben Enwonwu was commissioned by a man named Elvis Davis to paint a portrait of his wife, Christine: The final product, according to local arts magazine Asiri, depicts Christine, a New York native of West Indian descent, dressed in traditional Nigerian attire, including a gele head scarf signifying her marital status.
At the time, the Davises were living in Lagos, Nigeria. When they relocated to the United States several years later, they brought the portrait with them. The original Enwonwu work hung on the family’s wall for decades until its origin story was all but forgotten. Then, one day, years after Christine had died, family members going through storage came across the painting. Googling the signature scribbled in its bottom left corner, they discovered its creator was one of Africa’s most revered modern artists.
The portrait—painted in less than a week thanks to the sitter’s ability to hold a pose—represents an opportunity to better publicize Enwonwu’s legacy. Over the course of his nearly 60-year career, the artist combined European techniques with traditional Igbo aesthetics to create something all his own.
Speaking to the Western-centric art canon, Enwonwu once proclaimed that he would “not accept an inferior position in the art world,” adding, “When [people] see African artists who are influenced by their European training and technique, they expect that African to stick to his traditional forms even if he bends down to copying them.”
“I do not copy traditional art,” he said. “I like what I see in the works of people like Giacometti but I do not copy them. … I would not be influenced by Giacometti, because he was influenced by my ancestors.”
Writing for Bonhams Magazine in spring 2018, Nigerian novelist Ben Okri describes “Tutu”’s famed origins. It was the summer of 1973, and the 56-year-old Enwonwu encountered a young woman with “extraordinary poise, … an African beauty that combined serenity with an uncanny sense of self-worth.” He requested to paint her, and after receiving approval from her parents, proceeded to create the masterpiece.
Enwonwu’s son Oliver tells the the Guardian’s Ruth Maclean that Adetutu, or Tutu for short, “epitomized what [his father] was trying to push about Africa,” from the spirit of black emancipation to the anti-colonial Négritude movement. As Charlotte Jansen noted for the Financial Times in 2017, poster reproductions of the 1973 portrait—deemed a “symbol of national reconciliation” in the aftermath of Nigeria’s civil war—appeared in homes across the country.
Enwonwu ultimately created three versions of “Tutu.” Of these, the original 1973 canvas was stolen during a burglary in 1994, and another copy is believed to be lost. But the third, a 1974 version of the work, re-emerged in a north London flat toward the end of 2017 after vanishing from public view after an exhibition at the Italian embassy in 1975.
“It amounts to the most significant discovery in contemporary African art in more than 50 years,” Okri writes for Bonhams Magazine. “It is the only authentic Tutu, the equivalent of some rare archeological find. It is a cause for celebration, a potentially transforming moment in the world of art.”
“Tutu” shattered its pre-sale estimate of up to £300,000, or $266,000, to become the most expensive Nigerian Modernist work ever sold at auction. Earlier this year, the painting made its first public appearance in decades, popping up at the ART X Lagos exhibition in January.
It remains to be seen whether "Christine" will similarly surpass expectations when it goes under the hammer soon.