People

Victor Ehikhamenor: Confronting an Empty Canvas

Sola Osofisan interviews painter, poet, and photographer Victor Ehikhamenor, author of Sordid Rituals (2002) and Excuse Me! (2012). His website: http://www.victorehi.com/

In the last few years, you have become pretty much a pop icon, a face recognizable in the art circuit in Nigeria. What has the transition been like? Is celebrity-hood something a creative artist must embrace? Don’t they say seclusion fattens the muse…

Sola, this is the first time I am hearing pop icon and my name mentioned in the same sentence. I don’t think I am a celebrity in anyway at all. I am just doing my thing, painting, exhibiting, writing, tweeting sometimes, and making the best of what life has to offer. My face is probably recognizable because I am soaking up Lagos and its cultural happenings so much. It is such an interesting time for the arts here, so many exciting things happening at the same time. But I pick my destination, which means I still very much practice seclusion to a large extent so I can create time to make art.  The transition has been rough and smooth at the same time, but more of a psychological rather than a physical decision to weather it.

You recently bucked the immigrant trend by returning to live mostly in Nigeria. It has given you a unique perspective, straddling both worlds – the West and West Africa. Share with us some of the drama or trauma of fitting into the system in Nigeria?

Fitting back into the system was not that difficult for me. As a village boy, you can pretty much fit into any situation. Before leaving America I was mentally prepared to accept whatever Nigeria had in stock for me. The first shock was when my soft landing at NEXT newspapers became too rocky to be referred to as “soft”. But I was already determined to take whatever my country has to offer and give back what I can in any small way. When you have that mindset, even when armed robbers take your laptop and hard drive full of images – fifteen years worth of work – chase you down a dark alley and breath down your face to surrender your phone, or have flood destroy some of your valuable artworks or have politicians lie and watch the country go to the dogs, you keep the faith. The beautiful thing for me in Nigeria, especially Lagos, is the abundance of communal spirit and hardworking Nigerians who mean well for this country, especially in the art sector.

In what way has geographic location impacted your muse?

None. My muse is like the shell to its tortoise, we go everywhere together. But she is more active while I am in Nigeria.

So, you’re a painter, poet, photographer and writer of fiction. How is the inspiration or motivation for one art form different from that of another? And how do you recognize what should be the befitting art form for the realization of a particular idea?

I have been practicing all these art forms for so long now that they intersect and feed off of each other. The situation determines what form to deploy. For instance, if the need arises for me to satirize the government, I turn to writing because I am not a cartoonist. If a musician is performing in Lagos, I know it will be better to photograph than paint. If I need to reminisce about old shrine drawings of my childhood, I turn to painting. If I need to serenade, I attempt poetry. See how they come into play? But every now and then, I mix them all together – a visual/textual mating – and you can see the result in some art works and their titles.

Being a visual artist…does it provide additional creative artillery for your use of imagery in your writing?

Yes, I probably see things differently from the writer who is not a visual artist. It’s a bit complicated to explain; maybe we should leave that to the psychologists, abi?

Is it me or the religious and sometimes mystical motifs that abound in your paintings and drawings soak considerably into your poetry, but somehow remain detached from your fiction?

I use them sparingly in my stories, but they are there. Fiction is a bit of a different animal. I know these references are very much present in A Picture from Ireland published by AGNI magazine.  I have many other stories with even denser religious and mystical motifs that are not published yet. (http://www.bu.edu/agni/fiction/africa/ehikhamenor.html)

You have had a number of solo exhibitions at home and in the US. How do you approach a typical exhibition? Do you display related items that are variations on a theme or some other unifying element? Or do you show everything you’ve got ready for prime time at that moment in time?

[Laughs] Yes I have had quite a number of exhibitions. And no, I don’t just pack art works together to display. There is an art to the business of art exhibitions, which is where curators come into play. I prefer that the works I show are related thematically, and to a large extent visually, without giving the viewers a monotonic headache. Every now and then I push my style and material, and that push becomes a body of works in various degrees that can become a “show”. But if a museum is giving an artist a retrospective, you should be able to find works from the different phases of that artist’s practice on display.

