Victor Ehighale Ehihkamenor was born in Udomi-Uwessan in Edo State, Nigeria. He is a prolific and award-winning artist, writer, and photographer. Ehihkamenor earned a BA in English and Literary Studies from Ambrose Ali University, Ekpoma, and holds a MSc. in Technology Management from the University of Maryland, and a Masters in Fine Art from the University of Maryland, College Park Maryland. Ehihkamenor’s work is heavily influenced by traditional African motifs and religious cosmology. He has also published numerous fiction and essays in significant international academic journals, mainstream magazines and newspapers. His art has been used as covers for major books by several award-winning authors including Chimamanda Adichie, Helon Habila, Unomah Azuah, and Tony Khan.
What inspires your incredible passion for the arts?
Pretty much everything inspires me, by which I mean the human existence and experience.
As well as being a visual artist, your interdisciplinary practice encompasses writing and photography. How do these genres intersect in your current artistic production?
They all come to play when I am working. Like I always say jokingly, I am a creative polygamist who has to figure out a way for all of them to get along with each other and feed off each other. Every art form has a role to play when I have a project going on. I give you an example—when I am writing, I have to use my photographic sense to draw up images and memory. When I finish my paintings, I have to photograph and title them in a way that meanings are not lost. Sometimes the way they fuse and rub off each other is subliminal and I couldn’t even explain properly if I tried.
Several techniques and processes also merge in your drawings including overlapping, intersecting and interplaying. Please explain these processes, as well as your working methods?
Those are processes I have developed over the decades and there is no simple way of explaining them; they have become my style and voice.
Your work is well known for the incorporation of symbols drawn from traditional African motifs and religious cosmology. What cultures are these borrowed from, what do they symbolize, and are some of them personal inventions?
I am from Esan in Edo State. My influences are largely from there. Over the years I have created my own motifs because language facilities my growth and in that sense, is based on those earlier forms and motifs. I was not lucky enough to meet those that could decipher the meanings of the “agben” — drawings on the shrine walls, which were my earlier influences and inspirations. But looking at my village’s visual language and it’s similarities with the uli tradition of the Igbos, one could deduce some meanings because of Esan’s cultural proximity to the practioners of uli…culture traveled back and forth in those days.
With rapid advancements in technology and the spread of Christianity, how have these traditional symbols morphed over time, and are these changes captured in your work?
Christianity, unfortunately has wiped out these traditional practices because of the lack of understanding of what traditional art was all about or even what Christianity is about. Half-baked preachers and zealots yoked art with idol worshiping and started cultural cleansing, which has become the biggest tragedy that has happened to African art in general. Can you imagine a Pentecostal zealot bringing down the Sistine Chapel or other historical sites in the Western hemisphere? We thought colonial masters stole our arts, but wait till you evaluate the damage these zealots have wrought on our arts. So, what I am trying to do with my work, to a large extent, is to recreate the importance of what art used to be in my community—not different from what the likes of Uche Okeke, Obiora Udechukwu, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Ben Enwonwu and a host of others did earlier, by reaching back to their individual communities and bringing the essence of a dying creative tradition to bear on a contemporary milieu.
Women also feature prominently as a leitmotif in your work, what is your obsession with the female form?
The question should be what is every artist in history’s obsession with the female form? There is something just extremely beautiful and powerful that the female form exudes, and that’s all I can say about that.
What is the thinking behind the piece Lovers of Good Evening Street?
The prostitutes that come out at night in Lagos. I remember when the slang for red light district used to be referred to as Good Evening Street—that is what I was referencing.
In 2014, you received rave reviews for your collaboration with leading fashion designer Ituen Basi, on her Spring/Summer collection. Please give us a little insight into how this collaboration was conceived and how the works selected were determined.
For years, I was fascinated by Ituen Basi’s work and the way she played with colours. What she did with the Ankara series was so amazing that I told myself would one day I work with her. About five years later, a mutual friend, Kemi Ogunleye, introduced the idea to us and we both liked it. We met and agreed on how to go about it and I gave her some images and she took it from there. Her interpretation of my works was pretty amazing to me. The reaction and rave you referred to, is as a result of two Nigerians coming together to put in their best work in a single project.
