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The International Magazine of Poetry & Graphics ▪ Bi-monthly ▪ March/April 2008
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VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR: THE SENTINEL INTERVIEW
Victor Ehikhamenor: The Sentinel Interview
Nnorom Azuonye: You are a painter and photographer, but you also write poetry and fiction. Do these media interfere with each other's development or have you found a way of making them enhance each other?
Ehikhamenor: It used to be a huge problem for me but I have found a way to make all them work to my advantage. They no longer get on each other’s way as they used to, instead they compliment each other. Poetry comes into play when I am titling my visual works and I employ fiction in conjuring up certain projects. Photography comes in handy when writing fiction, because you can use it to jumpstart a memory. However most of these processes are done subconsciously.
Azuonye: I have been in contact with your work over the years, whether you are writing fiction, poetry or painting, your subjects are mostly social issues and some immigrant experiences, though I notice your photography is also exploring the wonders of nature. Now you have these media at your disposal, how do you decide what to explore in poetry, fiction or painting/photography?
Ehikhamenor: The locust provides the oil with which it is roasted, by that I mean each issue suggests the medium I use in exploring it. Let’s say I want to comment on environmental decay in my community, I think visual image will speak louder than words. On the other hand, if I need to make a statement about corruption, something that is a bit abstract in nature, it will be better to use fiction, essay or poetry. Then on another hand one finds himself skipping huddles or breaking down boundaries. And for the African artist this is nothing new, the form is what chooses you and not the other way round.
Azuonye: I notice that more and more of your paintings work over photographs. What is that called and why are you favouring that these days?
Ehikhamenor: Some are digital photomontage and some are plain old collages. The digital ones are a fairly new discovery for me which help me to merge my art and photography. It is challenging and fun for me because it is like painting as well, except no paints are mixed.
Azuonye: There was a time African Art was about masks and exotic markings and symbols either on walls or on human bodies, to put it rather simplistically. With the way your art is going and I see other African artists doing all sorts of different things, is African Art as we knew it dying off?
Ehikhamenor: Like Okigbo would say, an old star departs, leaves us here on the shore gazing heavenward for a new star approaching, the new star appears…something like that. I wouldn’t say the old African art as we used to know it is dying instead it is being reborn. We are just finding new ways of re-interpreting or building on what has been. Take for instance the Uli artists of Nsukka or an artist like Victor Ekpuk infusing Nsibidi symbols in his drawings or even Donald Odili Odita’s contemporary works which remind one of Ndebele art of South Africa. All these show that a child can not avoid looking like the father or the mother, it is only natural. My Nigerian village upbringing has a lot to do with my contemporary works when you look deeply. To answer your question more succinctly, African Art as you used to know it is not dead; people just have to adjust their looking glasses. You must not also forget that in the African cosmology, the dead are more alive than the living.
Azuonye: What do you think of Installation Art?
Ehikhamenor: I love it. I grew up in the village, and for me village shrines are the origin of installation art. Every man must have what is called ukhure at the back of his door – totems for the ancestors or a place of worship. And you have to remember these are not just haphazard putting together of metal or wooden objects – there is a certain meticulous way of doing it. I am doing more of it these days actually, but in a more contemporary way.
Azuonye: Does one need to be able to draw to be a good painter?
Ehikhamenor: Yes. Drawing is extremely fundamental to painting. A palm wine tapper must be able to climb with bare hands before using climbing ropes. You have to look at early Udechukwu, Uche Okeke or even Picasso and Rothko – they all started out with drawings. Now, Victor Ekpuk has returned to drawings which are in a way also very great paintings.
Azuonye: Are there known or established artistic movements within Africa? Where do African Artists of your generation, especially those living and working outside the continent fit in?
Ehikhamenor: Within Africa I believe so, but not as popular as it used to be. One good example in Nigeria is the ARAISM Movement that is pioneered by Mofu Onifade who graduated from Ife. As for us outside the country, you have to remember that most of us are flung apart and for a movement to be successful there must be a level of proximity and rubbing of minds.
Azuonye: Is university training of Artists in Nigeria suffering from the same mass exit of professors as is the case with literature? Does this make you concerned about the fortunes of young art graduates, or is talent enough?
Ehikhamenor: Like many other disciplines, art departments in Nigeria universities have lost some of the brightest and greatest minds that were supposed to pass the touch to another generation. Take for instance a situation where Obiora Udechukwu is not in a Nigerian university impacting knowledge like Uche Okeke did to him or the likes of Olu Oguibe, Sylvester Ogbechie, Chika Okeke and many other great minds. The main reason I hold exhibitions in Nigeria is for those that are younger than me to learn what can be learnt from what I do.
As for talent, that alone does not really make an artist. Talent needs shaping, my brother. A talented boxer without a trainer or manager will turn out to be a street tout or motor park agbero at most. But my consolation is that Nigeria is vast and rich in human resources, and like the elephant grass – whenever a farmer cuts one another grows overnight.
Azuonye: Finally Victor, who is your personal hero in modern African or Diasporaic Art?
Ehikhamenor: One day after eating a hefty pounded yam and vegetable soup with the Nigerian poet Ogaga Ifowodo in my Maryland studio, I asked him “ Which Nigerian writer influence you most?”, he sucked a non-existent piece of meat from his teeth, stared at a distant object and replied “Nigeria literature is too eclectic to have one influence.” It was too profound for me to forget it. There are so many artists I respect – and I will leave it at that.
Azuonye: Thanks for your time Victor, and much respect for your staunch support of Sentinel Poetry Movement over the years with many extraordinary images. We appreciate.
Ehikhamenor: Thank you for what you are doing for us – you have always been there for me and many others.
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