Artists sometimes find their works are organized into distinct categories, stages of their evolution that can be explained to an audience. But do they create in stages too? Are you consciously considering a cohesive theme or series when you paint?

Artists grow and in that growth works change. Though a known style remains, the way and manner that style is executed varies. Take the sculptor, El Anatsui, for instance, when you look at his career so far, there are visually clear movements in the use of materials, from found objects to clay to wood to bottle caps, and so on. Other artists stick with one form throughout their career. I am restless. I work on a theme, do a series and move on to another. I also go back and forth with the forms and styles I like, while I seek to discover new ones.

How useful has your website, victorehi.com, been? You don’t sell works on it. Why? In what way does it help your work?

People can view my portfolio and get in touch with me quicker. It has been surprisingly helpful. Recently, Harvard University bought some images for a magazine from the website and many others from far and near have contacted me through it.

Do you hope someday to exhibit your work in certain galleries? Which ones and why?

It is every artist’s dream to be shown in prestigious galleries and museums around the world. I don’t want to limit myself by naming any particular one. Let the world of art come knocking, I will open the door.

What influences the size of an art work? Don’t you find big art works harder to sell?

For me, various things. Mostly mood. Sometimes, I am in the mood for small works, but lately I have been painting extra-large works because we are a big country [Laughs] and I don’t see myself stopping the practice anytime soon. In the past, I worried about where I would show large works if I made them, but I realized I was hindering myself. I was making art from the wrong perspective by thinking of space first instead of the work first. So sometime in 2011, I decided to have big fun by telling stories on large canvasses, each piece working like a novel – with plots, characters, dialogues, etc. I have not looked back since I made that decision. Surprisingly though, the extra-large works have actually been moving at the same pace as the smaller/medium sized works.

Talking about selling, is a painter’s aspiration to paint and sell, paint and show, paint and keep, or a crazy mix of all of the above?

My number one motivation to paint is the mixed feeling of ecstasy and the fear of confronting a piece of empty canvas or plain white paper and eventually conquering and making something meaningful out of it. The process of creating art is therapeutic for me. I paint for the fun of it. Every other benefit my art brings is considered a bonus.

What happens to those art works that no one seems to want to buy? They’ve been in several exhibitions, but they’re just not attracting collectors. Are they like rejected manuscripts to you? Do you have any of those? What do you do with them?

Every artwork has its collector; it is just a matter of time. Don’t forget the many publishing stories of rejected manuscripts that finally found an editor and publisher and went on to become bestsellers and award winners. Not all the works I make sell immediately. I have works that are more than 13 years old, and the beauty of it is that they give me beautiful nostalgic feelings whenever I stumble on them in my studio. And here is the caveat – a work of art is not perishable like akara nor does it depreciate like a car. The longer an art work remains with me, the more it appreciates in value.

As a man endowed with and thriving exploring his multiple talents, do you ever feel guilty that you occasionally have to neglect one?

Yes. It is not easy to project all talents at the same time. It’s like driving a sixteen wheeler trailer as opposed to driving a Camry, for instance. But I have devised a method to make sure I attend to all of them like a polygamist to his multiple wives. I lean towards art more for obvious reasons.

What reasons, Victor?

Writing is easy, yet difficult. And as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. That is also true when it comes to remuneration. One short story laboured over in months, sometimes years may sell for $100 to $400, on the average. If I spend that same amount of time painting…let’s just say I feel much better because I have something tangible to send to my aged mother back home. (Laughs)

Your poetry and non-fiction prose are often folksy, rootsy, imbued with a lot of traditional evergreen wisdom, often making you sound much older than you are. Is it deliberate or innate and inspired by your childhood? How did it get to be like that?

