SWEAT

Victor Ehikhamenor is sweating.

Dressed in a blue t-shirt over a faded pair of jeans, he is hunched over a large canvas that must measure well over 20 feet by 10 feet.

His right hand is covered with a latex glove which gives him an unusual aspect as if he is a scientist or a lab attendant performing some sensitive test.

But he is not in a lab. He is in his studio, an intricately furnished space on the well-appointed Ribadu Road off Awolowo Road, Ikoyi, Lagos.

This is his space and his playground, something coveted by most creatives. For writers, it is that fabled “room of one’s own” and for artists it is a studio space quiet enough to create and big enough to show off your creation.

A self-taught artist, Ehikhamenor holds an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) and an MSc in Information Systems, both, from the University of Maryland. He has become, in the nine years since his return from a 15-year sojourn in the US, one of Nigeria’s best known and most sought after contemporary artists.

His works adorn walls in private and public collections, feature on mugs and t-shirts, have been worn on runways, and graced the covers of magazines and books.

Read: Threads of Art: an exhibition by Ghanaian artist, Emmanuel Yaw Obuobi

He has exhibited at shows across the world from Venice to Jogja, London to Dakar, and Berlin to The Hamptons.

But this evening, the light-skinned and lithe Uwessan man is sweating as he works on a large piece for the Venice Biennale (which opened on May 10th, 2017). And before Venice he will make a stop in Havana, Cuba.

Victor Ehikhamenor stands in front of his work. Photo: Supplied.

Freshly returned from Nairobi he is catching up on lost time.

“The thing was in my head while I was in Kenya,” he says wiping off sweat. “I had to attack it immediately I got back.”

“The thing” is the massive work he is preparing for Venice; a hard to describe work of intriguing beauty in black, red and white festooned with bronze heads and mirrors. It is at once ancient and modern, encompassing a rich world of history and myth and some magic.

Ehikhamenor refuses, at first, to divulge the title of the piece, but he finally says it is “A Biography of the Forgotten.” While you wait, you can see his concentration as he works; legs spread apart, head bent low as the brush in his gloved right hand makes its way across the canvas.

This is man at work, an artist on the cusp of creating; something wonderful being birthed in sweat and concentration.

This is man at work, an artist on the cusp of creating; something wonderful being birthed in sweat and concentration.

Ehikhamenor’s works are usually hard to describe yet very easy to identify. They are, most often, monochromatic pieces in red and yellow or black and grey, or they feature a burst of bright colours, be avantegardist in his use of found objects or be beautifully minimalist as in his best-selling perforation pieces, but no matter how the final work is realised what stands out are Victor Ehikhamenor’s signature stylised lines, concentric circles, animistic images and doodles which seem to have borrowed from Uli and Nsibidi without being fully any of those. (Link)

They are patently his and have become defining symbols to a rapidly growing and expanding body of work.

Read: The life-saving painting of an Ethiopian artist

It is important to dwell on this defining quality of his works especially for an artist who did not know about Uli or Nsibidi until the late 90s when his practice was already at an advanced stage.

“I have always striven to be different,” Ehikhamenor.

“I have always striven to be different,” Ehikhamenor says.  “From the moment I started my practice here and in the US, I was looking for something distinct. I remember I used to make prints, at some point, from manhole covers.”

Today through an accident of design or sheer application, Ehikhamenor has discovered that unique marker which sets his work apart from every other contemporary artist working in Nigeria today.

TEARS

Ehikhamenor grew up in an Uwessan village in Edo state of Nigeria steeped in tradition; one that was experiencing a transition from animism to Christianity. As a young boy, he was fascinated by the designs etched into the earthen walls of his mother’s home as well as his grandfather’s many wives and those of other women in the village . Those designs had aesthetic and practical value. Walls needed to be kept clean and keeping walls clean required that you beautified the walls and so were born the designs.

Once he became acquainted with chalks and charcoal, a young Victor would traverse the village ‘defacing’ walls with his doodles. It was from those early years that his dual tone aesthetic emerged. Walls were, in effect, his first canvas, and instead of applause, his early works of art brought him slaps, knocks and tears.

In 2014, Ehikhamenor would return to his roots with the Doors series indicating, if you will, his provenance as an artist and his bodying forth into the world.

