The entrance of Nigerian artist, Victor Ehikhamenor’s home is a vibrant and diverse trail of his artwork. The first is a play on collage with hundreds of old film cartridges arranged into a square, around picture cut-outs of a camera in the middle, bare African women, and article clips from foreign magazines. The second is a multi-coloured painted carcass of an old generator, and the third is an old typewriter sitting on a wooden box covered with inscriptions and Ehikhamenor’s characteristic drawings. Titled, Their Point of View, Power Play, and Klakitiklak of Ineffective Policies, respectively, these pieces occupy most of the balcony as Ehikhamenor welcomes guests into his home as well as his artistic vision, which over the past decade has made an indelible imprint on contemporary African art.
Ehikhamenor’s rise to prominence has been based largely on his originality and inventiveness; his ability to move past the use of traditional art materials, and to transform anything into a work of art. One of his works, Lagos Rush Hour, is made out of scraps; pegs, plastic bags, a sponge, and a broom. “It’s a girl in a rush,” he says, of the paper bag figure in the shape of a girl on a run, with pegs as legs. Lagos Rush Hour, which takes up a prominent space on the wall of his living room, is a departure from his characteristic paintings of abstract intersecting and overlapping figurative forms, appropriations of the signs and symbols he grew up with, on the walls of his village shrines in Udomi-Uwessan, Edo State.
A majority of Ehikhamenor’s works are influenced by his rich traditional upbringing as a village kid. “I grew up in the village; the vibrancy and everything you see in my works is a conscious reflection of my upbringing,” he says at the beginning of our conversation, as he so often does in most of his interviews. He tells everyone who cares to know, that he is a “village man.” For him, years of studying and living in London, and the United States did not result in a foreign accent. Not even his frequent trips to Europe to show his works could take away his Edo tinged accent, one that becomes prominent when he switches to Pidgin. “I am from Africa. I am an African artist. I have no identity crises, I know where I come from,” he tells me.
Growing up, Ehikhamenor was surrounded by art. From Christian iconography in the village Catholic Church to traditional markings on the walls of his community shrine, he notes, “I was surrounded by a whole lot of it [art].” Art runs in Ehikhamenor’s bloodline. His uncle was a photographer, his maternal grandfather, a blacksmith, his mother, a local artist, and his grandmother, a cloth weaver. Both women had a great influence on him, reflective in the female figures, layered copiously throughout various pieces of his work.
Ehikhamenor breathes art. You can see it in the acrylic or oil brush strokes in his paintings, the complex lines and symbols of his charcoal and chalk drawings, the cultural and political dimensions of his installations, the tiny holes of his innovative perforations, and the bluntness of his writing. Everything is a canvas to him. His bookshelves, which stand tall against the wall on the left-wing of his dining room, are not spared from his deliberate doodling. Neither is his Mac laptop case, his iPhone case, his glass frames, nor empty exotic wine and perfume bottles; they all bear the trademark of his abstract stylised drawings. In one of my meeting’s with him, we stopped by a friend’s home in Lekki to pick up wine bottles of varying shapes and sizes, soon to be transformed into works of art.
“I see in forms and colours,” he says while setting up a sculpted canvas in his living room for me to see. “Because I am an abstract painter I don’t really deal with things the way they are. The way I deal with things is different from painting them the way they are. If anything impresses me, I change it to a different form.” He must have sensed my desperation in trying to make sense of what seemed like a crumpled cloth of rioting colours, for he goes on to explain, “This is a soft sculpture, influenced by the way we wear our clothes or hang them, people going to church on Sunday, this is the kind of colour that swells around the market woman, and people going to a meeting in the village.”
Undeniably one of Africa’s most innovative contemporary artists, Ehikhmenor constantly seeks to reinvent his work. In a 2013 interview with Nigerians Talk, he said he aspires to keep creating works that challenge materials used, which is exactly what he has done, quite successfully over the years. And though he is consistent in the use of his biomorphic shapes and forms, his materials and process continue to develop. “Regardless of whatever he does, it’s always something fresh, but then you still have the staple signs and symbols in it,” says Adenrele Sonariwo, owner and manager of Rele, a contemporary art gallery in the heart of Lagos.
