As Oliver Enwonwu predicted at the sideline of the third edition of Ben Enwonwu Foundation’s monthly series talks; Point of View in November 2019, another masterpiece, a forgotten portrait of a Nigerian Princess from the master painter, will be the center of attraction at the next instalment of Sotheby’s auction of Modern and Contemporary African Art on March 25, 2020.
Until recently, the enigmatic sitter had been known only as the ‘Nigerian Princess’ but, upon close examination, Sotheby’s specialists noticed intricate details which lead them to believe the sitter could be Princess Judith Safinet ‘Sefi’ Atta.
The sitter’s blouse is fashioned from the Okene cloth produced by the Ebira women of Sefi’s hometown.
Upon contacting Sefi’s daughter, the artist Obi Okigbo, she revealed that her mother knew Enwonwu well: “When Hannah sent me the photo of the painting, I felt like I was like looking at a portrait of myself. The family resemblance is remarkable” Okigbo said.
Painted in 1953, Sefi will appear at auction for the first time with an estimate of £200,000-300,000. Until now, the fine portrait has remained in the family collection of a prominent West African academic and writer. It was brought to Sotheby’s attention when the current owner requested a free estimate on Sotheby’s Online Estimate Platform.
Speaking about the work, Hannah O’Leary, Head of Modern and Contemporary African Art at Sotheby’s, stories like this are the reason why she loves what she does
“Stories like this are the reason I love what I do. Not only have we come across an outstanding early painting by Ben Enwonwu, but we have also uncovered a moving story about Sefi herself – an accomplished force in the fight for women’s right to education in Nigeria and beyond. This portrait sits right at the crux of the cultural and artistic landscape of 20th century Nigeria. As the battle for a unified identity intensified, so did the passions of the writers, poets and painters who were working side by side – Ben Enwonwu, Chinua Achebe, John Pepper Clarke, and the poet Christopher Okigbo, the latter of whom Sefi married. It has been an honour to hear this story, and I am grateful to Sefi’s daughter Obi for letting me in” she said
The appearance of this portrait follows hot on the heels of Enwonwu’s Christine, which was also presented to Sotheby’s via the free Online Estimate Platform before selling for £1.1 million at Sotheby’s last October – the second-highest price for a work by the artist at auction.
And, in a remarkable coincidence, a bronze sculpture by Enwonwu will also feature in the sale (est. £100,000-150,000), which depicts Afi Ekong, one of Nigeria’s most famous female artists who were at that time married to Sefi’s brother. One of a limited edition, the original was purchased by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II when she sat for the artist in London in 1957. Together with Sefi, these two works are refined and proud portrayals of Nigerian royalty in the run-up to independence in 1960.
Recall that the son of the master painter Oliver Enwonwu has disclosed to The Culture Newspaper that more discoveries of the master painter past work could be in the pipeline.
“This is a career that spanned well over 60 years, with this latest exploit, do not be surprised when other works begin to surface now that it has been ascertained that his works are not only recognised for their aesthetics but economic value. This development makes me really proud and it is exciting that his works are finally getting the recognition it deserves even after his death’ he said at the time.
The auction will also feature powerful works by Irma Stern, Yinka Shonibare CBE, Gavin Jantjes, Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga, El Anatsui and many more with over 100 works, by artists from 21 countries on view to the public from 21-24 March ahead of the auction on March 25.