Painting the World on Canvas and Pages
Right from his childhood days, Victor Ehikhamenor knew he had wanted to become an artist. Today, he is an award winning visual artist, writer and photographer. Across different fields, he oozes creativity like a bee producing honey.
In this exclusive interview, the author of the critically acclaimed ‘Excuse Me!’, a collection of his humorous essays and satirical narratives on a diverse range of issues, which once appeared under his weekly column at the now defunct NEXT newspapers; talks about his odyssey as a writer and artist, as well as living in Nigeria and the US.
Nevertheless, having two master’s degrees, Ehikhamenor noted, in his usual humour, that growing up in the village taught him ‘greater things than any American grad school’. “Anyway, I learnt that no matter what you think you know, there is always an angle that needs brighter illumination,” he added, matter-of-factly.
From arts, politics, love, life and being Nigerian, Ehikhamenor paints his views with the masterstrokes of an artist painting on his favourite canvas. As expected, he punctuates the edges with intelligence and wit.
SU: What inspired you to put together your articles into the book Excuse Me!?
VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR: There were a few inspirations or should I say reasons. One of them was that the articles which appeared under my weekly column at the now defunct NEXT newspapers and its online arm, www.234next.com, suddenly disappeared from the web. When the newspaper folded, the articles were no longer available online for people who needed to access them. I also couldn’t do so whenever I wanted to reference them and that became a concern for me. I did not want a situation where the articles will forever be lost, like ashes in a whirlwind. So I decided to repackage them, because there are many roads that lead to a farm. There is also the tradition of writers harnessing their columns into a book; it’s like bringing all your stuff under one roof. Dave Barry, the American humor columnist, has so many books based on his syndicated column; Ken Saro-Wiwa did it with his Simila articles that appeared in the old Daily Times, and many others. It was also a way of catering to my avid readers and loyal fans who kept asking about Excuse Me!
SU: How did you come up with the title?
VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR: When you watch a dance with giants, you must climb a tree to have a clearer view. At the start, NEXT newspapers had some of the most fantastic line up of writers – Okey Ndibe, Ikhide Ikheloa, Teju Cole, Pius Adesanmi and many other great minds who were all in the same space. In the midst of these heavy hitters, I needed a name that would say “I dey here too o!” I needed an attention grabbing title and Excuse Me was dynamic and versatile. The phrase has flavour, depending on how you deploy it. I initially called it Excuse Me, Sir! But Amma Ogan, NEXT’s Editorial Director at the time, nipped the “sir” because she said I was not going to be talking to just men only. That is Amma for you, a great surgical editor.
SU: What books have influenced your life most and why?
VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR: If you are talking about a way of life, no other book comes close to the Bible and my father’s unwritten, but spoken words to me while he was alive. But if you mean as a writer, I have read so many books and still reading to pin any down. Influences come and go like trains at every point in my life. I read different people for different reasons. I read E.C Osondu for precise, no beating-round-the-bush narrative; Chris Abani for his beautiful deployment of language; Chimamanda Adichie for her way of handling complex issues with eloquence and panache; Lola Shoneyin for her use of serious humour to tell of human pains; Toni Kan for his heavy use of the rawness that lubricates Lagos life; Helon Habila for beautiful story telling; Chika Unigwe for the way she uses story to pursue social changes; Ikhide Ikheloa for his blatant funniness; Igoni Barrett for his narrative arcs. These are just Nigerian writers. I don’t even want to travel out to foreign writers like Junot Diaz whom I read a lot. I can go on and on with many other writers of repute, because as a writer, one must gather influences the way a weaverbird gathers strings to build a beautiful nest.
SU: Which writer would you consider a mentor?
VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR: I don’t know if I would use a word like “mentor”, that might be too heavy for those I respect their opinion about my writing. Also, if I list them all, it would seem like name dropping because some of them have done very well in their writing career and are world brands. So I will keep my “mentors” list a secret, but trust me, I am extremely grateful to these writers – both men and women. A lot of them go out of their ways to listen to me, read, encourage and edit me. One of them doesn’t hesitate to tell me, ‘O’ boy this is crap na, abeg go back to this story and give me a better ending’.
