As It Happens

After Nigerian painting fetches $1.8M, artist's son says: 'I hope it's coming back to Lagos'

A painting that sold for $1.8 million at Sotheby's on Tuesday was created to celebrate black beauty and promote peace in post-war Nigeria, says the artist's son. 

Ben Enwonwu's long-lost portrait Christine was found in Texas and sold at auction in London

Ben Enwonwu's Christine on view at Sotheby's on October 12, 2019, in London, England. (Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby's)
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A painting that sold for $1.8 million at auction on Tuesday was created to celebrate black beauty and promote peace in post-war Nigeria, says the artist's son. 

The painting, called Christine, is the work of Ben Enwonwu, a celebrated Nigerian artist whose work has seen a resurgence among art collectors in recent years.

It is a portrait of Enwonwu's friend Christine Elizabeth Davis, commissioned by her British missionary husband in 1971, shortly after the end of the Nigerian civil war.

"It was very important for Nigerians to reconcile after such a bitter war that left millions dead," the artist's son, Oliver Enwonwu, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"Here you have a West Indian woman living in Nigeria, you know, painted by an Ebu artist ... so it was all about reconciliation and cross-cultural relations with the outside world."

Oliver, a Lagos painter and gallerist who founded The Ben Enwonwu Foundation to honour his father's legacy, says he hopes whoever bought the painting will return it to Lagos for Nigerians to enjoy.

Who is Ben Enwonwu?

Enwonwu's work promoted Africa on the world stage, and sought to bridge ethnic and cultural divides at home after the war, says Oliver.

"His art wasn't just about being esthetic or something that had decorative qualities, but I think that in his work, you know, he imbibed in a lot of Nigerians with a new national consciousness," Oliver said.

"I think his legacy rests on the fact that, you know, he brought, through his art, a country together."

Oliver Enwonwu is a painter and the son of the late Nigerian master Ben Enwonwu. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)

Oliver says his father was also heavily influenced by Negritude, a movement founded by African and Caribbean students in Paris to celebrate Africa and blackness.

"Enwonwu was instrumental in creating visual representations of the philosophy," he said.

"If you look closely at that work on this Negritude theme, you can see how he shows the beauty of the black skin, the beauty of the African woman. He depicts this carefully in the work and it's all about being black and proud." 

Long-lost paintings selling for millions 

Enwonwu is one of Africa's most famous artists, and Oliver says he was one of the most famous artists in the Commonwealth at the height of his career.

But now, more than a decade after his death in 1994, his art has become highly prized among collectors worldwide, with long-lost portraits fetching millions at auction.

Last year, his painting Tutu, a portrait of the Yoruba princess Adetutu Ademiluy, was discovered in a London apartment and sold for £1,208,750 ($2,038,338 Cdn.).

That painting, often called "Africa's Mona Lisa," is widely known in Nigeria, where many families keep prints of it in their homes.

Nigerian author Ben Okri poses with Tutu, which sold last year for more than $2 million Cdn. (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

Christine is seen as a precursor to Tutu, and was also thought lost — until it turned up in Texas.

The Davis family left Nigeria during a time of political upheaval in the mid-'70s and took the portrait with them.

After Christine and her husband died, it remained in her family, until her grandson recently decided to submit it on a whim to Sotheby's, which conservatively valued it at £100,000 ($168,934.35 Cdn).

Christine sold for £1,095,000 ($1,853,068.50 Cdn) at auction in London. (Sothebys.com)

"When I told him it could be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds he couldn't believe it," Hannah O'Leary, the auction house's head of modern and contemporary art, told CNN.

"He couldn't believe it was possible and gasped, 'Who would pay that much for a picture of my grandmother?'"

It turns out, someone paid a lot more than that. Christine sold on Tuesday for £1,095,000 ($1,853,068.50 Cdn.)

Oliver says it's incredible that Christine has seen the light of day again. His foundation, he said, has been searching for it for years.

"When it came out at Sotheby's, we were understandably very excited to see it," he said. "I hope a Nigerian bought it and I hope it's coming back to Lagos."


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Oliver Enwonwu produced by Sarah Jackson. 

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