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Until recently, members of the Davis family in Texas did not know what valuable artwork they had at their hands every time they looked at a portrait of their mother Christine, hung in the family home for over 40 years. A Google search of the name signed on the portrait finally revealed to the family that the work had been painted by one of the most prominent African artists of the 20th Century, Ben Enwonwu.
Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu, commonly known as Ben Enwonwu, has been called the “father of Nigerian modernism.” His painting “Christine” (1971) captures Christine Elizabeth Davis, an American hairstylist of West Indian descent, in her mid-30s — a period when she was working and living in Nigeria with her husband. The latter commissioned the painting from the artist, who the couple befriended after moving to Lagos in 1969, as a gift to his wife before moving back to the United States later in the 1970s. According to Quartz, the portrait was completed in less than a week since Christine proved to be a steady sitter.
Christine passed away in Texas soon after her return to the US, but the painting has remained in the family house ever since. The portrait, valued at up to £150,000 (~$200,000), will be auctioned at Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary African Art Auction on October 15 in London.
This is not the first time an uncovered Enwonwu portrait has made headlines. Last year, Enwonwu’s painting “Tutu” (1974) was found in a north London apartment. The painting was one of three different versions of “Tutu” (portraits of the Ife royal princess Adetutu Ademiluyia, often referred to as the “Nigerian Mona Lisa”). Nigerian novelist and Man Booker Prize-winner Ben Okri called the find “the most significant discovery in contemporary African art in over 50 years.” The painting sold to an anonymous buyer in an auction at Bonhams in New York City for £1,205,000 (~$1.6 million), thus breaking the auction record for a work by a Nigerian modernist. (The work had been estimated to sell between £200,000 and £300,000 (~$277,00–416,000).)
Enwonwu’s career as a painter and sculptor spanned 60 years. In 1956, he was the first African artist to sculpt a bronze portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. Enwonwu, who studied in the United Kingdom, was also made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 1954. In the United States, Enwonwu taught students in several institutions including Harvard University and New York University. He died in Lagos in 1994 at the age of 77.
Editors note 7/31/19 3:07pm: This article has been updated to include new information provided by Sotheby’s.