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Q&A: Artist Victor Ehikhamenor confronts environmental pollution and other hot topics

by | May 29, 2020

Nigerian contemporary African artist, Victor Ehikhamenor is influenced by “culture and life” and is unafraid to explore current issues.  Victor’s formative years were guided by his 87-year-old uncle, one of Nigeria’s oldest photographers who encouraged his nephew to embrace photography, and his maternal grandfather, a blacksmith who forged sculpting into his grandson’s DNA. 

We caught up with the artist to find out more about his art and life under Covid-19.

How does art play a role in environmental issues? 

Art helps create awareness and calls out policy makers on what is not being done or should be done. My art has often highlighted environmental degradation in oil producing areas in Nigeria. I have had two major installations to elucidate this – in 2015 “Wealth of Nation” was an installation I made in Indonesia during the Jogja Biennale to speak to this blight. Another installation, “Wealth of Nation – Ogoni 9” in Dresden, Germany expanded on the same theme of environmental pollution and those who have paid for it with their lives. In 1995, the Nigerian dictator, General Sani Abacha, hanged nine activists in Ogoniland including writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, because they campaigned against the government and Shell for polluting land and water in the Niger Delta.

What are the current climate issues that your community faces? 

Air pollution, environmental pollution, both oil and plastic, and deforestation. I would like to see people plant more trees and not convert our cities to concrete jungles as well as reduce the use of plastics. I love plants a lot, I grew up in a village that had lots of trees and birds and clean air.

Tell us about your collaboration with Nigerian fashion designer Ituen Basi.

I collaborated with Ituen on a collection called “Ekemini” in 2013. I granted her the right to use my art in creating some of her designs. She is one of my favourite designers. I wouldn’t just stop at calling her a fashion designer but an artist who keeps re-inventing herself. In that vein, I was interested in seeing how she would re-interpret my works of art in her medium. I was pleased with the outcome. Working with fashion designers in Nigeria is pretty much new terrain, it is not as robust as one sees in other parts of the world. The business side of things is a bit rough and rocky.

Your thoughts on being dubbed ‘one of Africa’s most innovative contemporary artists’? 

That was an interesting view [by Ventures Africa]. I guess I always tell people that art is like technology – you innovate or die.  Innovation sensibility comes from two backgrounds: Firstly from growing up in the village where one has to make his own toys and build his own tree houses. Secondly from my days as an IT professional in the US. I was a Unix System Administrator.

What was your experience of working on the Stellenbosch Triennale? 

It was fun! It was great bringing some colour from around Africa to a very white town in an unusual corner of Africa. The organisers are some of the most beautiful human beings I have ever encountered. However I left with more questions than answers. [Victor’s art installation, “SAINTS AND SANCTUM, 2020” was showcased at the Stellenbosch Triennale earlier this year where before the triennale was prematurely ended due to Covid-19].

What is your experience of the Covid-19 pandemic? 

I am a very restless person, so it is a bit tough staying in one place. But, I am grateful to be safe, healthy and with my family. I do daily drawings in my note pad, mostly portraits of people wearing face masks. I write short poems. I am creating awareness campaign materials to post on my social media. I am photographing objects around my house, and converting them into the abstract. I take walks around the neighbourhood. I recently opened my father’s old archive of letters dating back to the 1950s and photographs of old family members. This has been so much fun because I am rediscovering some of my drawings and writings from when I was eight years old. So I am super excited that I can now piece together and map my artistic journey from around 42 years ago. And I am almost always on Instagram and Twitter; this is a habit I would love to kick.

How can people balance honouring their culture and exploring new ideas? 

There is always a convergence and a divergence. People should be a bit rigorous to find these two points and respect them. One does not cancel out the other, I mean culture and new ideas. Good creative culture is a solid foundation that every artist must be proud to stand on and build on. We must remember that the new ideas of today become the culture of tomorrow. Today, Instagram is the photo album of yesterday. What exactly is a new idea if we always say “Nothing is new under the sun”? What an American might think is a new idea probably was already experienced in my village near Benin City in Nigeria hundreds of years ago. See what I mean?

What is the most important lesson to hand down to the next generation? 

Be kind to humanity. Life has no operational manual, you live and learn.

Image credits in order of appearance:

  • Ayobami Ogungbe @bamiphotography
  • Installation: WEALTH OF NATIONS – OGONI NINE at 5th Meditations Biennale, Poznan, Poland, 2017. courtesy V.E Studio
  •  “EKEMINI” collaboration between  Victor Ehikhamenor and Ituen Basi courtesy of Ituen Basi
  • Installation: SAINTS AND SANCTUM, 2020 (Rosary beads, thread on canvas) courtesy V.E Studio
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