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.