There would be more tears for the precocious young artist, when at 12, he left his village school because it did not have a fine art teacher and Master Ehikhamenor wanted to study fine arts. and He went off to Annunciation Catholic College, a boarding school in Irrua, about 50 miles away, where he convinced the principal to offer him admission.

Victor Ehikhamenor. Photo: Supplied.

When his mother found out, she forced him back to his village school. Her older son’s unsavoury experience in boarding school had put her off boarding schools for life.

A tearful Victor found himself back where he had tried to escape from and there was more crying on the days when his mathematics teacher would catch him doodling within the pages of his Larcombe textbook.

He eventually took his O-Level exams without Fine Arts and ended up studying English and Literature as a first degree.

But the call of the arts did not quieten and in time, as he drew and produced commemorative cards for sale, he continued to read and improve himself and thus the discovery of calligraphic forms.

His encounter with Uli sometime around 1997 had a defining effect on him.

“Uli felt familiar to me,” says Ehikhamenor, “but while Uli had a strong attraction, Nsibidi, another writing form, was intriguing but closed. It was as if Uli was open source while Nsibidi was in codes and required one to be an initiate.”

Uli and Nsibidi both harked back to the beginnings with their roots in tradition but where Uli is more accessible, Nsibidi is more closed and requires a stricter hermeneutic approach. It is also the case that where Uli is more linear and cyclical Nsibidi is more ideographic.

To provide a Western context, one would compare them to cuneiforms and hieroglyphics.

Victor gravitated towards Uli, maybe, because it is rooted more in an aesthetic milieu as decorative art which must have struck a chord with the young boy who first found artistic beauty on walls made of clay as well as tattoos on village women.

The artist is enamoured of Obiora Udechukwu whose aesthetic is rooted in Uli. Other artists that Ehikhamenor look up to include Obiora Udechukwu, whose aesthetic is rooted in Uli, Uche Okeke, El Anatsui and El Salahi of Sudan, all of whom marry the traditional with the modern.

“Uche Okeke has described his works as natural synthesis. I consider mine, neo-natural synthesis,” Ehikhamenor says as he straightens from his work.

PAINT

His t-shirt has been darkened with sweat and his glove is a collage of red and black paint.

Looking at the work that is emerging, one realises that Ehikhamenor is undergoing a transition, a move from his usual four-cornered framed pieces to large multi-layered works. He has been producing more installation pieces since his 2011 show at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Yaba, Lagos.

The first thought that occurs is that Ehikhamenor is turning the concept of mixed media completely on its head. What he is doing is a primal excursion into the past, to his very beginnings, an urgent interrogation of dualities and binaries – the animistic and Christian.

This interrogation is present in his Female Cardinals series, large monochromatic pieces that are both religious and political in their insistence on women and blacks as members of the rarefied ranks of cardinals. The admixture of Christian and traditional symbols advances that primal excursion.

That element is front and centre in his new works. A Biography of the Forgotten is set for the Venice Biennale and the amazing The Beatification of Black Angel, a large piece featuring an angel with outspread wings fashioned from luminous chaplets.

The canvases are layered with paints – white painted over with black and then painted over with red and then more black in the form of a palimpsest that does not strike you or fully yield itself until there is an interplay of lights and shadows.

The works feature, on the surface, Victor Ehikhamenor’s usual lines and circles and doodles, put peer closely and you will find faces peering back at you. His addition of miniature Benin bronze heads, mirrors and chaplets point to his continuing exploration of the earlier mentioned binaries of the animistic and the Christian.

“These works came from my early visits to the church and to shrines in my village. People saw religious and animist assemblages but what I saw was art; religious and sacred installations. I am bringing all those back now into my art.”

His concentration is disturbed by the arrival of a prospective collector, one of the city’s biggest clothiers.

Ehikhamenor takes a break, showers quickly and joins them in his office. His guest is seated on a colourful couch draped in Ankara cloth.

The couch is almost as famous as its owner and is a hit on Instagram and Facebook with almost every visitor to the studio literally begging to have a shot taken on it.

Drinks are poured, paintings unfurled and a deal is struck.

Ten minutes after the client leaves, Ehikhamenor changes back into his work clothes and, fresh glove on his right hand, returns to the piece he was working on.

“I am in a race with myself,” Ehikhamenor says with a laugh as he catches the look of shock on the writer’s face.