Artist Victor Ehikhamenor in his first solo exhibition in eight years, which opens today at Rele Gallery in Onikan, Lagos, engages the mega-city in a style he called neo-natural synthesis, a fusion of old and new styles to birth something new yet inherently old, Toni Kan writes
“Apparitions of faces in a crowd
Petals on a wet black bough” – Ezra Pound
How does one paint a city?
How do you capture its sheer girth and the multitudes that clog its arteries?
More to the point, how do you paint a city like Lagos with its many faces and multi-faceted dimensions?
Victor Ehikhamenor tackles that problem headlong in the new body of work that he is exhibiting under the theme: Day Dream Esoterica, at Rele Gallery in Onikan, Lagos. The exhibition, which opens today by 3 pm, is on until Sunday, June 30.
Why Esoterica? “Understanding Lagos requires an almost specialised knowledge,” the artist explains during a quick visit to his Lagos studio.
What he is saying, essentially, as many have essayed in books and songs and essays and films is that Lagos is a large city that is not easily caged or circumscribed. Like the fabled elephant, it takes more than seven blind men to capture the essence of the city.
“To be honest, when I started this body of work, I had no idea where I was going. I just let the muse take me where it would. All I knew was that I was going to use oil instead of acrylic and then in using oil I realised that oil speaks a whole different language.”
This is not surprising because Victor Ehikhamenor’s artistic practice has been defined by two distinct imperatives; evolution and change. This new series exemplifies those imperatives by his use of oil paints, the burst of colours, the layering of colours and images as well as the intersection of light and dark hues in fresh ways to create what seems like a palimpsest. What comes across is the presentation of what appears to be a brand new iconography seen in the near absence of his signature concentric circles and stylised lines. Here is further extension of what the artist has called neo-natural synthesis, a fusion of old and new styles to birth something new yet inherently old.
The works here also feature larger-than-normal canvases in what might well be an unintended acknowledgement of the sheer breadth of the city it is attempting to capture. Only three paintings that form a triptych are under 5 feet by 5 feet. There is a clear nod to the dualities that define life in the city – hope and despair, light and darkness, vibrancy and listlessness. The paintings also reflect the dynamic and frenetic pace of the city in the interplay of dark and bright colours even though the darker hues tend to predominate.
Victor Ehkhamenor explains the “darkness.”
“I began painting these series just as news of the passing of our friend Pius Adesanmi came to me. The darkness is representative of my state of mind. Before I came to Lagos it was you, Pius, and Ogaga who painted Lagos for me, albeit in words. Pius lived in Ibadan but Lagos was his dream and playground.”
Like Victor Ehikhamenor and his ongoing work, many people come to Lagos with a vague idea of what they are getting into. They want to ‘hammer’ and ‘blow’, but the road to their assumed Eldorado is foggy and never clearly defined.
To better understand how Lagos can be the womb and tomb of dreams we will consider three songs that have tried to apotheosise Lagos and what it means to the man who ventures.
Darey Art Alade in “Pray for Me”, leaves his provincial locale for Lagos and four years and 11 months later, confounded and befuddled he sends word back home to his father asking for prayers –
It’s true what you said to me
Life in the city is unbelieveable
Have to struggle just to get by every day…
Pray for me.”
In Timi Dakolo’s “Wish Me Well”, a young man leaves his home town for the city where he says “dreams come true” but his journey, though embarked upon one atop the magic carpet of hope and day dreams requires the fuel of good wishes.
“I’m heading for the city and that’s my home…
I got no money, just hopes and dreams…
I’m gonna work hard…
Wish me well.
For Brymo, Lagos is a city of magic where all his dreams will come to pass. He will go to Lagos, make money, get the best girls and live it up,
I go go Lagos
I go get money
I go change my life
Fine fine girls
Dem go come mon mi
I spend the cash
Gbo-gbo won ju’ di
But his lofty dreams and coital aspirations require that he makes an invocation
Eko no let me go
Eko your love sweet me so
Love you never let you go
Dreams, like Ola Rotimi’s joy, has a slender back that breaks too soon and for Brymo, the infatuation with Eko ends quickly in frustration
I’m crushing on you too long
Pack my bags I’ll be gone
Love is all I seek for
You let me down just too long
Living in Lagos requires a heady cocktail, a potent dose of day dreams and prayers but day dreams and prayer are not plans, they are mere wishes and a wag once said that if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
Lagos beggars do not ride but they are the ones that Victor Ehikhamenor has decided to use as metonyms for the city. In contemplating the denizens of the city, those whom Cyprian Ekwensi called People of the City, you gain a better handle on the city.
