Ben Enwonwu #UnexpectedDiscovery

Ben Enwonwu’s Tutu (1974). Photograph: Ben Enwonwu / Bonhams Press Office

It’s an extraordinary experience, filtering through my mother’s personal archive. Many times, it has elicited a ‘what the…’ response from me. Why did she collect this or that?… What was she thinking of, when she put this or that at the back of a cupboard?…  How did she…?  Who was that…? What on earth is… this or that? If you’ve ever cleared-down the accumulation of a busy and engaged life, which, it’s fair to say, held the odd secret, you might relate to these feelings.

But every now and again, something rises to the surface which makes me stop and properly ponder.

Yesterday, I was listening to the BBC London News. There was a short piece on the recent discovery of a ‘lost’ artwork of considerable value, by the now renowned Nigerian artist and sculptor, Ben Enwonwu. It was fascinating, as this artwork had been gracing the walls of an apparently ‘ordinary’ North London flat for several years. You can read about its discovery, and the forthcoming auction here. The painting, dating from 1974, is of the Ife princess Adetutu Ademiluyi, known as Tutu.

What stuck out for me, was the artist’s name. You see, I recognised it. Not from being a connoisseur of art of any kind – I’m not!  I’d come across this name very recently. It took me a few minutes to locate what I was looking for amongst my mother’s profusion of paperwork and correspondence – the stuff she never threw away; an airmail envelope, containing three letters, two handwritten, one typed, along with a clipping from a newspaper. The sender of the letters – one Ben Enwonwu.

The two handwritten notes date from 1970, and it seems that Ben Enwonwu had noticed someone in a restaurant in London, who he believed to be my mother. He was not certain it was her, as it had apparently been some years since they were friends, and she was with a man he assumed to be her husband. So he had not approached her. He commented that she looked just the same as when he’d known her – an observation which would undoubtedly have delighted her. As he had only her maiden name and father’s address, to which he subsequently wrote, I assume their original acquaintance must have been prior to 1956.  My mother had apparently replied, and at some point had sent Ben a book relating to house purchase.  Whatever else happened between those two 1970 letters, and indeed after that, remains a mystery.

The third letter is from early 1978 and seems to have come as a result of my mother sending Ben Enwonwu a card, which had by then found its way to him in Nigeria. He updates her on the purchase and subsequent sale of that original house, and muses on how good it would be to live nearer to my mother. Well, I thought. Well, indeed.

It’s clear from this trio of notes that there was certainly a friendship, fondness and perhaps at one time, more, between my mother and Ben Enwonwu. It’s not insignificant that she kept his letters.

It’s an intriguing discovery on many levels, and it always delights me to see different facets of my mother’s life reflected in the accumulation of her paperwork, and I never judge what I find. But I’m a little wistful that we’re unlikely ever to know more of this unexpected friendship.

Meantime, the whereabouts of the other two of the trio of missing Tutu paintings remains a mystery. Disappointingly (from a purely financial perspective) all we have… is those letters.



27 thoughts on “Ben Enwonwu #UnexpectedDiscovery

    1. Indeed… and all these things are, on balance, more of a joy than a sadness. I only wish mum had felt able to share these oddities with me from time to time.

    1. This is true indeed, Dannie. I also found – but would never share – a bundle of letters my father sent to my mother over the years, right from the days when they first me. They were… amazing… to read, and another unexpected treasure.

  1. I wonder if your mother ever had those other two paintings at one time? Goodness Julie, what an incredible find and what a deliciously tantalising mystery. I can related to the frustration though too. So much about my Dad’s early family life remains unanswered and probably always will, unless the only surviving family member, Dad’s brother, my uncle, (who’s 87 and in poor health) decides to spill the beans, and soon. You must have been truly amazed to have found those letters. Thank you for sharing such a fascinating story!

    1. Our loved-ones take their secrets with them, and we must let it be so. They too have their lives, which are more than the lives they had with us. Given that you’re such an exquisite and sensitive writer of memoir, Sherri, might your uncle not be persuaded to share?

      1. Very true and wise words Julie. It’s easy to forget that our parents had totally seperate lives away from us! Aww…you’re always so kind about my writing, thank you. I would like to think I could learn more. Who knows?! So many unanswered questions for us both, but perhaps, as you say, there are better left that way.

    1. It’s certainly that, MJ! It makes me reflect on many things, not least of which is how little of this kind of material when written today, will exist 40 or more years later, in emails and text messages. There’s something to be said for the permanence of paper.

  2. This is a really heartwarming post. Whilst you may not have known things about her in life the picture she left behind is like an onion – continually shedding layers. In some respects (and for very different reasons) I had a similar experience. I thought I ‘knew’ certain ‘truths’ about my mother and as I went through her belongings it turned out that I hadn’t even scratched the surface!

  3. Wow, your Mum certainly continues to surprise and impress in so many differing ways. I love the idea of a book, so that you could fill in the gaps with fiction, which may or may not have a basis in reality. What an intriguing prospect. It is fascinating to discover these gems about our parents and other relatives.

    1. Thank you, Diana! Clearing down my mother’s life has revealed a few surprises. I just wish we had the painting too – it’s just sole for £1.2 million!!

  4. Knowing you are intending to take down your site, I’m going back and catching up on what I missed during my sulking months of this year.

    What a lovely story and discovery. I have not heard of this artist but it is a marvel that you read your mother’s correspondence and recognized the connection. There must be a bit of Miss Marple in you.

    It is a shame you cannot ask her. But a juicy mystery that lives on after your mother is probably a curious comfort. That way you can imagine all sorts of scenarios that knowing the truth would preclude.

    1. There have been one or two little mysteries left over from my mother’s life, but always good ones, which have shown me again and again the positive impact she had, everywhere she went. I’ve become more proud of her and the way she carried herself in life than I imagined I would ever be. This particular mystery was delightful, but I only realised what I’d seen in her papers due to the amazing coincidence of having seen the piece on Ben Enwonwu on the tv within a couple of days of having uncovered that particular package of letters. I just wish he’d sent her a sketch, or even a doodle!! 🙃

      1. While a doodle might have been a handy discovery, I doubt you’d have parted with it. This way, you get to keep the memory without the challenges of temptation to sell. Although, I have heard that letters from famed authors or artists can bring their own price. You might want to hang on to those letters just in case!

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