The ‘discovery’ of Tutu (1974) is extraordinary news for African art. According to the Nigerian novelist, Ben Okri, “It amounts to the most significant discovery in contemporary African art in over fifty years…” We are justifiably excited that one of the three versions of Tutu painted by Ben Enwonwu has reappeared. The sale will be an unprecedented occasion that will incorporate a lot of firsts—first auction of a Tutu; first evening sale of Contemporary African Art by the London auction house, Bonhams; first live broadcast of its auction to a Bonhams event in Lagos, where bidders will be able to participate in real time.
But, the news stories that followed this find have been confusing (even the updated information on Wikipedia is wrong), at the very least. Are all the versions of Tutu considered masterpieces? Were they all missing or stolen or lost? How many versions has the long-drawn search for Tutu been about? It does not help that Ben okri is reported to have said, “It is the only authentic Tutu, the equivalent of some rare archaeological find.” I’m hoping this quote was taken out of context. To moderate our obvious excitement, and considering what is important in the long run (establishing Tutu (1973) as the most famous masterpiece from Africa), here are 3 things to contemplate.
- The Search for Tutu (1973) is Still On. We should keep our focus on the iconic painting and use this opportunity to intensify and publicize that hunt. The 1974 version is not the national icon and no matter how many foreign reports say its prints hang on every wall in Nigeria, we know this is strictly not true. Remember Tutu (1973) was guarded jealously by Enwonwu and went missing after his death, while the other two versions were legitimately sold off. I was worried that we’d all been taken over by the ongoing sales gimmick and was somewhat relieved to read Tajudeen Sowole’s attempt to unravel the whole missing and stolen confusion in his blog post, Fact, Fiction of Enwonwu’s Iconic ‘Tutu’ Paintings.
- What Makes a Masterpiece? I found out this is subjective and varies from one work of art to the next. But one helpful hint is that the artwork must be so original that once you’ve seen it, you’re indelibly influenced by its power. From that point of view, (Tutu 1973) is undeniably a masterpiece. Is the 1974 version also a masterpiece? I do not know. But, considering examples from history where an artist makes several versions of a piece but only one comes out on top—Vincent van Gogh’s several self-portraits, Edvard Munch’s many versions of The Scream—we’ll have to settle for just one being Enwonwu’s magnum opus. We should resist the urge to pretend the two paintings are the same or get distracted by the present hype. A Yoruba adage says, he who chases two rats at the same time will get nothing.
- Making Tutu (1973) The Most Famous Artwork in Africa. How does a work of art come to be considered great by all? A study at Cornell University found that people tend to develop a preference for things merely because of their repeated exposure to them. This phenomenon known as the ‘mere exposure effect’ seems to have been the case with Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Before 1911, the Mona Lisa was just one of the paintings at the Louvre Museum. But after it was stolen in 1911, the media circus following the heist made it the world’s most recognizable painting. Every major newspaper in Europe covered the story and all the stories had illustrated reproductions of the painting. The police handed out thousands of fliers with the same and ‘Wanted’ posters of the Mona Lisa were pasted all over Europe. It became the first work of art to achieve global fame. The ensuing publicity surrounding the discovery of Tutu (1974) is a good opportunity to turn Tutu (1973) into one of the world’s most recognizable paintings. Critical acclaim is said to be deeply entwined with publicity. If managed right, our Tutu will be on the list of the world’s most revered paintings.
It is important to note that the mere exposure effect does not work on everything. A work of art has to be of a certain quality to benefit from the phenomenon—the Mona Lisa was already at the Louvre and for good reasons. Repeated exposure affects an inferior work negatively.
On a different note, Giles Peppiatt, the director of modern and contemporary African Art at Bonhams, who made the ‘discovery’, was reported to have said that the chances of it (Tutu, 1974) ending up with a Nigerian institution are slim (CBC Radio, As it Happens). I would say he’s wrong again. Considering Enwonwu’s Daily Mirror set of sculptures auctioned for £361,250 in May 2013 was bought by a Nigerian collector, I think Tutu (1974) is on its way home. But let’s not forget, it’s not yet Uhuru.