I always have human faces in my painting. People are what the world is made of. Personal memories (of course, nostalgia) are a very important aspect of my work. I always tell people that the best education I ever had was growing up in my grandfather’s compound. Every evening as kids we would gather around and listen to stories; someone always had a story to tell. And during festivals performers would come to tell stories.
Yvette Greslé interviews Victor Ehikhamenor.
Victor Ehikhamenor is a Nigerian artist, photographer and writer (born in Udomi-Uwessan, Edo State). Ehikhamenor has studios in both Lagos, Nigeria and Maryland, United States. ‘Chronicles of the Enchanted World’, his solo exhibition, at GAFRA Gallery of African Art (London) runs through to 19 July 2014. The show foregrounds the artist’s sculptural installations; and his exploration of painting, drawing and mixed-media. ‘Chronicles of the Enchanted World’ enters events personal, mythical and historical. Many aspects of Nigeria’s complex folklore, mythology, and religious iconography enter Ehikhamenor’s work together with the country’s political narratives past and present. The artist is a story-teller and the work is enriched by a nuanced understanding of the place from which it emerges.
Yvette Greslé: I am interested in looking very closely at your work and its relationship to place. You are from Edo State which (as you have told me) has a history of bronze, ivory and wood carving; of sculpture. Local influences seem to enter your work. It also appears to be charged with symbolism that relates to history and mythology. Let’s begin with the acrylic and charcoal works on canvas, which are large scale, and draw together painting and drawing. They also remind me of textile design. Colour is also important to these works and their meaning: you use very intense yellows and reds, primary colours. For instance: ‘Lovers of Good Evening Street’.
Victor Ehikhamenor: The yellow works relate to Lagos: I relate colour to place. I imagine the primary colour of Lagos as yellow, and the primary colour of the place that I grew up in as red. I was thinking of the yellow cabs and buses in Lagos, for example. In Benin the soil is very red: ‘The Struggle for Big Afro Mama’ relates to Benin. In these works politics, religion and memories come together.
YG: You speak about your relationship to your mother and grandmother and being taken to traditional places of worship. It seems that, for example, Catholicism and historical spiritual practices and beliefs come together in complex ways.
VE: You have to manage these dichotomies in ways that are very complex as far as forming your identity is concerned. As a kid different things are always pulling at you. I went to Catholic schools and this western and Catholic education was a strong influence. But then you return home and there is a different system of living (and different forms of belief). I also grew up in a very close-knit and large community and family-unit.
YG: This comes through in the acrylic and charcoal works, you communicate (formally) human closeness and intimacy. Figures are intertwined. The red or yellow backgrounds are painted with acrylic, onto the canvas, and then you draw over this with charcoal. Themes of love and hate come through in these works; and in your work as a whole love takes on different inflections (familial love or romantic love, for example). In the acrylic and charcoal works the human figure is omnipresent, you work with scale a lot (smaller and larger figures) and in amongst the larger figures are human faces. There is a powerful sense of a close relationship between your work as an artist and a work as a writer.
VE: Yes. The figures are intertwined and interact with each other; are very close to each other. I always have human faces in my painting. People are what the world is made of. Personal memories (of course, nostalgia) are a very important aspect of my work. I always tell people that the best education I ever had was growing up in my grandfather’s compound. Every evening as kids we would gather around and listen to stories; someone always had a story to tell. And during festivals performers would come to tell stories.
YG: You speak a lot about how you grew up with oral traditions of story-telling. The idea that stories, which are part of everyday life and learning, are passed down through generations, and shift and change with time. You are also a writer and your characters are drawn from the village that you grew up in. I am also interested in how an artist enters memories and narratives (whether personal or political). We have spoken about art as a vehicle through which to say things that otherwise cannot be said or articulated. Art has the capacity to open up tensions and contradictions. ‘The Whirlwind Dancers of Uwessan’ relates to your village.
VE: These dancers (‘The Whirlwind Dancers …’) spin in the air. If I refer to them as ‘spirit dancers’ you think about them as something that cannot be seen; something that cannot be held onto. They appear to dance and perform and then disappear. You cannot see their faces and the colours I use refer to the costumes they wear (they are masquerade dancers). The dancing is something that is very secretive and not supposed to be revealed but as you grow up you do begin to question things and realise that they are members of the community. As a child you don’t know that these are real people and you think it is magical. You hold onto that magic: It’s like Father Christmas, the idea of a kept open secret. You can see these dancers on YouTube now and they have become commercialised.
YG: In ‘The Whirlwind Dancers …’ you make use of things like dripping paint and peeling surfaces. You leave edges frayed. Their height is also important. The work brings painting and sculpture into a relationship; and you explore movement through form and the application of paint.
VE: When they come out to dance they appear otherworldly and as a child they seem really tall. They spin to the extent that you don’t see them at all, all you see is what looks like a whirlwind. The colours relate to the primary colours of the cloth they wear. I used the dripping to express the sensation of watching the dancers as they spin. Movement is something I was exploring. I also wanted the materials to suggest aging: after the dancing, when it has been going on for a long time, there is a feeling of age (in a mystical way). If the colours of the painting were to shed you would see the piece in a different way: there is something going on beneath the surface of what you see with your eyes.
YG: The work you’ve called ‘The Struggle for Big Afro Mama’ speaks to the political.