SU: Are there any new authors that have captured your interests and why?
VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR: Yes. The list keeps getting longer every day because these are beautiful times in our writing history as a nation. But there are two young writers whose writings I find interesting because of their deployment of narrative structure: Chibundu Onuzo (The Spider King’s Daughter) and Emma Iduma (Farrad). I am a slow reader for two reasons: time factor and I study novels or stories when I read them. But I read Spider King’s Daughter in one sitting and that says a lot about that book. It held me down and I wanted to know what happened next. When I finished the book, I couldn’t stop thinking of the street hawkers I see in Lagos every day. It changed my perspective, not that I had a negative one before, but I started asking questions – what is their real story, the untold one, ones they would never shout out to you while calling you to “buy Gala, buy La Casera, buy rat poison, buy ice cream”. As for Emma Iduma, he is what I call a macho-writer. He tends to play with your head a little bit to see how intelligent you are as a reader. He is the Mike Nwosu of his generation.
SU: You are also a fine artist, and once described yourself as a figurative-abstractionist. What does that mean and why do you hate taming your style?
VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR: It means I am most likely not just going to drop a two centimetre dot on a large canvas or weave a large bogus narrative around a dot. When you look at my painting, you will see figures, some recognizable, some not. My works are a menagerie of different things, a representative magical realism, if you wish to call it that. I work in a way that you discover something new about it every day. Why I hate taming my style is because as a people, we enjoy the robustness of a story and I paint with so much zeal, like a frenzied story teller. My paintings are a story – folktales, myths, mystery, history and many more. And those themes don’t lend themselves to timidity or tameness. When a strong idea hits me hard, I respond with the same velocity and go haywire on canvas, paper or any available plain surface with a child-like exuberance.
SU: Are your paintings political?
VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR: Always. Both my writings and paintings are political satires, but I deal more with various and larger subjects in my paintings. It could be tradition, social, immigration, lust and love, yearning… which, at the end of the day, are political one way or the other. But I don’t always set out to be political, sometimes I just want to execute a work of art and that’s all.
SU: What are the challenges in bringing your paintings and drawings to life?
VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR: Time and space are the two current culprits. I don’t have enough time in a day to execute art works because I have to write. I also own a 9 to 5 creative solution company, which handles branding and communication strategy for large organizations. Sometimes the juggling can be intense because I have to create space between corporate meetings with my staff and the companies we represent. And the pull to create artworks can sometimes be so strong I have to wake up around 4am, paint till 8am before heading to the office. And once I come back, I go straight to the studio. Another challenge I am currently facing is studio space, my current studio is getting smaller by the day and uncomfortable for the type of works I want to execute. So far, I have had to build a shed outside it to be able to work on extra-large paintings. One of the other challenges is the art materials – some things are not readily available in Lagos. But what is interesting about this situation is that necessity has given birth to some very interesting inventions. I am exploring various materials and styles and that has given birth to one of my new painting style I call “Paintforation”, which means painting by perforation. I take a hammer and nail and perforate handmade paper with patterns and figures. So, it is all good, I hate excuses by the way; I am a just-do-it kind of person.
SU: Why did you leave USA for Nigeria?
VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR: Multiple reasons, some serious, some funny. But there is a saying in my village that, no matter how comfortable it is a farmer should never let his rest under a shaded tree become permanent. Nigeria is home and America is house. Difference dey. As I grew older, that fleeting thought of “you are contributing one way or the other to the greatness of an already great country, while yours is going to the dogs” became rampant. I began to get very restive about the whole idea of remaining in a comfort zone. I also began to realize that Nigeria was no longer what it was when I first decided to leave. My friends who were visiting from Nigeria no longer wanted to stay back. When the opportunity came in 2008 for me to come and be the creative director for NEXT newspapers, I did not think twice. I packed my bags and left America. I have never looked back since because I am happier among my people and I feel I am contributing something to the greatness this country deserves.
SU: Given the benefit of hindsight, would you have relocated long before now?
VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR: There is time for everything. My relocation time was right, God nor dey make mistake. The relocation process started in 2006 when I first decided to come and hold my solo exhibition at Didi Museum in Lagos. I stayed for three weeks. The opening of that exhibition opened my eyes. It took two years of mental willing and preparation before making the jump. But I must say – Nigeria is not a place you just jump into, even if you were born here. It is a country that defies any form of fluffy logic. But I thank God for everything.
SU: How do you unwind?
VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR: Village boy dey unwind? [Laughs] Anyway, I am not a workaholic. I just happen to be one of those lucky few whose work is also a means of relaxation. I paint or draw to unwind. When I am reading a magazine or newspaper, I am not only enjoying the articles and images, but also looking at the layout – the colour palette, font usage, the way headlines are written, textual-visual relationship, print quality; all of these because as a news media designer who designs magazines and books, it is an opportunity for me to learn new things. If I am not in Nigeria, I unwind by visiting museums and galleries. I don’t even know if I can still call my intense museum visitations as unwinding anymore, because I have this burning desire to build a modern museum in Nigeria. We currently have none and that is a huge shame, considering the number of great artists this nation has. Lately, it has become more necessary for me not just to look at the artworks, but also the architecture of these museums because I will have to figure out a way to raise funds and awareness to achieve the goal of building a museum someday.
SU: But government can build museums?
VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR: Yes, just the same way molues can fly! Please, don’t get me started. Have you visited any of the houses we call national museums in Nigeria, which are supposedly funded and run by the government? They are shameful shams. Till tomorrow, I am still wondering why they call one building in Abuja a “national gallery”. Someone is either smoking too much marijuana, or using the wrong dictionary.
SU: While writing or painting, do you take drugs, smoke marijuana or drink alcohol to fire up your creative imagination?
VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR: I was born high. I curtail my ‘highness’ and restlessness with my multiple creative endeavours. So as you can see, if I get any ‘higher’, I probably would be useless to myself and the society. Also, I would be insulting God who created me the way I am if I take substances to get creative. Let me tell you a quick true life story about marijuana: when I was growing up, most people who smoked marijuana in my village were way too high that some forgot to cut their hair, tend their farms or even live a normal life. If you like, you can call that madness. So, every now and then, your parent would point to one cool guy enjoying his spliff openly under a mango tree, with his clothes hanging from a nearby branch, and say to you, “You wan lost abi, you nor wan read book abi, ok…if you like go dey smoke morocco (marijuana) like that man”. So over the years, to keep my trousers on my waist, I knew not to experiment with marijuana or drugs. I don’t have issue with any of my creative friends who smoke marijuana to get inspiration or any reason whatsoever; it is just not my thing.
SU: How do you react to a bad review of your writing or painting?
VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR: Funny enough, I have not really seen any bad press review yet; not that they will not come eventually. And when I start seeing them, I must remember that some bad reviews (not the outright malicious ones) are good, because they make you pay attention to areas you probably were lazy in your work. If the reviewer is respectable and knows his or her onions, I would take the observations into consideration. But I don’t set out to please everybody. Only a mad archer would be chasing an arrow once it leaves his bow.
SU: Do you admire your own work?
VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR: Isn’t that the same soft crime as Google-ing yourself or publicly picking your own nose? I don’t know if I will call it admiration, but I have a habit of stepping back from my works and looking at them with one eye closed, like a village carpenter searching for straightness in his woodwork. I can be very critical of my work, whether writing or painting and that, my friend, is not admiration [Laughs].
SU: How does your family help you with the creative process?
VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR: My family is the underbelly of a snake. The snake’s underbelly is its invisible, but invincible legs and arms, which propel and help its potency.
SU: Why did you write most of the articles in your book from your BlackBerry, is that your most important work tool as a writer?
VICTOR EHIKHAMENOR: Yes, it is and also the most frustrating in Nigeria. At the time I was writing those columns, I was also very busy with being a creative director at NEXT. So when I am in traffic, I use that time to create the pieces. Also, because ideas hit me at various times and my BlackBerry is always with me, I just bang out the piece. During my short stint at Daily Times Nigeria as the Group CEO, I also maintained a column. Again, I filed my columns with my BlackBerry as well. Thank God for the good editors at NEXT at the time, they were the best at catching the smelly droppings of a BlackBerry written article and cleaning it up nicely before publishing it.