By Tajudeen Sowole
Again, art has proven its resilience in a challenging economic environment such as Nigeria's current situation as two Nigerian masters, Ben Enwonwu (1921-1994) and Yusuf Grillo, born 1934, each made record sales with their paintings during art auction in Lagos.For Enwonwu, it was a 1990 painting titled Obitun Dancers sold for N46 million naira during the 16th edition of Arthouse Contemporary Limited auction. With the May 2016 sale at The Wheatbaker Hotel, Ikoyi, Enwonwu, who was the first African artist to sculpt the Queen of England, Elizabeth II in 1956, is still the highest priced Nigerian artist on the secondary art market. Prior to the May 2016 edition of Arthouse auction, the same artist held Nigerian art auction record with sculpture titled Anyanwu, sold for over N28 million naira in 2012.
Also, Grillo, born 1934 made his Nigerian record sale with a 1999/2002-dated painting, Threatened Innocence, which was sold for N16 million. Interestingly, both sales were achieved via telephone biddings on a night when there seemed to be more buyers aiming for premium prices.
More interesting, it was a night dominated by premium sales of Enwonwu's works: two watercolour on paper paintings, Haze and African Dance Ensemble dated 1972 and 1960 were each sold for N8 million naira.
From a metal foil by master printmaker Bruce Onobrakpeya, Greater Nigeria sold for N9.2 at Arthouse Contemporary's maiden edition in 2008, to Enwonwu's Anyanwu and now Obitun Dancers, all by the same auction house, art has been consistent in, quietly though, contributing to the Nigerian economy. In fact, Arthouse's November 2015 auction held at the same venue recorded N130, 611, 250 million naira, representing 65 per cent which was a record total sales in monetary value for the auction house. But the 2016 May total sales of N176,524,500 ($882,623) was an improvement, confirming the growth in figures, and an increase in number of sales with 69% of the lots sold.
For those interested in the study of Ewonwu's periods, Obitun Dancers, a late painting offers so much to chew: drastic change in the artist's texture of colour from conservative toning of the 1960s/70z to this loud and darker shades. A red and yellow dominance in the dancing figures against dark blue of blurred background, sandwiching another figure in brownish dark are, unusual combination for Enwonwu. Perhaps, the unusual texture of Obitun Dancers has one possible explanation: the much-hyped 1990s Lagos art landscape of 'brilliant' colour, crept into the master's palettes and brushing. It is of note that dance, as a theme in Enwonwu's paintings, is such a legendary one that the artist has touched quite some other cultures outside his Igbo origin.
With Threatened Innocence, Grillo continues his subtle cubic style figural form in bluish striking hues that have become a strong identity for him. Indeed, no artist, on the Nigerian art scene has as much strong licence to dramatise figural forms as Grillo, so confirms Threatened Innocence, a painting that spanned three years across two centuries to complete.
The 100 lots on sales for the auction included works by Demas Nwoko, Onobrakpeya, Ato Delaquis, Kolade Oshinowo, Abayomi Barber, Gani Odutokun, Ben Osawe, and Akinola Lasekan. Also on display were pieces by Rom Isichei, Peju Alatise, Sokari Douglas Camp, Ndidi Dike and Modupe Fadugba as well as that of non-Nigerian artists such as Ghanaian master, Ablade Glover, Dominique Zimkpe, Paul Onditi, Kofi Agorsor, Mohammed Abba Gana, Paa Joe and Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou, among others.
(Updated, June 11, 2016)
(Updated, June 11, 2016)