Ehikhamenor invented “paintforation” – drawing by perforation. This technique involves using nail perforations to fill in sketches on white canvass. “The whole idea is that this reacts to the light”, he says, unveiling one of his unique ‘paintforations’. “So if I put off the light”, he turns off the light in the room, “can you see what I’m talking about?” he asks me. In the dark, the images on the canvass lit up, becoming more defined, whereas with the light on, the canvass glowed, and the images looked like silhouettes. Either way, the beauty of the work does not elude you. “For a place like this where power is an issue, I am constantly thinking of ways people can appreciate my works. And as you’ve seen, different lighting gives different meanings. Paintforation works with shades and shadows, not colours,” he explains with enthusiasm.
Foremost Nigerian writer and poet, Toni Kan, who’s been friends with Ehikhamenor for over a decade also attests to his creative ingenuity, “The uniqueness of Victor as an artist is that he constantly improves his game,” he tells me. “I have closely watched him evolve over time, constantly changing things. One can see the progression in his works.” He adds, “He is constantly innovating his art. Every time he does an exhibition, it’s something completely different. There are certain artists I know who are static, but not Victor. He always challenges himself. ”
Successful artists often embody dedication, patience, and a huge dose of discipline. Therefore, it came as no surprise when most of Victor’s friends could not describe him without noting that he is a “hard worker.” Ehikhamenor is quite a busy man, whether he’s working on a new painting, installation, or sculpture, or jetting around the world for residencies or to hold exhibitions, he’s always up to something. When we met earlier in September 2015, Ehikhamenor had listed some of the events he had scheduled for the last quarter of the year, and in the first two quarters of 2016, including an exhibition in Jogja, Indonesia, and a residency in South Africa. We are in the middle of a conversation when his phone rings, “That was Jude Anogwih, he’s a curator … I have a major work that I need to do for an exhibition called Indonesia meets Nigeria, so I need to meet him to discuss certain things …” he explains once the call ends. Victor was one of 11 Nigerian artists invited to join twenty-three Indonesian artists in the grand exhibition at the Biennale. It was there at the Jogja National Museum he showcased the ‘major work’ he’d mentioned back in September, an installation titled “The Wealth of Nations.”
The installation consists of two parts, one in conjunction with Indonesian artist Maryanto Bebo, at the entrance of the Jogja National Museum, and another inside the museum. The former was a neatly arranged pile of old drums standing about 30 feet high. The drums bore drawings typical of Ehikhamenor as bright red-coloured biomorphs encircled each one. Inside the museum, an entire room was engulfed by Ehikhamenor’s work- he left no space unmarked. This is how Emmanuel Iduma, writer and art critic described it, “The walls of the room were covered in black drawings on a yellow background … the shapes and forms seemed to join without end, painstakingly linked, with the adeptness of a calligrapher.” Both installations addressed political issues of corruption and violence surrounding oil exploitation in Nigeria.
“On January 15th 1956 commercial quantity oil was discovered in Oloibiri (In today’s Bayelsa state, Nigeria). On January 15th 1966, the Nigerian military discovered its first coup d’état. Those who discovered oil and those who discovered coup are bedfellows, not strange to each other. Welcome to the Wealth of Nations”, Ehikhamenor wrote on his Instagram page sharing his newly completed installation art to his over 5000 Instagram followers. He seemed to echo the words of late Oronto Douglas, a former human rights attorney who defended Ogoni leader Ken Saro Wiwa, when he said in a 2009 interview, “There is a symbiotic relationship between the military dictatorship and the multinational companies who grease the palms of those who rule…. They are assassins in foreign lands. They drill and they kill in Nigeria.”
For Ehikhamenor, art serves as a medium of intervention in political conversations within, and outside Nigeria. Like the pieces that welcome you into his home, “The Wealth of Nations”, served a political narrative for corruption, and resource exploitation in Nigeria. “I am from Africa. This means I am an African artist and writer and must address what matters, the issues that plague us,” he said to me.” This statement seemed a reiteration of what he told the Financial Times two years ago, “I would feel a fraud if I ignored some of the issues of my country.”
