Published: December 8, 2020
PROVIDENCE, R.I.- Selling for $46,250 and leading Bruneau & Co’s November 30 Modern & Contemporary Art auction was an oil on canvas by Benedict “Ben” Chukwikadibia Enwonwu (Nigerian, 1917-1994).
The 1962 portrait featured Constance “Afi” Ekong. The firm’s auctioneer and specialist Travis Landry said, “The identification of the sitter was found by looking through photographs and also in comparison to a bronze Enwonwu did of Constance. The eyes, nose and expression was spot on, we felt confident we knew who the sitter was.”
The painting had provenance to Adelaide M. Cromwell, a professor who co-founded the African Studies Center at Boston University. It sold to a private collector in Texas.
In a catalog description, Landry wrote, “Spanning nearly 60 years, Ben Enwonwu’s career coincided with one of the most important periods of modern Nigerian history. He was born in Onitsha, eastern Nigeria into the Umueze-Aroli royal family, his father was a noted sculptor and his mother operated a textile business. He studied fine arts at the Umuahia Government College in 1934 and later attended Goldsmiths College and the Slade School of Fine Arts in the United Kingdom through a scholarship in 1944. After his years of learning in Europe, Ben returned to Nigeria to continue his painting and was declared “Africa’s Greatest Artist” in 1949 by Time magazine. The following year Enwonwu experienced a pivotal point in his career having done an exhibition tour throughout the United States, returning him home an international star.”
Enwonwu was the first African artist to complete a portrait of a ruling European monarch in 1956 when he sculpted a statue of a young seated Queen Elizabeth II.
“Executed in 1962 the sitter of this portrait is almost certainly Constance “Afi” Ekong, a close friend and contemporary of Enwonwu,” Landry wrote. “She was the wife of Prince Abdul Azizi Attah (1920-1972), the older brother of Princess Judith Safinat; another known sitter of Enwonwu. Constance was… one of the first female Nigerian artists to be trained abroad. She studied fashion and fine art at the Oxford College of Arts and Technology, Saint Martin’s School of Art, and the Central School of Design. She returned to Nigeria in 1957 with high praise quickly rising in influence among political and elite social groups. In 1958 she became the first female artist to have a solo exhibition in Nigeria and later opened The Bronze Gallery, a commercial space for post-colonial Nigerian artists.”
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