In early 2018, the discovery of a Nigerian painting in a London apartment made headlines at several international publications. The work in question was painted by renowned Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu in 1974—it is a portrait of Adetutu ‘Tutu’ Ademiluyi, a young Nigerian woman living in Ile-Ife and a member of this city’s royal family.
This painting vanished shortly after its creation and had since reached a quasi-legendary status in Nigeria. As a depiction of a Yoruba princess by an Igbo artist created shortly after the Nigeria civil war (between opposing Igbo separatists and the federal government), it was celebrated as a symbol of national reconciliation in Nigeria.
This status can explain the media frenzy generated by the rediscovery of the painting. Described as the ‘African Mona Lisa’, it sold at the February 2018 Bonhams London auction for 1.2 million pounds—a record for Enwonwu and for Nigerian art.
In this article, I wonder how appropriate the ‘African Mona Lisa’ appellation given to this work is.
Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu (1917 – 1994) was born in Onitsha, Nigeria. He inherited the profession of his father, a traditional sculptor. In the 1940s, Enwonwu had the opportunity to study Fine Arts in a number of prestigious British institutions and together with four other students (collectively known as the Murray School) formed the first group of Nigerian students trained in European techniques of visual representation by the British colonial government.
Engaged in the Négritude and anti-colonial movements, he was paradoxically chosen by the Queen of England to sculpt her portrait in 1956. This ambivalence between traditional Africa and the West is reflected in its artistic expression—Enwonwu used modern Western and historical African techniques and themes to create a kind of African modernism. He became the first African to achieve international acclaim as a contemporary artist.
In Nigeria, Enwonwu held many institutional positions—between 1971 and 1975, he was employed as a Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Ile-Ife. Ben Enwonwu remained active until his death in 1994.
It was during his time in Ile-Ife that Ben Enwonwu met Adetutu ‘Tutu’ Ademiluyi. This young woman, a princess, was the granddaughter of a former ruler of Ife, the seat of a civilization that produced sculpted portraits in terracotta, stone and metal—between 1000 and 1600. Ife is also traditionally considered by many Yoruba and neighbouring populations as a holy city and the cradle of civilisation.
The ‘Tutu’ portrait, rediscovered in a London flat in late 2017, is the first of three versions of this theme painted by Ben Enwonwu.
It is an oil painting on canvas depicting a young woman—a three-quarter figure shown slightly in profile with her back in view. Her gaze is directed towards the viewer’s left side. She is dressed in the traditional Yoruba fashion of the time with a gele (a turban on her head), a white and blue buba blouse, as well as a blue iborun shawl on her left shoulder.
The light is stronger under the subject’s chin and lights a part of her face. The colours of the character seem to have been smudged onto the painting’s background. For example, to the viewer’s left side, the higher part of the background is brown like the subject’s face, while the lower part of the background is blue like the shawl worn by the subject.
Ben Enwonwu’s portrait of ‘Tutu’ is stylistically European and borrows formal elements from the Renaissance tradition of portraiture. The most obvious parallel to ‘Tutu’ (1974) in this tradition is the ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675). Like ‘Tutu’, Vermeer’s work depicts a three-quarter figure, a woman seen from the back view and whose face is directed towards the viewer’s left side. This work is indebted to Leonardo as shown by its appellations, the ‘Northern Mona Lisa’, or the ‘Dutch Mona Lisa’ as given it by French art critic Théophile Thuré-Burger.
The use of the sfumato technique, the black background, and the similarity of the subject legitimises this comparison with Leonardo’s work. It is strenghtened by the position of the subject in the ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’.
Like in ‘Tutu’, the position of the subject of the ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ can be traced to other parallels such as the ‘Portrait of Bindo Altoviti’ by Raphael (1483 – 1520). According to Brown & Van Nimmen (2005), this work was inspired by Renaissance Venetian prototypes such as the ‘Portrait of a Young Man’ attributed to Palma Vecchio (1480 – 1528) by these authors .They also claim that in the latter work can be found Leonardesque influences as can be seen in the depiction of an angel in Leonardo’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks‘.
All these characters are depicted as three-quarter figures with their head turned in the direction of their shoulder. This is also the case of ‘Tutu’, indebted to this tradition going back to Leonardo da Vinci and thus deserving the appellation of the ‘African Mona Lisa’.
In 2018, ‘Tutu’ has consistently been referred to as the ‘African Mona Lisa’. Unfavourable comparisons between 20th-century Western and non-Western artists have been studied by Indian art historian Partha Mitter.
To illustrate them, Mitter mentions the case of Indian painter Gaganendranath Tagore (1867 – 1938). Tagore was one of his country’s first painters to adopt Cubism’s visual syntax. But while Cubism was inspired by non-Western traditions, Picasso and Braque were never compromised as failed imitators like Tagore was by European art critics. Tagore was considered to be a Picasso manqué, while Picasso and Braque used cubist expression to reveal a message particularly meaningful to its milieu.