As a writer, Ehikhamenor is a political satirist. When asked why he writes in satire, Victor notes, “When I was growing up, chloroquine didn’t have capsules, there were only two ways of taking it; it’s either you are very sick and you take as a capsule or you put it inside Eba and swallow it with soup,” he explains to me giving a light demonstration, “because when the food dissolves, it [the chloroquine] goes into the bloodstream. Though it’s a very slow process, it eventually works. So when I write, you read, and you laugh, but in the end, you realize what I’m talking about is extremely serious. That is what satire is – serious issues are delivered in a humorous way. My father was a big satirist, he shared the most important messages in funny ways.”
For him, writing is also a form of creating art, but the difference is its immediacy. When I told him that he better addresses political issues in his writing than with his paintings, he disagreed, “Equal measures”, he says. “Although writing is art, it is immediate. But with my paintings or installations, you have to digest them to see what I’m referencing.” It is this unhurried, progressive art that is currently commanding worldwide attention and bringing him much deserved widespread acclaim. Ehikhamenor’s characteristic biomorphic form of imagery has taken him across the globe, “I can’t count the number of countries I’ve been to, they are many,” he replies when I enquire of him. This peripatetic nature of work certainly contributes to his love for luxury; not necessarily for a lavish lifestyle, but one of great comfort and elegance. One can tell from a number of things including the setting of his home, his choice of restaurants, and hangout spots, his love for exotic food, and his sense of fashion. Ehikhamenor is debonair; whether he’s in a laidback tee and all-stars, formal wear, or traditional garb, he’s always dapper.
Driving through Carter bridge from the Island to the Mainland, and overlooking the ancient storey buildings that span the Marina road all the way to Akpogbon, Ehikhamenor longed for the classic architecture of the past, “Every single building in this place is art, built by well-known architects when Nigeria really fancied art”, he said in an almost wistful tone. “So why do you think people don’t pay attention to art in this sense/depth anymore”, I ask. “Because our orientation shifted from what is important to money and “fast” life,” he responds. Later, he admitted that this attitude is changing and that people are beginning to pay attention to art, especially in terms of business and monetary value, “people are beginning to see the benefit of collecting art, there is an upswing in the secondary market. Nigerian art is being recognized all over the world, we are going places now, the international media have been talking about it … serious value is coming to the Nigerian market right now.”
According to Adenrele of Rele Gallery, the business of art in Nigeria has the potential to become quite lucrative in the long run. However, there is a need to keep educating Nigerians on the value of art. “We need to keep educating people, and start producing a new generation of collectors,” she says. “Although we have a good amount of art collectors, they have been in the industry for quite a while, so it’s time to educate a new generation of collectors, and see how we can increase the market, and also bring a new audience to buy art.”
Educating or garnering a new audience to value, and collecting the works of an artist like Ehikhamenor shouldn’t be hard, he already has a following, his own audience. The originality and dynamic nature of his works, coupled with his lively personality, appeal largely but is not restricted, to a young demographic. “Victor makes ‘cool art,’ says Toni Kan. “I’ve met many young people who want to own an Ehikhamenor artwork or branded product,” he told me, adding that contemporary art has evolved and that Victor’s work has got quite the appeal, “especially with his involvement in fashion, and product branding.”
When it comes to marketing his artworks, Ehikhamenor says he likes to “shy away” from the business aspect of the industry, particularly the bargaining process. “I leave that to the gallerists, like Rele.” But in every sense, Ehikhamenor is as much a businessman as he is an artist, even he can’t “shy away” from this truth. “Art is business and business is art,” he says to me. “When you are done painting, and you’re out of the studio, what next?” came the rhetoric question. “I want my work to sell. As an artist, it’s not okay for people to just say your work is fantastic. You want people to pay for it; it contributes a lot to how you are rated as an artist,” he said matter-of-factly. Apart from passion, business is what drives some of his innovations, be it individual product branding, or co-branding, “Victor is taking art everywhere. He’s not sticking to the traditional concept of just putting his works in galleries, he’s taken his art to the street,” Kan says, referring to his glass frame, and phone case that Ehikhamenor drew on. This intricate balance of accessibility and grandeur is what makes Ehikhamenor relevant, and relatable as an artist.
When I ask him where he sees his work in the next few years, he replies, “Only God can answer that. I take things one day at a time.”
This piece is part of Ventures Africa’s 2016 African Innovation Series. The full digital issue, can be found here.