Guests started trickling into one of the meeting rooms at The Wheatbaker Ikoyi for what could be termed the auction of the century. The stage was set for bidders to join the live broadcast for the Bonhams African Art auction from London.
Gradually, the room began to fill as people exchanged pleasantries. It was a mixture of race, white, black faces brought together by the love of art; and perhaps by the late Ben Enwonwu whose iconic piece, ‘Tutu’ found in a London flat in February was listed among the Lots. It was a 1974 portrait of an Ile-Ife princess, Adetutu Ademiluyi.
Late Enwonwu who is regarded as the founding father of Nigerian modernism, painted three versions of ‘Tutu’ and the image became a symbol of national reunion. But all three were missing and became the subject of ample rumour.
The original painting of ‘Tutu’ was done in 1973 when he was a lecturer at the University of Ife, his son, Oliver Enwonwu told TLR in an exclusive interview. “Tutu was a young girl at the time my father did the painting. In fact, he told me he had to take permission from her parents before he painted her. The painting was very dear to my father’s heart.”
When Enwonwu painted the three ‘Tutus’, he knew the work would be successful even posthumously. He knew they would be all successful and even declared the first his masterpiece. Tonight, as everyone gathered at The Wheatbaker Lagos to witness history in the making as one of the ‘Tutus’ is auctioned, no one was sure how it would all end.
After some of Enwonwu’s works and that of other African artists had gone under the hammer, it was the turn of the star Lot 47, ‘Tutu’. A wave of uneasiness swept through the hall as everyone paid rapt attention to the bid. The bid started surpassing the £200,000 and £300,000 price placed on it by Bonhams. It moved on to £900,000 a price called by a Nigerian until someone who phoned in bided for £1, 208, 000, the final hammer price.
Before the auction, the thought on everyone’s mind was ‘Tutu’ would return home to Nigeria, but the outcome proved all of us wrong. A collector who asked not to be named said: “Why can’t the Ministry of Arts and Culture consider acquiring the work? One would have thought the ministry would bid for the piece to be brought back home.” This was not to be as things turned out differently that evening.
Perhaps, if the work had returned home, it would have been a perfect avenue for Nigeria to create her own ‘Mona Lisa’, a half-length portrait painting by the Italian Renaissance artist, Leonardo da Vinci, which has been described as “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world”. The ‘Mona Lisa’ is also one of the most valuable paintings in the world. According to teachkidsart.net, over 6 million people visit the ‘Mona Lisa’ at the Louvre museum in Paris, France each year.
If the ‘Tutu’ painting had been brought home and placed in a museum perhaps it would have drawn an approximately 6 million people to Nigeria like ‘Mona Lisa’ is doing in Paris.
Culture activist, Jahman Anikulapo, thinks differently. He says it will be unbefitting for ‘Tutu’ to be placed in a moribund museum like the National Gallery collections at the National Arts Theatre.
“Imagine Tutu coming back,” he says, “and being dumped in that depressive collections of the National Museum Lagos, or the National Gallery collections at the National Theatre? A horrifying contemplation. And given that those two institutions that should hold national collections do not have homes in Abuja beyond offices. Where would they keep the works? How would they preserve them? Those trained to do the job, are they been kept with right condition of services? It won’t be a surprise if the returned work eventually vanished or got swallowed by the Naija Snake or Monkey or, now Elephant as is the trending joke out there.”
He argues nothing has been done with “all the treasureable works acquired in the past from master artists, including Enwonwu himself, Akinola Lasekan, Uche Okeke, Erhabor, Gani Odutokun (all late), and even the living, Onobrakpeya, Grillo, Fasuyi, Demas Nwoko to relatively younger artists such as Oshinowo, Jegede, Obiora Udechukwu. Where are they now? They are sitting in depression, in unlit, unkempt, smelly holding rooms of the National Gallery of Art at the National Theatre.
Some of them were already damaged when I saw them a few years back while preparing for the Nigeria @50 exhibition. I hope they have restored them though. They should NOT attempt/or acquire Tutu or any other work. They have no resources, facility or even enough qualitative enthusiasm to preserve such works. In particular, not this government that treats the culture sector as pariah, or orphan (to use Wole Soyinka’s expression).”
In contrast, Mufu Onifade, artist, would have loved ‘Tutu’ to be back to Nigeria. For him, the fact that the work did not “is a great injustice to the work and the artist. If the government has the kind of fun to acquire it, it would have been fantastic. What will happen is that the work will have been recalled back home. Government will say they don’t have money and most of the parastatals in charge of arts are underfunded. If we have an individual or a consortium of private organisations that can put money together and acquire the work and donate it to the national collection or put it in a place where it can become a tourism attraction. That would have been a fantastic idea. Whether the Federal Government or an individual acquired it what it would have mean is the work returned to Nigeria.”
Whatever the case maybe, art critics agree that Nigeria has lost a golden opportunity to walk her talk on developing the arts and tourism sector as major contributors to the GDP in addition to oil. A ‘Tutu’ would have been a good tourist attraction to the country. But ‘Tutu’ may not return home anytime soon if a befitting place has not been prepared for her.
To end with a quote from Anikulapo: “Tutu is safer in the hand of the private collector. She will live a longer, more qualitative life out there, and Enwonwu will forever be grateful that his treasure is in good custody.”