Like Gaganendranath Tagore, Ben Enwonwu has been compared, through his portrait of Tutu, to another famed Western artist, Leonardo da Vinci. Was it an unfavourable comparison similar to that defined by Partha Mitter as the Picasso manqué syndrome? In my opinion, this is not the case.
‘Tutu’ was first referred to as the ‘African Mona Lisa’ in the media by Nigerian writer Ben Okri. It was actually a favourable comparison destined to convey to the Western readership the importance of ‘Tutu’ in Nigeria, importance comparable to that of the Mona Lisa in the West. The formal elements borrowed from European art in ‘Tutu’ were used to convey a message understandable by Nigerian societies.
"I think of it as the African Mona Lisa... He wasn’t just painting the girl, he was painting the whole tradition. It’s a symbol of hope and regeneration to Nigeria, it’s a symbol of the phoenix rising."
Despite its early urban past, Ile-Ife became a largely provincial town in Nigeria in the 1970s. When Ben Enwonwu, impressed by the features of Tutu, asked her family to allow him to paint her, he had to deal with their suspicion. Why would this foreign artist, from an ethnic group recently in conflict with the rest of the country, look for such intimacy with a young 'princess' such as Tutu? Here, I suggest that the European visual language chosen for this painting was helpful in allaying concerns.
One of these formal elements leveraged in the painting is the direction of the subject’s gaze. According to Kemp, in several patriarchal societies and to a certain extent in the West nowadays, a young woman making eye-contact with an unknown man is considered an indecent invitation. As pointed out by Simons, this convention has been followed in early Renaissance portraiture with women more often than men to be depicted in profile view.
As seen in the three versions of 'Tutu', the gaze of the subject never meets that of the viewer. This helps create an impression of distance between the subject and the viewer, between the artist and its model.
This lack of intimacy is also illustrated by the comparison with other works formally related to 'Tutu' such as Raphael’s 'Portrait of Bindo Altoviti' and 'Girl with a Pearl Earring'. Although they all depict a character with their backs turned, these two paintings differ from 'Tutu' in one major respec—Tutu's gaze is not directed towards the viewer. This detail was probably instrumental in scholars describing the gaze of the subjects of Raphael and Vermeer’s painting as ‘erotic’.
'Tutu' does not share this eroticism, partly because of its gaze avoiding that of the viewer. One can also point out that the back-turned view of the character, along with the imposing shawl, creates a kind of barrier separating the viewer and the subject.
The success of ‘Tutu’ and its iconic status in Nigeria are, among other facts, due to the Igbo artist, Ben Enwonwu’s success in capturing the epitome of Yoruba femininity. Drewal noted that femininity and masculinity are defined around the concept of ori inun, the inner essence of each being. It is thought that among males, this essence is externalised as aggression or impetuosity where a woman’s inner essence is thought to be more internalised—accumulating an internal force that many fear as a potential source of aje (often translated as witchcraft). According to Drewal, this concept of femininity is illustrated by the gelede masquerade, where dances depicting male characters are typically aggressive while those depicting women are much more moderate.
The most important gelede mask is called Iyanla. It depicts an old woman and embodies, according to Drewal, the epitome of Yoruba womanhood. Because of its dangerous potential, the gaze of Iyanla cannot meet that of the members of the audience. To this aim, it is covered by a white veil during its dance.
Like the mask, Tutu’s gaze does not meet that of the viewer and her large shawl echoes the veil covering the Iyanla mask during its performances. The colours used by Enwonwu in ‘Tutu’—the white, grey and blue—belong to the Yoruba classes of light (funfun) and dark (dudu) colours particularly associated with composure, unlike the bright (pupa) colours, which are typically associated with male aggression. The smudging of Tutu’s colours onto the background of the painting gives the impression of an emanation of a life force from the character, which contrasts with her composure, echoing the conception of women as being externally calm but potentially dangerous due to their mastery of ‘witchcraft’.
The last fact probably contributed to the understanding of ‘Tutu’ as an epitome Yoruba womanhood. It deals with the name and nickname of the subject, Adetutu ‘Tutu’ Ademiluyi. Her name means ‘the crown~the comer is calm’ and the nickname ‘Tutu’ means ‘calm’, one of the qualities most associated with femininity among the Yoruba.
All these features have probably helped to make Tutu a success among the Yoruba, despite its creation by an Igbo artist only a few years after the civil war.
The appellation of ‘African Mona Lisa’ given to the portrait of ‘Tutu’ by Ben Enwonwu is justified as it clearly borrows elements from the Italian Renaissance tradition of portraiture. Enwonwu appropriated European codes to express realities understood by Yoruba audiences, which probably contributed to its iconic status in Nigeria.
Through her outfit, her posture, as well as the choice of colours and the name of the model, Ben Enwonwu succeeded in producing a sense of distance between the model and the artist, according to Tutu’s family’s wishes.
Enwonwu succeeded in creating, with ‘Tutu’, an epitome of Yoruba femininity.
Sandro Capo Chichi is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Paris Sorbonne Cité. His primary interest is the study of the historical arts of the Bight of Benin in West Africa.