Wednesday, 29th November 2023

Mystery of the $250,000 missing muse: Marianne

This is not the first time that a painting by Ben Enwonwu (1917-1994), the Father of Nigerian modern art, has generated a lot of interest.

Image of the painting: ‘Marianne Inness: Présence Africaine’

This is not the first time that a painting by Ben Enwonwu (1917-1994), the Father of Nigerian modern art, has generated a lot of interest (coupled with a touch of mystery), before an upcoming Africa Now sale by Bonhams. In February 2018, Tutu, a long-lost portrait by Enwonwu of the Ife royal princess Adetutu Ademiluyi – described by Booker Prize winning Nigerian novelist, Ben Okri as Africa’s Mona Lisa – set a new world record for the artist’s work at auction, achieving £1,205,000 at the auction in London.

This year, the story of interest is Marianne, a powerful lost portrait (it took Bonhams 10 years to track it down) of the actress, Marianne Inness. The painting is being offered at Bonhams’ Modern & Contemporary African Art sale in London – and by live link in Lagos  – on Thursday 3 October. Estimated to fetch up to £200,000, it is one of Enwonwu’s most iconic paintings.

Marianne was a close friend of the artist – they occupied neighbouring apartments in Camden during the 1960s – but in this portrait, she is transformed into the poster girl for post-independence Nigeria. The painting’s full title ‘Marianne Inness: Présence Africaine’ is in itself a clarion call. ‘Présence Africaine’ was a political and literary magazine founded in 1947, and was a vital forum for discussions about de-colonisation, the potential for political union, and the need for ‘Black consciousness’.

Enwonwu was invited to contribute to the publication by the poet and first President of Senegal, Leopold Sedar Senghor. He was tasked with providing a visual expression of Senghor’s concept of Negritude: a consciousness of the value of black African identity. With this portrait, Enwonwu gives the movement a face. Transplanted from London, Marianne stands against a backdrop of Nigerian forest. Her attire is striking in its similarity to the outfits made fashionable by the Black Power movement in the late 1960s. The painting could be an advertisement for James Brown’s 1968 funk hit ‘Say it Loud -I’m Black and I’m Proud’, Black Power’s unofficial anthem.

Marianne’s status as a symbol of black pride is undeniable, but very little is known about the woman herself. She disappeared from public records when she moved away from Camden. Neil Coventry, Bonhams Nigeria representative says that her whereabouts is still a mystery: “It would be wonderful if someone recognised her, and we could reconnect her with the portrait after all these years.”

The Guardian is pleased to share this story, and encourages anyone who is able to help with any information about Marianne to come forward and get in touch with: Details of the sale are as follows:  Date: Thursday 3 October at 4 pm London time, and 4.30 Lagos time | Location: 101 New Bond Street London and by live link at 29 Raymond Njoku Street, Ikoyi, Lagos. A link to the sale catalogue can be found here.

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