Ben Enwonwu’s Tutu Painting Makes History

Art + Illustration

Nigerians were in awe earlier this month when Ben Enwonwu’s painting ‘Tutu’ was auctioned at £1.2m (that’s more than half a billion Naira), way more than was anticipated!

Enwonwu actually needs no introduction to lovers of art. He is arguably the first Nigerian artist that was recognised internationally (one of his works is in the UN headquarters and before Nigeria’s independence, he was commissioned to sculpt a bust of Queen Elizabeth II)! He is also Nigeria’s first professor of arts.

Enwonwu’s reputation plus the mystery of the Tutu painting are prime reasons why this painting’s price overshadowed expectations.

See, the Tutu painting is one of three paintings Enwonwu created of Adetutu Ademiluyi. All three have been missing since 1974 shortly after they were created. Only prints are in circulation. All of a sudden, Tutu pops up having been hiding in a family apartment for 30 years. This is a simple but mysterious story that added some mystique to the painting.

tutu painting

But what makes art such as ‘Tutu’ so valuable? Let do a short examination/ comparison:

Scarcity: The disappearance of Tutu certainly had a big hand in its high price. What’s more, the works of artists who have passed on typically cost higher because they cannot produce any more art, and as such, their works are more scarce. This certainly played a big role.

The artist’s exhibition history and recognition as a contribution to art history: Enwonwu is certainly a part of Nigeria’s and Africa’s art history. He paved many roads for artists and got international recognition from Britain even when Nigeria was under colonial rule. His handywork is still being felt in Nigeria with the Enwonwu Foundation and the popular Omenka Gallery which is situated in his home in Lagos and open to the public.

Uniqueness: Each piece of art can hardly be recreated perfectly, even by the artist. This adds to the value of the art piece. In this case, Tutu’s unusual long neck and regal nature also contributed to the painting’s uniqueness.

Basically, this all translates to high demand meeting limited supply, and ‘Tutu’ fit the bill perfectly. No doubt the frenzy for the other two paintings in the series will be legendary and will be sure to promote African art even further.

Sources: The Economist, Quartz, and CNN

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