When a man found the almost forgotten portrait of his mother in their family house in Texas, he had no idea just how life-changing his discovery would be.
The portrait, Christine, was by one of the most revered African artists of the 20th century, Ben Enwonwu. The captivating sitter was Christine Elizabeth Davis, an American hair stylist of West Indian descent. The painting was completed in under a week as Christine was able to hold her pose for as long as needed. Christine, who was in her mid-30s at the time, passed away in Texas thereafter. But the painting remained in the family.
Last week, the painting was sold in London for $1.8 million.
Enwonwu, who died aged 77 in 1994, was a Nigerian artist whose career spanned 60 years seeing the journey of Nigeria from a British colony to an independent nation. His story is unique in that not only did he become famous in his own country, but also in the UK where he studied.
“It was very important for Nigerians to reconcile after such a bitter war that left millions dead,” the artist’s son, Oliver Enwonwu, has said
“Here you have a West Indian woman living in Nigeria, you know, painted by an Ebu artist … so it was all about reconciliation and cross-cultural relations with the outside world.”
Oliver, a Lagos painter and gallerist who founded The Ben Enwonwu Foundation to honour his father’s legacy, says he hopes whoever bought the painting will return it to Lagos for Nigerians to enjoy.
Oliver says his father was also heavily influenced by Negritude, a movement founded by African and Caribbean students in Paris to celebrate Africa and blackness.
“Enwonwu was instrumental in creating visual representations of the philosophy,” he said.
“If you look closely at that work on this Negritude theme, you can see how he shows the beauty of the black skin, the beauty of the African woman. He depicts this carefully in the work and it’s all about being black and proud.”