LONDON-Works by Nigerian artists were the top sellers at the recent Bonhams Africa Now: Modern & Contemporary African Art sale in London. Leading the sale was Ben Enwonwu’s Nigerian Symphony that sold for $147,097 (£112,500) inc. As expected, collectors were on the edge of their seats as the monumental painting came up for sale. Anxiety in the room grew with every increase in the price of the painting. Collectors looked at each other and across the room as they winked and sent coded signals to the auctioneer who was as attentive as a bat to all the coded indicators. In the end, the painting went to an undisclosed buyer.
Although Nigerian Symphony did not meet its target estimate of £150,000, it still did better than anticipated. The painting did better than expected not just because it was the major highlight of the sale but also because it has a rich history. The painting depicts an important aspect in Nigeria’s history. Soon after Nigeria gained independence from the British colonialists, many people took to the streets to celebrate the self-rule. Encouraged by Nationalists and others that were key to the struggle for independence, Nigerians celebrated the opportunity to determine their own future in a grand style.
That celebration is what Enwonwu captured with glowing eloquence using masterful composition and color combinations. But it is not just history that made Nigerian Symphony endearing to art collectors. The painting also has an interesting provenance. Gifted in 1965 by Shell-BP to Mr. David Fleming CBE., (1914-2004), MD of Shell Nigeria, the painting was passed down by direct descent to the current owner who put up for sale.
But Nigerian Symphony is not the only painting by the celebrated Nigerian artist that made a great showing at the auction. Female Dancer, an oil on canvas painting measuring 140 x 37cm was sold for $147,097 (£112,500) inc. premium. The painting features one of Ben Enwonwu’s signature elongated stylistic dancers. Dominated by the seductively shaped form of an African woman in a dance position, the painting illuminates a theme that dominated Enwonwu’s works throughout his life. Set against a blue and yellow background, Enwonwu explored delicate lines to project the woman’s titillating covertures. To further give prominence to the dominant female dancer in the foreground, the artist skillfully added the silhouette of another dancer just behind it.
Negritude on Red, another painting by Enwonwu also did well at the auction donated by celebrated Nigerian artists. The oil and watercolor on board painting measures 98 x 72cm. From Enwonwu’s Negritude series, Negritude on Red was created at an important point in the artist’s career. In the early 1970s when Enwonwu’s was the Professor of Art at the University of Ife, he created a large number of paintings which he titled Negritude. The artworks explore how the ideology of Negritude might be usefully interpreted in visual imagery. Negritude on Red came from that period. It sold for US$ 138,925 (£106,250) inc. premium
Although Ben Enwonwu dominated the Bonhams Africa Now: Modern & Contemporary African Art sale in London sale, he was just one of the Nigerian artists whose works made a great showing at the auction. Yusuf Grillo’s artworks got collectors on the edge of their seats they came up for auction. The Blind Beggar, an oil on board painting measuring 119.5 x 58.5cm depicts a bagger and his son. Done in the style Grillo is well-known for, the painting is characterized by a juxtaposition of planes. Using ultramarine blue, the artist builds the image of the father and son beggar using tinted blues and grays. The painting sold for US$ 138,925 (£106,250) inc. premium. Three Friends, an oil on board painting measuring 79 x 106.5cm, also by Yusuf Grillo, sold for US$ 106,237 (£81,250) inc. premium.
Metro Ride by Demas Nwoko was one of the top sellers at the auction. One for the celebrated Nigerian artists Nwoko was a member of the Zaria Rebels that set the path for modern Nigerian art. Metro Ride, an oil on canvas painting measuring 133 x 98cm, depicts a man and a woman in a tight embrace kissing. This is a very significant painting as it reflects Nwoko’s first direct encounter with European urban life. Although it is uncertain if this painting, which includes other people, is a comment on Western culture, it is clear that the artist was expressing views about how things were changing around him. The painting sold for US$ 106,237 (£81,250) inc. premium.
In addition to the established Nigerian artists whose works did very well during the auction, several young Nigerian artists also had a good showing at an auction that brought a new focus on the leading role of Nigerian artists on the African continent. Some of the young Nigerian artists whose work caught the eyes of collectors included Alex Nwokolo, Ben Osaghae, Kainebi Osahenye, and Peju Alatise whose Orange Diptych sold for US$ 14,014 (£10,625) inc. premium.
Above: Three Friends, an oil on board by Yusuf Grillo. Image: Bonhams