To the Nigerian, the fear of the “village people” is the beginning of wisdom. They are often believed to hold the key to every “misfortune”. But to Victor Ehikhamenor, these people are his collaborators. He cites his village and ancestral home, Uwesan, in Edo State, Nigeria, as the primary source of his inspiration, and influence. It was there that his journey began, and still continues.
I had been to Ehikhamenor’s studio on many occasions, but this was the first time we were talking about his practice. Going through his entire archive, our conversation went from 1996 when he made his first set of drawings and paintings, made in 1996 while he lived in the US, to 2019 when he has his most recent solo exhibition in Lagos.
Ayọ̀ Akínwándé: First of all, congratulations on your exhibition “Daydream Esoterica,” which showed at Rele Gallery earlier this year.
Victor Ehikhamenor: Thank you my brother.
AA: Is Lagos a place where you daydream?
VE: I‘m a Lagosian. I have lived here for 11 years, and it is home. It is also where I work and pay my taxes. We all came here to dream, but these are personalized dreams. A lot has been written about Lagos, and its people. But how do you go beyond that? I’m interested in what goes on in the mind of the danfo driver, the banker, the hustler or the politician – the Lagosian.
AA: You’ve mentioned the idea of democratic space and being inspired by people across social classes. Was this reflected on the figures you created for the “Daydream Esoterica” exhibition?
VE: They are largely neither male nor female. So in Lagos, who is who? Some of the figures have a third eye, alluding to the “shine your eye” mantra. The figures represent multiple people in an abstract, and yet figurative format.
AA: Yellow is the colour of Lagos, but the government has begun introducing the colour blue for demarcations in its “Mega City” rebranding campaign. Why the use of blue as the dominant colour in your exhibition?
VE: Lagos is a coastal city, and blue is the colour of water. I have explored blue forever. When you start retracing the steps, you will realize my predominant colours are blue, red, and yellow. In the exhibition, I wanted to show this coastal Lagos. As the ocean is being pushed from us, and being reclaimed by “philistines,” I wanted to introduce calmness, like I did with my installation at the Dakar Biennale, and the rooms at [the creative hub] Angels & Muse.
AA: So, in a way, we can assume the idea of the blue is to introduce calmness to a city that is never calm.
AA: I’m also curious about the relationship between your writing and painting.
VE: I was trained as a writer, and I think like one. But I am also lucky enough to be able to express what I write with drawings and paintings. If I draw simple lines to make a point, those are my poems. If I’m writing a novel, do I need single or dual characters? And how do these characters in my paintings talk to each other the way those in a novel relate with each other? When it comes to titling my works, and the way I talk about them, that’s coming from a writer’s perspective. And this influences my exhibition titles, which have always been two-word titles, except maybe for one.
AA: So, the title aids the understanding of the work?
VE: A little bit. Does the title of a book reveal what the book is about? Titling is the hardest part of my process. Name is very important for us Africans. It is our bio data, and I find it a bit offensive when people put “untitled” on my work. It’s like having a child and saying “nameless”. So in writing, painting, or photography, what is the light that draws someone in? When I’m designing book covers, I’m looking at what colours will make the book stand out in a bookstore, and what would make someone pick it up?
AA: Can you tell me about two of your photographic series, Before They Leave, and American Invasion (2009-2010)?
VE: American Invasion was based on my trip to the village. I realized most of the young ones dressed like Americans. During Christmas, folks dress up in t-shirts, jackets and glasses. I realized the fashion trends in my village had changed, and this is influenced by television. The work was first shown at the LagosPhoto in 2012, and the next year at a biennial in Greece.
AA: How many photographs are in the series?
VE: They are many. I’m planning on making a book out of the series. It was a two-year project. It was during that time I began photographing kids and old people in the village.
AA: So American invasion led to Before They Leave?
VE: Yes. But they both happened almost at the same time.
AA: The photographic style is reminiscent of the West African studio practice, with a lot being written on the works of Seydou Keita, Malick Sidibe and J.D ‘Okhai Ojeikere. And with the paintings, you get the Kehinde Wiley backdrop. What led to that?
VE: I used two of my mother’s wrappers from the 1960s as the backdrop in both projects. This is a way of looking at the past, and the present. The photographs involved moving from house to house, across different parts of the village.
AA: I like the performativity of the work; it reminds me of the process of making passport photographs in Lagos.
VE: Exactly. And the images for me become a juxtaposition of the new with the old; the fabrics from the people I photograph against the backdrop itself. The wrapper becomes what draws the audience into the images, just as I said earlier.
AA: And you still have those wrappers?
VE: Yes, I do. If there is anything I took from my mom when she passed away, it’s these wrappers.
AA: In shooting both photographic series around the same time, what connects them, and where do they depart from each other?
VE: I was looking at the dichotomy of youth and old age. The old people, unlike the young, were still dressing with locally sourced fabrics. But I realized many of them I met on earlier trips were dead, and they had never had their photographs taken.
AA: I know we started off the conversation by talking about some of your most recent work, but what was your first exhibition in Nigeria?