Victor Ehikhamenor’s people of the city are day-dreamers, dream-chasers, and prayer warriors. Befuddled, confounded and frustrated by Lagos, they cling to the talisman of hope waiting for the ships of their aspirations to drop anchor in a good port.
With this body of work, which capture the people of the city in fresh new ways, Victor Ehikhamenor is using the city as a terminus but not just as a place of arrival but also as a point of departure and in so doing he is speaking a new visual language, code switching if you will by presenting a new iconography and opening up a fresh iconology.
The images that make up the collection present faces that are androgynous at best. Unlike in the Female Cardinal Series, one is never sure whether the face he is contemplating belongs to a man or woman. They are, in that sense, almost like apparitions, faces glimpsed in a fog. Each image, in presenting as neither fully male nor female becomes symbolic of the city-dweller who is in many ways a shape-shifter. In these paintings, Victor Ehikhamenor has achieved a Bobrisky-fication of the Lagos denizen.
In the paintings that make up Day Dream Esoterica one quickly notices that the eyes have it! The most distinguishing features are the eyes, big and bulging and sometimes scary. There are faces festooned with three or four eyes and in looking at the images there is a sense of the image looking right back at you.
When we day dream, we dream with our eyes open. You see a beautiful car and you fall into a reverie as you wonder when you will make enough with extra to afford it. Your eyes are open and you are often so lost in your head that it requires a physical push to, as the cliché goes, jolt you out of your reverie.
The people of Victor Ehikhamenor’s Lagos city are day dreamers struck with tunnel vision, their eyes are firmly focused on the object of their lust or affection.
But there could also be a flip side. In Lagos, the city dweller must always be on his guard or he can be had. So, in that sense the images captured on Victor Ehikhamenor’s canvases may as well be obeying a popular Lagos dictum – Shine ya eyes!
The novelist, Ifeoma Okoye has a book called Men without Ears and while Victor Ehikhamenor may or may not be aware of this novel, he seems to have painted these new works with that novel title ringing in his head because the second thing that strikes the attentive viewer is that the images do not have ears.
Who are these androgynous people with bulging eyes and no ears?
They are denizens of Lagos who, like Darey Art Alade’s persona, head to Lagos disdaining all counsel. Like sailors seduced by the voice of the sirens, their ears are plugged and they will hear nothing contrary as they head to Lagos to chase their dreams.
But in keeping with the theme of day dreams, the ears are absent because when you day dream, time stops, all ceases as you zone out to focus and even when your name is being screamed out loud you will not hear until that clichéd jolt.
Visitors to Day Dream Esoterica will receive a bonus. Regulars at Victor Ehikhamenor’s exhibitions must be aware that there is always a sidebar; an installation. This will be no different.
The installation will feature a playful exploration of a fashion item steeped in nostalgia. As young boys growing up in the village, we all wanted sunglasses, colourful plastic items that were essential to our wardrobe.
Coming to the city and with discernment dawning, we discovered RayBans, Prada, Tom Ford, Polo. We upgraded. Victor Ehikhamenor’s installation is a playful and nostalgic nod to a bygone era when you were not fully dressed without your shades.
Victor Ehikhamenor in keeping with evolution and change is making a quiet detour on a journey to the same destination as he pays a beautiful homage to the city of Lagos which he has called home for 10 years now.
The city is both space and place, site specific yet fluid. It is both urban conurbation and people magnet and in that sense Victor Ehikhamenor is correct in asserting that a city is nothing without its people.
“Imagine coming out to Lagos Island on a Monday morning and you don’t see anybody. You will be alarmed and the city will not be the same.”
• Toni Kan writes from Lagos