VE: I use the figure of a woman to represent Africa. I am speaking about violence, current and historical, and the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources and land through metaphor (through the idea of violence enacted on women). I refer, in this work, to colonialism. Everyone is reaching for her, grabbing her. I was thinking about the idea of how Africa was divided up amongst western countries: about The Berlin Conference (1884-1885) and ‘The Scramble for Africa’. There was no African in this decision making process.
YG: Yes and if we’re thinking psychologically, as Frantz Fanon did, the trauma of these historical events is still present. There are people who are still alive who are affected by their lived experiences and memories of colonialism.
VE: Yes. I am not one of those Africans who will blame colonialism on what is happening now. But at the same time, you realise that these histories are there. You cannot erase them. I am responding to all this in this work.
YG: The work (‘The Struggle for Big Afro Mama’) uses a lot of symbolic motifs.
VE: I have borrowed symbols and signs from my village to tell a story. I was thinking about alphabets, words and how these become sentences. I refer, for example, to symbols that speak to the cycle of life, to the idea of building things. Some of these signs I was able to see visually on shrine walls. I grew up with them. I am also drawing on memory. I also place a lot of emphasis on human figures and faces, some of these are witnesses to history. In ‘The Struggle for Big Afro Mama’ the figures are close and intertwined but the closeness here is also related to physical violence.
YG: Paper works such as ‘Who will be King’ and ‘Heirloom of the Gods’ are interesting in comparison to the acrylic and charcoal ones. There is a similar emphasis on historical and mythological symbolism and the human figure is again present. But colour functions in a different way: they are constructed simply from white paper and might be thought of as drawings: the images emerge out of the action of perforating the paper with a nail.
VE: I started making these works last year. I found the paper, by chance, in London. The paper is quite precious and I thought ‘I can’t just use it for charcoal drawing’. I began to play around with ideas and eventually began exploring the perforations. The first pieces focused on imagery to do with masks, no particular format or arrangement. After some research I realised that almost every mask or every bronze made in Benin had perforations of some kind. The Ancient Nok terracotta heads have these decorative surfaces. I reference Benin history. For example, in ‘Heirloom of the Gods’ I refer to the Benin head of a Queen Mother; taken by the British, in the nineteenth century, and still in the British Museum. In Nigeria there is a very long and organised history of art-making. The Benin King has always collected art.
YG: One of the perforated paper works is not on this exhibition – ‘The Scars that never heal’ (it speaks about women and violence).
EK: I am strongly against violence against women. I made this work before the abduction of the Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram. When these girls return they will not still be whole. They will carry the scars and these are not only physical. This work is about scars that will never heal. I am opposed to violence against women and I will speak out against it. I have sisters. I have daughters. I will never subscribe to violence.
YG: I am very struck by the presence of women in your work. You’ve told me how the sculptural installation – ‘I Hope You Remember’ – is a tribute to your mother and speaks also to oral traditions of passing teaching, history, folklore and mythologies down across generations.
EK: ‘I Hope You Remember’ suggests the head scarves that African women wear. The title refers to how she hopes I remember the stories and the histories that my mother has passed down to me.
YG: The newspapers which you appropriate and alter are quite funny as they are critical but also draw attention to the media and what is foregrounded or erased from historical and cultural narratives. You are again exploring the privileging of the violent narratives to do with the African continent. And the way in which Africa is written about.
EK: I was thinking, at the time, about how western media cover African artists and writers. There is a sense that we are still seen as artefacts. It is about paying attention to us in a way that listens. Every now and again someone is canonised but there is no overview or context. I pick out different stories and play around with interpretation.
YG: ‘This is not a war story’ – the title is intriguing: war is such a major subject for artists historically.
EK: I did not want to talk about war but at the same time we cannot afford to not talk about war. I want journalists, the media and so on to look at Africa from a different perspective. I myself have never experienced war. I grew up in a very happy family. War is not my experience. This is not to say that I don’t engage politically.
YG: You are then interested, as an artist in other kinds of narratives. You draw very much on your personal experience. You deploy your personal experience as a strategy to offer a counter-narrative to the way in which Africa is represented and viewed in dominant narratives (in the media). But at the same time you are not apolitical. Your subjectivity is a critical factor in your art practice.
EK: Yes. In fact, initially I was going to title this exhibition ‘Alternative Narratives’. I then decided on ‘Chronicles of the Enchanted World’. This is work about the world I grew up in and it is about personal memory. Different artists have different experiences and will speak about these issues, and political questions, in other ways.
YG: ‘This is not a war story’ is an installation ideally purchased as one piece. The paper is again very precious. The way in which you use such intense, dripping, abstracted colour is quite magical; the colour really does draw one in. You use acrylic paint; and pen and ink. The format is reminiscent of types of historical Japanese printmaking I have seen (narrow and vertical). You again use symbolic motifs, and human figures, but these works as a whole are more abstracted.
EK: I am always questioning materials and exploring their possibilities. I am also very interested in paper and love going to paper stores. With this work – ‘This is not a war story’ – I wanted to draw people in. I don’t want people to consume my work at once. I want people to really think about it.
Victor Ehikhamenor, ‘Chronicles of the Enchanted World’, 21-19 July 2014
GAFRA Gallery of African Art, 9 Cork Street, London W1S 3LL
Opening Times: Monday-Friday, 10am-6pm and Saturday, 11am-4pm
Brief bio: Yvette Greslé is a London-based Art Historian, Art Writer and blogger. Supervised by Professor Tamar Garb she is completing a PhD on History, Memory and South African Video Art.