As art capitals go in the African continent, it is increasingly difficult to ignore Nigeria and its commercial capital and ground zero of artistic production - Lagos. It is here global auction houses are courting an expanding class of deep-pocketed collectors. It is this city that is producing artists whose works gain incredible critical acclaim all over the world. One artist that has been at the centre and most prominent in this blooming is Victor Ehikhamenor.
Weaving history, tradition, spirituality, Ehikhamenor takes on challenging themes in his work using innovative means, namely perforations on paper, bronze, oil drums, acrylic, textiles, graphic design.
In 2017, at the Venice Biennale, sculpting thousands of miniature bronze heads, he introduced a debate and conversation around the debated Benin Bronzes to the world stage. Long before, there came a global topic with Emmanuel Macron’s restitution report. The Bronzes are Nigeria’s most prized artefacts stolen from the country by British colonizers in the 18th Century and currently residing in European museums.
Victor Ehikhamenor. Monarch of Elated Reveries. 2019. Oil on canvas. 60” X 70”. Courtesy of the artist
The following year, Ehikhamenor took masquerades and spirits - new sculptures - to Art Dubai, exploring shared histories and commonalities between the Middle East and Africa that are ignored, other than the business grouping of the Middle East and Africa markers.
His work has appeared in notable group exhibitions including the German Pavilion as part of the 56th Venice Biennale which was curated by Okwui Enwezor and the Dakar Biennale, Manifesta 11. Aside from painting and installion work, Ehikhamenor has also created thousands of illustrations for book covers and collaborated with authors such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
A worldly, sought after artist, for the first time in eight years he is now returning to Lagos, where it all started, for a marquee exhibition entitled Daydream Esoterica. One wonders, how do you capture a city like Lagos in a painting? In all its chaotic, densely populated, oft-dysfunctional glory? How does one pay homage to his adopted town in this new body of work? Ehikhamenor starts by merging inherited painterly traditions of ancient script with more modern techniques. Then he tells Harper’s Bazaar Art how it all began…
You grew up around wall paintings, community shrine installations, traces of which we see in your work today. When did you have the lightbulb moment to draw literal inspiration from your background to paint and then transfer this into your work?
I think it is something that is innate in you. It is like asking when did you start loving your mother or when did you know to love the land that you were born in. I guess as an artist I was born that way. But also being surrounded by art while growing up, if you are a precocious child like I was then you have no choice but to just consume those things. Although there was a period of time in my art career that I was still looking for an understanding. I didn’t have that perfect understanding of what was influencing me, I didn’t have that perfect understanding of what was pushing and driving me. All I knew was that I wanted to draw and do lines and I wanted to explore lines further.
Victor Ehikhamenor. We The People and Other Dreamers. 2019. Oil on canvas. 120” X 71.5”. Courtesy of the artist
But at some point when you keep engaging with art and reading books, you realise what you thought was just regular growing up in the village, has made a bigger impact in the wider world. It was when I started reading books about Benin art that I realised what I have been doing since I was a kid had a global meaning and has always had a global influence on other major artists around Nigeria and outside it. So I embraced it because it is mine. You cannot run away from what you have been doing and what you have been born to do. In my early thirties, I started really embracing it. The more I began to embrace it, the more I wanted to explore and make this ancient art a contemporary conversation.
Your work has sometimes been interpreted by Western audiences as a representation of black magic. How do you respond to such takes?
There is a lot of naivety and ignorance in the world. Especially in the art world, They see white chalk or you depict masquerades and they don’t know you are borrowing art from tradition. I take time to educate misunderstandings.
Would you say Lagos has become a muse for your work? What rituals do you perform that are informed by the city, for instance, that help you paint?
Lagos is a very creative city and harbours creativity. Painters, writers, poets. I spend evenings in the studio with my friends who are creatives. It is a watering hole for us. By the time we finish talking and dissecting works you have no choice but to start painting. Lagos has beautiful and ugly energy. The show is a metaphorical representation of the city. How do you unbundle Lagos in a painting? No other ritual apart from living in the city - in traffic and the screaming, mostly. (laughs)
Yet you haven't exhibited here in eight years and have been travelling a lot in the last four years or so. How does that play out in your creative process? Does being away affect the work in any way?
Not at all, it sharpens it. I produce all my work here, my main studio is here in Lagos. I have been engaged outside the country more than usual. I’ve done other saloon shows. But this is the main thing I’ve done that is open to the public. Art is for the people, this show is for the people.
Lagos is increasingly becoming an art capital, the focus of foreign interests and local artists also finding their foot abroad as well. What do you think of this unfolding state of events? What should we be seeing more or less of?
We need more spaces - specifically created to cater for art exhibitions. There are very few built for contemporary art. The city is doing the best right now but we need more art critics, journals and magazines to help with the output. The ecosystem is broken. I won’t speak on government.
Your work is usually politically motivated commenting on current issues but this new body of work appears to be more introspective. What has informed this shift?
I don’t set out to be political in my work. Living is political. actions of love, hate, living. There are works that are obviously politically motivated but with this I just wanted to celebrate the city, more of the culture, a place that has been nice to me since I moved back 11 years ago.
The Daydream Esoterica exhibition by Victor Ehikhamenor is on show at Rele Gallery, Lagos, Nigeria until 30 June 2019