VE: My first official solo exhibition in Nigeria was in 2006 at Didi Museum, and it was titled Labyrinths of Memory.
AA: Who were your early influences?
VE: I had a mentor, Bernard Brooks, an African-American artist, who took me in as his child. He had visited Nigeria numerous times, and was friends with Nike Davies-Okundaye, Twins Seven Seven, Jimoh Buraimoh, and had collected their works.
AA: Who were your subsequent influences? And how much of their impact is visible in your work?
VE: This is my village, and the place I grew up (showing me his photographic archive). So if you are asking for influence, if people are looking at contemporary artists, or even modernists, as my influence, stylistically, they are missing the point. After the festival, the village shrine is repainted white, and another set of women then draw on the walls, the same way Uli painting was happening. Those lines were what I was mimicking as a child. I pick up pieces of paper and use charcoal or chalk to repeat these lines. I kept repeating them, and it morphed into my style. Some of the lines in the shrine are dripping. So now when you see drips in my work, you would attribute it to someone else? I will be very angry, and I will fight it. That you don’t know where someone is coming from does not mean you have to attribute his work to anybody. I can’t attribute it to anyone, just my village. In 1997, I encountered the works of Uche Okeke, Obiora Udechukwu, and El Anatsui, in a show in Washington DC, and I realized “Oh my God, there are people who have been doing these things institutionally.”
AA: So your village people are your influences?
VE: Yes. Quote me any day.
AA: There seems to be a lot of excitement about the future of the Nigerian art scene. I don’t know if that is because Lagos is a city that can’t be ignored while talking about the continent. Do you have younger artists, who are exciting, and represent the future?
VE: Oh boy! They are many. My prayer for them is the sustainability, and for God to bring folks to help them because they can’t do it alone. We have very young exciting artists. Nigeria has never lacked talent, and creative people. The question is how they can be encouraged. Look at your video, and installation works, they are great. Then imagine being surrounded with a heavy curatorial body, with serious technical crew, and these people will take it beyond what you have done. That is in the same category as people like Theaster Gates.
AA: Would you tell us some of your most exciting collaborations?
VE: There is a lot to see when you look back. Some of my most interesting collaborations have been with architects. If I weren’t an artist, I would have loved to become an architect, because I love spaces, designing them, and I love what they could become. Collaborations [include] the Ventures Platform project in Abuja with Wale, the Angels & Muse project where I worked with the architect Tosin Oshinowo, who designed the Lagos Maryland Mall. My next collaboration is on a private house with the architect, Ade Shokunmbi.
AA: You founded Angels & Muse in 2018, how did the name come?
VE: In 2010, I planned to leave Lagos, because I couldn’t buy fuel. The job that brought me back, Next Newspaper, where I was the creative director, had ended. So, I began writing down plans for my paintings. I launched a media outfit in 2012 called “V Global Concepts” with 12 staff, doing branding and designs for corporate clients. I later created “Azun Gist,” the first pidgin website which ran for a year, with about three staff. Then I had “Sozaboy & Poets” which was an art and literary-themed café, modified after Busboys & Poets in Washington DC. The original name was meant to be Sozaboy & Poets but I didn’t want to personalize this, so I asked myself, “what do angels do, what do muses do.”
AA: How has the Angels & Muse journey been for you, bearing in mind that the Lagos art scene is largely sustained by individual initiatives, mostly by artists? While this is good, it can be overwhelming.
VE: I laugh when people say artists shouldn’t open, or run spaces. It is myopic because for me, Angels & Muse is about giving back to the community. Some of our great artists have done what I’m doing. Demas Nwoko did it in Ibadan with the New Culture Centre, and Bruce Onobrakpeya has done it with the Harmattan Workshop at Agbarha Otor. It wasn’t cheap, and I didn’t get any funding for it. If I do it again, I will do it in a bigger way. It does not stop me from working. If God provides the money, I will build a museum for other artists to show their works. Or do you think the government will do it?
AA: As the Nigerian President was famously asked in a recent interview, my last question to you is, who is Victor Sozaboy? Or rather, who is Victor Ehikhamenor?
VE: I’m a village boy who wants to have fun. I’m a community person, I don’t like isolation, and I like friends; good friends. I believe in giving back to the society. For me, the question is, how do I make the society a better place? You can complain for eternity, but what are your contributions to that society? I am an artist, and I’m interested in making contributions to the art industry. And to do it the way Prof. Wole Soyinka transformed African Literature, and the way my friend Chimamanda Adichie has contributed to the field. I know what it means for doors to be closed against my face in the industry, so I’m about opening doors for others. And it is left to critics, and historians to figure those who my work has influenced.
An article by Ayò Akínwándé
Featured image : Village Altar, Uwesan, Edo State, Nigeria
→ Victor Ehikhamenor’s website
This interview by Ayọ̀ Akínwándé is part of an editorial partnership between The Art Momentum and People’s Stories Project (PSP), under the umbrella of the British Council’s arts programme across Africa.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Articles are published in their original language | Les articles sont publiés dans leur langue d’origine