Bonhams Searches For Marianne Inness, Subject Of Ben Enwonwu’s Famous Portrait

How can a woman become the face of a movement — without even knowing the role that she played? A historic portrait of the actress, Marianne Inness, by Nigeria’s most famous artist, Ben Enwonwu, is being offered at Bonhams Modern & Contemporary African Art sale in London – and by live link in Lagos  – on Thursday 3 October. The piece is expected to fetch up to £200,000 ($250,000) and it is one of Enwonwu’s most iconic paintings. 

The sale of the portrait has shone new interest onto the subject of the work — and the hunt for Marianne Inness has begun. Bonhams is trying to locate the subject, believed to be in her 60s or 70s now, to reunite her with the portrait — which they point out she may not have known even existed. 

Ben Enwonwu is known as the father of Nigerian modern art and his incredible work helped galvanize and inspire. Perhaps his most famous work is Tutu, a portrait of the royal princess Adetutu Ademiluyi – described by Booker Prize-winning Nigerian novelist, Ben Okri as Africa’s Mona Lisa. The piece set a new world record for the artist’s work at auction, achieving £1,205,000 at Bonhams “Africa Now” sale in London in February of last year. 

The upcoming sale marks an exciting new moment for one of his most intriguing works. Little is known about Marianne, but she was meant to be a close friend of the artist who lived in the apartment next door in Camden in the 1960s. Though she disappears from public records shortly after her time in Camden, the portrait transformed her into “the poster girl for post-independence Nigeria”.

The portrait, ‘Marianne Inness: Présence Africaine’, drew its name from the Présence Africaine political and literary magazine that began in the 1940s.

Marianne Inness


The artist was asked to contribute to the magazine by the poet and first President of Senegal, Leopold Sedar Senghor. Enwonwu took Senghor’s concept of Negritude — a consciousness of the value of black African identity — and transformed it into the visual arts. The result is stunning — and this piece plus the entire sale catalog is available on the Bonhams website

“It would be wonderful if someone recognised her, and we could reconnect her with the portrait after all these years,” Neil Coventry, Bonhams Nigeria representative, explained.

Bonhams welcomes any information about Marianne Inness or her whereabouts, hoping the event will serve as a chance to finally give this historic figure the representation and appreciation she deserves.