Once unknown Nigerian 'masterpiece' by Ben Enwonwu up for sale
The court of the Oba of Benin paints
A previously unknown work by Ben Enwonwu, Nigeria's most famous visual artist of the 20th century, will be auctioned off in an online sale organized by Sotheby's.
The court of the Oba of Benin, which is believed to have been painted in the 1940s, is described by auctioneers as a "masterpiece" but has never been documented and is kept in a private collection.
It was created after Enwonwu's training with the bronze founders in the Nigerian city of Benin - the home of the famous Benin bronzes.
Who Was Ben Enwonwu?
The painting, one of his earlier works, depicts a festival in Oba's palace and reflects the artist's celebration of the region's culture.
"Throughout his career, Enwonwu has firmly believed that a modern Nigeria should be rooted in its own heritage and history," Hannah O'Leary, director of Sotheby's African arts, told the BBC.
The Court of the Oba of Benin is one of 12 of his works sold from the auction house's London base and all of them reflect that thinking.
Composed of three views of a sculpture
In the head and hairstyle, the sculpture Anyanwu, reference is made to the Benin bronzes.
Nigeria's opportunity to return Benin Bronzes
Enwonwu was born in Onitsha in 1917 to a father who was a traditional wood carver and a successful merchant mother. He saw himself first as a sculptor and then as a painter, says Ms. O'Leary.
Anyanwu, made in 1956, is a representation of the Igbo earth goddess Ani and a miniature version of a piece exhibited in the National Museum in Lagos.
It was founded just a few years before independence in 1960, and Enwonwu said at the time that its "aim is to symbolize our emerging nation".
Composed of two works of art
Starting in the 1950s, the artist began a series on Igbo masquerades called Agbogho Mmuo - the name of an annual festival that translates as Maiden Spirits.
The works in the series for sale at Sotheby's date from the 1970s, but depictions of these traditional ceremonies played a large role in his work until his death in 1994.
Enwonwu developed his ideas for movement in his Africa Dances series.
In these examples, he left the rural, more traditional surroundings and showed people enjoying themselves in an urban nightclub.
Composed of two sculptures
His sculptures in the same series from the 1980s have no specific context and are "much purer and more about movement and the elegance of the body," says Ms. O'Leary.
Painting by Regina
Regina was painted in 1953 when Enwonwu was back in Nigeria after training in London.
He was part of an intellectual movement that tried to create a unified Nigerian culture before independence.
According to the Sotheby's catalog, this portrait of his 19-year-old niece was meant to capture the mood of an optimistic and confident youngster.
Interest in buying Enwonwu's work has increased in the past two years after selling two of his portraits, Tutu and Christine, for more than $ 1 million (£ 770,000) each.
Tutu, a portrait of a princess, is his most famous work and reproductions have been seen in homes across Nigeria. There were three original versions, all of which were lost until 2018 when a London family said one of them had hung in their home for years.
Enwonwu has always had great success at home and abroad and "for an artist of his caliber [should the demand for his work] come as no surprise," Ms. O'Leary said.
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