The hunt for Tutu, the Ile-Ife princess behind Ben Enwonwu's 1974 painting, has begun in Lagos. The painting sold in March for £1,205,000.
Odinigwe Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu, popularly known as Ben Enwonwu, is a renowned Nigerian painter and sculptor. He was the first to be appointed a professor of Fine Art at the University of Ife, in 1971. He was known to embrace his Negritude ideologies to promote national reconciliation, cultural identity and political contestation the violence of the civil war had exposed.
In 1973, Enwonwu created a Nigerian masterpiece, Tutu, which is ranked on the same level as the Mona Lisa by art collectors. Subsequently, prints were made of the 1973 Tutu for commercial use across Nigeria and he painted two more that were sold in an effort to avoid parting with the first. This is how the second version, painted in 1974, came about. After the second version turned up at an exhibition at the Italian Embassy in 1975 and disappeared soon after, it was declared missing. Luckily, it was discovered in a London flat last year, after almost 40 years, and put up for auction.
Bonhams, the auction company in charge of the proceedings, say Ben Enwonwu’s portraits of Tutu have achieved a high level of celebrity because the paintings were some of the most enigmatic works produced by a Nigerian artist in the 20th century.
Of the three paintings from the series, two were sold while the first was cherished by Enwonwu and kept in his house. But in 1994, while Enwonwu was dealing with cancer, his house was burgled and the 1973 Tutu was stolen.
“He was devastated. It accelerated his death,” says Oliver Enwonwu, his son.
The 1974 portrait broke records, selling for £1, 205,000 ($1.7m) in March.
Though the decades-long search for one of the portraits has ended, it raises new questions about the woman who sat for Ben Enwonwu to paint her, Adetutu Ademiluyi.
The mysterious sitter is a princess from Ile-Ife, a town in south-west Nigeria. She is a granddaughter of a previous Ooni (king) of Ife. Enwonwu frequently visited the countryside surrounding Ife, to sketch the landscape and record cultural traditions and practices — this was where he encountered Tutu. He was so impressed by her long neck and graceful beauty that he spent six months tracking her down and finally, asking her parents for permission to paint her.
According to the Guardian: "When the first painting was finished, it was worth the effort: Enwonwu regarded it as his masterpiece, capturing the spirit of black emancipation and the Negritude movement he was so passionate about."
“He thought she epitomised what he was trying to push about Africa,” says his Oliver,.
Enwonwu sentimentalised this piece of work, so much so, he hung the work on his bedroom wall or kept it in a crate under his bed to avoid the temptation to sell it.
Tutu is believed to be alive and living in Lagos.
Ronke Ademiluyi, a cousin to the infamous princess, tells The Guardian:
“We don’t know where she is, but she is still alive. We’ve been searching for her everywhere.”
Ever since Ronke heard that Tutu was still alive from a 98-year-old great-uncle, she has been searching the mega-city for her cousin. She is believed to be in her late sixties, fitting the time frame with the age in the painting.
“The Ademiluyi family is like a clan – there are thousands of us,” she says. “There’s no way we can all know each other.”
The former Ooni had 37 wives, and hundreds of children and grandchildren so many princesses and princes abound. However, Ronke’s late father and Tutu were both grandchildren of the Ife king at the time, making them first cousins. This narrows the search, but not as much, since the population in Lagos is over 21 million.
Finding her has become a herculean task.