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ARTS: African art gains

`Mona Lisa’ fetches U.S$ 1.68m at auction

Kampala, Uganda | DOMINIC MUWANGUZI | A painting of an African princess from Nigeria’s Ife; the spiritual heartland of the Yoruba tribe, recently went under the hammer for more than U.S$ 1.68 million at the Bonhams Auction House in London. The African Mona Lisa portrait, like it has been fondly described by the western press and art critics across the globe, is by deceased Nigerian artist Ben Onwonwu; and is part of the series of three paintings painted by the artist between 1973 and 1974.

The African Mona Lisa has the subject matter `Adetutu Ademiluyi aka Tutu’ gracefully posing facing the audience with finely chiseled facial features and a willowy neck much familiar to royals. Her long dark flowing hair is tied in a small knot at the back; a symbol of her natural beauty. She looks on with such solitary calmness that is only unique to females of her caliber. The oil painting, according to Bonhams was painted by the artist after he encountered her walking in the countryside. After the painting was finished, it disappeared and has only been recently discovered in a “modest” home in north London.

“I was absolutely staggered when I first saw the piece, “remarks Giles Peppiat, Director of African art at Bonhams.

Critics have also described the painting as having an ambivalent character like the legendary `Mona Lisa’ painting by Italian painter, Leonardo da Vinci.

Such rare discovery alongside the exquisite beauty of the artwork influenced it price. On the other hand, the painting has been described as a national icon and symbol of cultural significance by art experts. Incidentally, it was painted at the dawn of the Biafra war in Nigeria, and as such provides a platform of reconciliation.

Across the continent, the smashing sell of Tutu Portrait, is an emphasis on the growing interest in Art from Africa. This is already evident in the African art pavilions created at international art festivals like the Venice Art Biennale, Paris Art Fair,Shanghai Biennale and Berlin Biennale. On the local art scene, Onwunwo’s runaway successful inspires the notion of local relevance in art and the apparent need to preserve Africa’s indigenous culture. Unlike the popular belief that an artist should create art for the tourist market, art that is influenced by indigenous concepts has more appeal internationally.

As the euphoria of Tutu Portrait continues to engulf the art scene on the continent, Ugandan artists must be hoping to someday get a taste of such sweet success. Will it be Geoffrey Mukasa, Fabian Mpagi or Sanaa Gateja this time?


Additional reporting from CNN/ BBC

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