Viewing an artwork by Victor Ehikhamenor is often a meditative process. Characterised by endless linework, shapes and hidden faces, the Nigerian born artist’s method is wholly meditative too.
His process is a pensive one, honed through years of compulsive drawing, sometimes with music, sometimes without, and always in a world of his own. When it comes to colour, his pieces either incorporate it in contrast or ignore it completely, resulting in striking black and white, line heavy pieces that one can become entirely lost within.
With his most recent canvas taking the form of an entire room at the current Dak’art Biennale, Victor makes use of drawing, light, mirrors, and sculpted canvas to transform four walls, the roof and the ceiling into a place of complete solace.
We spoke with Victor on his history as an artist, his work as a poet, and how he incorporates traditional African motifs and religious cosmologies into a contemporary artistic medium.
When did you first know you wanted to pursue art as a career?
I was fortunate enough to know that at a very tender age, say five, although I did not know what it meant then to be a professional artist. I always drew while in class and it got me in trouble with my primary 1 teacher. Since then, I have never really wanted to be anything else but an artist.
Your drawings are incredibly detailed, relying heavily on patterns and repetition. What’s your process with regards to these drawings? Do you listen to music when creating them or have any particular space you prefer working in?
This is the result of years of compulsive drawing and honing a style. I like listening to music when I am working, but I can still work in the absence of it as my work process involves a deep meditative state of mind. I slide into my own world to create what is seen. I do not particularly have a preferred space, I can work anywhere, but I like a studio that is not too cluttered and dishevelled.
How did your time spent studying in America influence your work and your views on contemporary art?
In two ways. It helped me look back to where I was coming from, I fed on memories and nostalgia a lot because when you are away from home you cling to every single strand of memory you’ve got. I was able to contextualise my culture and appreciate it more. The second way living and studying in America was helpful is that I had access to well managed museums, galleries, art history books, magazines etc. that were really helpful in shaping my career as a contemporary African artist. Another realisation was that the West had borrowed so much from Africa in building their contemporary art practice without acknowledgement, to the extent it looked like Africans were the ones borrowing artistic practice from them.
Similarly, there seems to be a fascination by America and Europe of contemporary art out of Africa. Is this the case, and why do you think that is
This fascination has always existed, except the fascination was downplayed for reasons best known to them. Africans are beginning to take matters into their own hands in collecting, documenting, curating and exhibiting their own art, and the world has no choice but to fall in line. There is also the influence of the internet; African artists based in the continent can show their own art to the world now and this is similar to gate crashing a party that has been heavily guarded over the years.
Tell us a bit about your painting style. What inspires the thin lines and diverse and contrasting use of colour?
Various things have contributed to my style and inspired my practice. The number one influence were the various drawings on shrines and places of worship in the village I grew up in. There was so much art in the village, from women’s walls in their living quarters to community elders’ meeting places and ancestral altars where there were installations and ancient sculptures. Most of the drawings in these shrines are the motifs and lines reminiscent in my works today. They could be referred to as visual alphabets and codes. I was not lucky enough to meet a lot of practitioners of the traditional alphabets to explain a whole lot to me, I only encountered a few. But with those few codes and lines, I have over the years created my own vocabulary which is still expanding and growing as a living language. As for the colours, again my village was very vibrant with women and men wearing colourful clothes. So is my entire country, Nigeria, which is one of the most colourful countries in the world. The colours of the village stayed with me after I left and they keep resurfacing in my work. Take the recurrent red in my works for instance, that is because the earth in Esan land where I come from is very reddish.
American Invasion is an interesting series of portraits. What inspired the contrast of African style fashion with traditional African prints as backdrops?
I guess fashion has always been global, but visiting my village around 2009, I realised that the youth were now dressing like American hip-hop artists or inner city youth. In an interesting kind of way, I felt like I was still in America. When I asked some of the youth while they dressed the way they did, I got something like “we want to look cool like Americans on TV”. I decided to capture that phenomenon, that global influence on a rural village. The series is also to show how Western culture sips into some of African’s remotest villages and take over what one could call indigenous. The “African” prints (which is actually Dutch wax) belong to my mother, it was to show what we called local fashion as a juxtaposition of what we would term American or foreign.
Can you tell us a bit about your Before They Leave series?
Also this series was done in my village, these were uncles and aunties and villagers I have known since I was a child. Living abroad and holding to these villagers’ memories shaped my career as an artist and a writer, and it was painful whenever I hear one of them has passed away. I decided to photograph the ones that were left before they leave us, and since those portraits were done many have actually died.
You draw much of your influence from traditional African motifs and religious cosmology. How do you translate this across your artistic mediums?
They were not easily translatable at the beginning but the more I explore them these days the more I realise how interwoven and interrelated they actually are. Take for instance my latest work at the ongoing Dak’art Biennale in Dakar Senegal, I created an installation called “The Prayer Room” and it is interesting how diverse people from different race and religious background has responded to it, finding similarities with what they know and have practiced over the years. Exploring the duality of the religion (Catholicism and traditional beliefs) I grew up knowing in the village has been interesting, because there are so much similarities, yet man keeps finding differences for the purpose of divide and rule.
When did you first take an interest in poetry and how much of your visual art intersects with your written work?
When I was in the university, my first degree is English and Literature, that was how i got exposed to various form of poetry. I have not being actively writing poetry lately, the residual knowledge come in handy when I am painting or titling my art works. Painting can be poetry and poetry can be painting. Other poets’ works have been catalytic to my art, I have given poets like Christopher Okigbo, Dennis Brutus, Chris Abani, Niyi Osundare, etc a visual interpretation in my works.
Lastly, can you tell us a bit about your current exhibition at The Biennale?
It is an installation called The Prayer Room which consists of drawings, mirror, light and sculpted canvas. I drew on the walls, the floor and the ceiling of a room with sculpted canvas hanging on the walls and a round mirror on the opposite wall. I recreated a “okougheleh”, an elders’ communal common meeting place for solace as it used to be in my village. A place where people could come and have self-reflection, pray or meditate and be at peace with themselves and hopefully the world.
View more of Victor’s work below as well as on his website.