|Jul/Aug 2006 Spotlight|
The Spotlight Artist for this issue is Victor Ehikhamenor. His work is featured throughout the issue, intended not to illustrate prose and verse so much as to accompany it. To provide some additional context within which to view Victor's art, I asked him to throw together some thoughts about the following general topics. The result is part interview, part essay, and it serves as both a self-portrait and an introduction to the works of a talented artist and writer we're proud to have in Eclectica. —Ed.
Me and My Work
I am many things, but for the purpose at hand, I am an artist and writer from Nigeria.
A clean canvas or white paper is my freedom square. The beckoning and the calling of these virgin spaces allow me to be what I am today and what I will become tomorrow.
I started painting at a very early age, and older people called me "artist" even before I knew what the word meant.
I was always fascinated by the figures, designs, and colors that saturated my village when I was a child. Art, mostly functional, was abundant in my environment in Nigeria. Almost everything was art, ranging from my grandfather's staff of office as the odionwele of my village, to the different wall designs by his seven wives and the clothing worn by men and women, especially on Sundays. As a young boy, I painted on any surface that was smooth enough. School slates, notebooks, my mother's walls (which got me in trouble most times), even in the sand along my village streets. Those early experiences always snake into my current pieces, though my newer works are constantly evolving.
My door series ("Door of Fertility," "Door of Eternity," etc.) was inspired by the colors and designs in my grandfather's big compound.
Painting and writing compete for my time, and I love both. They are like two lovers sharing one object, and jealousy is the juice that fuels them. The creative process for both is different. Making art is a bit easier than writing; writing is more painstaking because of the editing, re-writing, trying to make sense... and it involves other people, such as editors. With painting it is different: I am the general, and I am the army. And like they say, one image equals a thousand words. As different as writing and painting are, the experiences that influence them for me, however, are pretty much the same.
I like all my works almost equally, but to be honest, I do have favorites. I like a piece called "Woman In Trance," which can be seen in this issue accompanying the poems of Ellen Kombiyil. It was one of those pieces I almost did not want to sell when I finished it. It was influenced by a spiritual experience my older sister had when we were kids. She danced with a strange goddess, and she was in a trance for a long time.
"Woman in Trance" has also been used as cover art for Unoma Azuah's novel Sky High Flame, and that in itself is priceless to me. Whenever a fellow writer decides to use my art to wrap his or her beautiful words, it is the ultimate compliment.
I also like the door series that I did. I did seven of them, and they have all been collected.
As a self-taught artist, it would be hard for me to say I am influenced by any artist directly. Growing up in the village, I was oblivious of what was going on in the art circle in the cities. It was not until very late in my career that I came into contact with many of the artists I respect today. I had already come to America before I retraced my steps back to Nigeria to discover a majority of those that have made an impact in world art. I have closely studied (and am still studying) a number of these people. From the older school I like and respect the works of Obiora Udechukwu, Yusuf Grillo, Bruce Onobrokpeya, Uche Okeke, Bernard Brooks, Skunder Bogosian and El Anatsui... you can add Mark Rothko to that. Rothko's works remind me of wall colors in my village, and the large scale nature of them can be breathtaking.
As for contemporary artists, the list of those whose work I respect is endless. There are so many great and talented artists coming out of my country now that it is hard for me to follow them all. Among the newer generation of Nigerian artists that I like are Victor Ekpuk, Marcia Kure, Nkechi Nwosu-Igbo, Tayo Adenaike, James Iroha Uchechukwu (in photography), just to name a few. It's unbelievable how many others are doing ground-breaking and interesting stuff. Even those who used to paint in the traditional sense of the word have moved to more contemporary and conceptual art. Take a look at Olu Oguibe's Culture Game and you will understand what I am saying.
Politics and Ideology
My works are not devoid of political or ideological tendencies. Society is beautiful and ugly, and we have to portray both paradigms. Take for instance the numerous wars that are ravaging the world, or hunger in the midst of plenty, or homelessness under sky-scrapers, or the lack of healthcare insurance for employees while CEOs ride private jets to golf courses, or bad leaders who want to stay in power forever...
I always have "politics" at the back of my mind when creating any work, whether fiction or art. As for ideology, any art that does not stand for something will eventually fall. However, that does not mean propaganda dictates my creative process, just because I may want to make a political or an ideological statement. Beauty is necessary when you want to shine light on ugliness, and I pay a great attention to what I put out there.
There so many "nexts," they make me dizzy sometimes. If I am not painting, I am writing, and if I am not doing any of that I do photography. You know, art is like the Holy Spirit: you never know where it will take you or what strange tongue it will lend you to speak. And I get bored easily with monotony, so I like to experiment.
In September I will be starting my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Maryland, College Park. I think that will be a neat time for me to embark on something completely new and different, art-wise. A time for the eaglet to leave the eagle's traditional nest and try the strength of its wings. By that I mean I'd like to try things more conceptual than acrylic on canvas or ink on paper: video installation, photographic experimentation, site-specific assemblage etc. The future is a bigger canvas, calling and beckoning!