By Toni Kan
It is a warm Saturday afternoon and Victor Ehikhamenor, artist, writer and photographer is smiling.
His round face is cherubic as walks and works the room, meandering through the crowd of people who have turned up in large numbers on the opening day of his latest solo exhibition at rele. The exhibition is proceeding under the theme –Day Dream Esoterica.
It is a curious crowd and not the usual you would have found at an art exhibition, say ten years ago, when art patrons were mostly older men and women with money to spare. The crowd at rele is made up of younger folk, millennials and not, young men and women on the up united by a growing appreciation of the arts.
The art ecosystem has changed and called me biased, but it has to do in large part with Victor Ehikhamenor as well as a few other factors that can be traced to him. But we will get to that in a moment.
Born at the tail end of the civil war on Thursday, February 19, 1970, in Udomi-Uwessan in what was the old Mid-west region, Victor Ehikhamenorgraduated with an MA from Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma. Like most young Nigerian men, he gravitated to Lagos where he worked briefly at a Finance house before migrating across the seas to America where he would earn two more degrees; an MSc in Information System as well as an MFA, both from the University of Maryland.
Largely self-taught, Mr Ehikhamenor caught the art bug while still a child in his Uwessan village where the mud walls of his large family and neighbours provided him with his first canvas. He was impressed by the aesthetic designs women left on their mud walls and would many years later, as he gained knowledge of Uli and nsibidi, evolve an aesthetic all his own.
His 2011 “Entrances & Exits: In search of not forgetting,” solo exhibition at CCA, Lagos with the “Door” series was a fitting homage to those early beginnings.
Today, his works are set apart by his own signature iconology and iconography which I have tried to sum up thus in a previous essay – “Victor Ehikhamenor’s works are usually hard to describe yet very easy to identify. They, most often, could be monochromatic red and yellow or black and grey, feature a burst of bright colours, be avant-gardist in his use of found objects or be beautifully minimalist as in his best-selling perforation pieces but no matter how the final work is realised what stands out are Victor Ehikhamenor’s signature stylised lines, concentric circles, cryptic images and doodles which seem to have borrowed from uli and nsibidi without being fully any of those. They are patently his and have become defining symbols of a rapidly growing and expanding body of work.”
Victor Ehikhamenor lived in America for 15 long years during which he worked at the National Geographic, published a collection of poems, Sordid Rituals in 2002 and tried to carve a niche for himself as a photographer and artist. He was constantly seeking the new, eager to fashion out a fresh aesthetic, a brand new visual language.
There was some success in the DC area but it was a work in progress.
In 2008, Mr Ehikhamenor made the reverse journey back home. There was a job waiting as Design Director at the defunct Next newspapers. Before Next there had been two solo exhibitions – “Labyrinth of Memories” at Didi Museum, Lagos in 2007 and “Rocks & Roses” at Victoria Crown Plaza, Lagos in the same year.
But it was his 2009 exhibition “Mirrors and Mirages” at Terra Kulture Gallery that signalled his final return and signposted his emergence as a contemporary artist of note in Nigeria.
He was coming into a crowded space with already established artists like Rom Isichei, PejuAlatishe, KainebiOsahenye, Duke Asidire, OluAjayi, Ndidi Dike and many more. But he quickly made his mark, his unique style connecting viscerally with his audience of the young and hip as well as the well-heeled.
Victor Ehikhamenor embraced social media long before his peers did and in so doing cultivated an audience made up of a younger demographic. He was also quick to take his art out of the gilded confines of galleries and museums into the pop culture space. His artworks adorned tee shirts made it to the runway in a bold collaboration with ItuenBasi and were used on mugs.
But the biggest cross-pollination happened, it might seem, inadvertently, with members of a different tribe – writers. Victor Ehikhamenor holds the record as the artist who has produced the most book covers in the world. His book covers are coveted and have helped to expand the universe of his influence.
*Kan, a journalist and author of many books, is based in Lagos.