I grew up in the village and I am product of that surrounding and was greatly influenced by many grandmothers and village artists. Every time I write, they come flooding to my head. I started this business of writing by writing letters for villagers. Do you know what it takes a ten year old to translate Esan language that is loaded with proverbs and parables?  While writing a letter for an old woman one day she went “Ta ma omimen eken iki leh!” Tell my son, I now feed on sand. I paused and the old woman and I looked at each other. She refused to speak until I wrote it exactly as she had spoken. In essence, she wanted her son to know she is suffering and had no food to eat. So I learnt a lot in the village before I encountered any teacher or any professor. As for humour and satire, blame that on my father – he was the biggest humorist that ever lived. he would diffuse any tense situation with a wisecrack and tension would just melt away. My mother is a one woman riot-squad, a no nonsense woman, but my father navigated her intensity with humor. As a kid, while my father taught me with love and long words my mother chose short straight to the point words and a longer cane. Both approaches worked in shaping me. You need long words for fiction and straight to the point words for poetry. See what I mean?

How about painting?

Practically every household had paintings and drawings, or women who painted walls and decorated them with signs and symbols during festivals. As for photography, my uncle is one of the pioneer photographers in the old Midwest. He has been taking pictures since the 50s. He is still alive and taking photos. My house as a child was filled with photography and photographic equipment.

Do you remember some of the books you read as a child or as a teenager, the ones you instantly responded to?

I read several books. As hard as it was for books to be accessed in the village, we had a decent library then. The usual suspects were the African Writers Series, but we also read so much of James Hardley Chase that we thought we knew America. There was the peer pressure competition of who had read the most Chase novels, so I carried a list around in my back pocket. Luckily, my elder brother had almost all the collection of Chase novels that were available then, with their teenager-enticing soft porn covers.

We also read a lot of Pacesetter novels. We chewed them like sugar cane. Another early influence was watching my grandmother weave “abamunte” on her loom. She grew cotton, harvested, and spun the wool to thread before making fabrics out of it. I watched such profound creativity daily, year in and out.

Ikhide Ikheloa says Nigerians are reading, especially online. Is this your experience too? Are we just not writing enough of the kind of material they want to read?

Who is Ikhide Ikheloa (Laughs). Yes, Nigerians are reading. I totally agree. We are also beginning to write what the general public can read. Many of the writers before us wrote mainly for themselves, what I call rock and iroko literature. It was so dense and intellectual that the joy of reading was almost sacrificed.

Talk about recent African books you have enjoyed.

Let’s just say “books”. I just finished the advance copy of Okey Ndibe’s novel, Foreign Gods, Inc., published by Soho, NY. It is a beautiful sad story, hilariously told. It brings the past to the present, the West to West Africa and back again.

Saying “books” instead of “African books” has nothing to do with the still ongoing writer/African writer debate, does it? Or you also have a problem with being called an African writer?

The argument, I would say, is over flogged. I don’t engage in such fruitless talk. As Ikhide Ikheloa once said, you can call me anything; just don’t call me a nigger. Recently, Jhumpa Lahiri reacted to the term “Immigrant Fiction.” Her argument is that almost every literature in America can be termed immigrant literature (due to the fact that pretty much everyone in America has immigrant roots) and writers have always written about the world they come from. Personally, I have no problem with my work been referred to as African. That is who and what I am. ‘Matter of fact, drive it home further and call it a Nigerian book!

How has technology and the Internet affected your creative process and outputs across the art forms?

I can post my artworks online and have the world respond to it instantly. People can reach me anywhere I am now. But it has also hindered my productivity because I seem to spend too much time online and the 140-character idea that I would normally expand into an 800-word article is now expended on Twitter. All in all, the Internet is a necessary hindrance; one cannot afford not to be in the instant-information loop anymore. Now, I can be in my Uwessan village and Silver Spring, Maryland in the States at the same time. That is not so much a bad thing, is it?

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