You were also recently selected as one of 11 Nigerian artists invited to join 23 Indonesian artists in the grand exhibition at the Jogja XIII Biennale. One of the highlights was your installation titled The Wealth of Nations. Please explain the inspiration and thought behind this piece.
I reference, memory, history and politics a lot in my work. My piece raises questions about who actually benefits from our oil, our number one economic sustenance, as well as which nation benefits from our wealth of nation. Is it Nigeria or other multinational companies that explore and exploit this natural resource? I chose to start looking at Oloibiri where oil was first discovered in commercial quantity in 1956. You would be shocked at how many Nigerians asked me ‘what is Oloibiri?’ My latest on the series, which referenced the “Ogoni Nine”, is also to remind people of where we are coming from with regards to the whole Niger Delta palaver.
This year you took part in 3 residencies organized by the Rockefeller Foundation at the Bellagio Center, the Nirox Foundation in Johannesburg and the Greatmore Studios in Cape Town. Please tell us about your separate experiences and how they have impacted on your current practice?
Only the Nirox residency has taken place so far. The Greatmore one is from August to October and the Rockefeller is in November. The Nirox residency was quite amazing and it gave me the opportunity to create one of the largest sculptures so far in my career. Isimagodo – The Unknowable is 15ft high and installed in the Nirox Sculpture Park in the Cradle of Humankind. I also met other artists from allover the world and learnt how to use new media like the cyanotype print, which one of the residents from Argentina taught me. The Nirox management is just amazing; the owner was simply wonderful and very supportive.
The experiences at the other upcoming residencies, I am sure, will be different, due to environment, people and guidelines.
Please describe your experience at this year’s edition of Dak’Art in Senegal curated by Simon Njami, and how you think platforms like this have contributed to the promotion of contemporary art from Africa, as well as the fostering of cross-cultural ties between African nations?
It was my first time and it was a great honour to have been invited to participate by Simon Njami. The importance of the Dak’Art Biennale cannot be over emphasized; it is like the new yam festival of African art where everyone comes to the village square to display what they have in their arsenal. Njami did a great job, I would say. It was also an opportunity for various African artists, both at home and in the diaspora, to network with each other and foster a deeper relationship that will help take African art to an even higher level. We need more well organized art events like the Dak’Art Biennale all over Africa. I like the fact that the one in Marrakesh is also doing very well. I hope we have one in my country very soon.
Some of your recent experiments include “paintforation”, which you have described as “painting by perforation, a technique that uses nail perforations in thick, white handmade paper to create subtle relief work’’. What inspired this new direction and how would you describe its critical reception?
Sometimes my background in IT comes to play—innovate or die! So I keep tinkering with materials and ideas, which was how I came to perforating papers. The whole idea behind that is if I ever run out of paints, ink, charcoals, I must still be able to paint. The critical reception has been amazing and collectors are quite interested in the few I have made since I debuted the series in 2014.
You were recently in Dresden, Germany working on a major installation. Please can you share with us more about it?
I was there to participate in the Ostrale Exhibition of Contemporary Art. I was there to install Wealth of Nation: Ogoni 9, which is an extension of the narrative from the previous installation I did in Indonesia last year at the Jogja Biennale. Wealth of Nation is an ongoing concern for me as long as oil flows from the Niger Delta and we misuse the opportunity such wealth bestows on us.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge and what projects are you embarking on in the immediate future?
I don’t dwell on challenges at all, whenever I face them I find a way to surmount them and move on. An artist without challenges is an artist who is not an artist. I am preparing for my solo debut at the 1.54 Art Fair in London in October—my first time showing in that fair. I am also going to be part of the Forum talk series during the fair in conversation with Hassan Hajjaj and Koyo Kouoh, Founder and Artistic Director of RAW Material Company in Senegal, so I am gearing up for that.