Yemisi Aribisala grapples with the real-time significance of the artist Victor Ehikhamenor, one of his most celebrated works, “The Flower of a Girl”, and the nonsensical brandishing of the banal in the context of Nigerian art as big business.
Victor Ehikhamenor must be sufficiently conversant with the curves and tumble, the stretch of real breasts to be sure he is circumventing their true representation. Moreover, to be calculated in greying the black-and-white of straight-laced ideals of youthfulness and beauty… real breasts can never ever be perfectly perky and perfectly saggy at the same time. Yet Victor’s “The Flower of a Girl” owns these incongruous breasts with cute arcs, a cleavage that can grip a pencil, then two points sulking downward with the despondency of lactating cow’s nipples – assiduously demonstrated in soft charcoal on cream canvas. This is only one of the many surreptitious assets of the girl with a red flower in her hair and a spooling platform of admirers behind her. It makes me think of the mutual acquaintance who says of Victor, “he is a sneaky bastard!” The merits of the acquaintance’s observation go beyond Victor’s tweaking of breasts; beyond the confidences of the Girl in Victor’s piece. It incorporates that afternoon when Victor and I argued via BBM over the very same girl and whether or not she should be keeping company with the likes of Andy Warhol.
I had spent many months looking at the photograph of the artwork that Victor had sent by email. For about three months I unhurriedly searched the girl’s eyes, traced her shoulders, studying the dialect of flared nostrils and heavy-lidded vigilance of the masks behind her. I anguished over the mathematics of purchase. I had no significant disposable income. No matter how long I studied the photograph that represented the piece, I was compelled to continue. I could imagine the magnificence of the real thing. My eyes never tired of following the animated curlicues and zigs that Victor borrows from the beautification of shrines in Udomi-Uwessan, his village in Edo State. I decided to pay for “The Flower of a Girl” over the period of a year. I couldn’t afford her. But Victor had been more than generous in agreeing to the pay-small-small arrangement that was sure to unravel as the unpredictability of navigating a Nigerian year in Calabar, and then in Lagos, hit my cut-and-paste tactics.
As soon as I began to pay for the artwork, something peculiar happened. The girl began to draw ardent attention from other buyers. They offered to pay Victor upfront. They offered him over and above what I had offered. It was as if my decision had turned a key and opened a skylight. I panicked that Victor would give me my measly instalments back, and take double the agreed sum. I wondered at the sudden attention the girl was attracting after I just started dialoguing with her. Wondered what had changed over all those months when Victor kept her rolled up around a long steel pole and leaned her against the wall in storage. I suspected strongly that she had travelled two continents, then returned to Nigeria. I could not possibly be the first person that Victor had showed her to. Victor stood behind his word and we continued our pay small-small arrangement, and I grovelled in gratitude.
The girl and Victor appeared on the front cover of the Financial Times under the headline “Victor Ehikhamenor: Shaped by memory and tribal tradition”. As the year progressed, the girl became an established celebrity on Facebook, especially after she was spoken for by Farafina for the Nigerian cover of its publication of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. On the cover of Americanah she was tidied into a circle, her shoulders cuddled into the confines of clean book cover propriety. Ainehi Edoro of Brittle Paper commended the cover for being elegant and artistic. She said, “The multi-layered texture of the cover art somehow ends up being minimalist enough to cover so much meaning…”
Victor himself, probably under pressure to make a statement in response to the effusive gushing of the girl on social media, responded, “Creating a cover for a book is akin to making a customised wedding gown. My new cover… just landed on my desk. It’s always a pleasure working with the Farafina crew and the author.”
I wasn’t exactly sure how to feel about the girl’s growing fame. First of all, my pride of ownership and my painful pay small-small had been intruded upon by the mindless chatter of small-small praises, by trinket compliments looped with Facebook likes.
Secondly, I believed Victor as a matter of courtesy ought to have warned me, especially as I was still paying for the girl, and the girl had been left at his house until I had finished paying for her, that she was about to be repackaged and sold off as pop art That my adoration and questioning of the girl was about to be interrupted by metaphors of customised wedding gowns and multi-layered coats of white emulsion. There was a story there, and it didn’t begin and end with Farafina’s search for a book cover. Victor should have told me that her power was about to be diminished by popularity and social media eminence.
My review of Americanah made the choice of the girl for the book cover ever so slightly irregular. It felt like a backroom meeting had been held and there it had been decided that it would make an interesting story indeed if the artwork that I couldn’t afford was used for the book that I critiqued strongly. I sent Victor a jocular BBM on the matter, feeling not jocular but dented, reminding him of the length of time it had taken me to choose to buy the piece, and the length of time it was taking me to pay for the piece. What was I paying for if not for the right to speak on whether “The Flower of a Girl” was too good, too newborn, and too glorious for a book cover?
What was I paying for?
Victor responded that I was paying for the original work of art and not for the image. Therefore I had no say in whether he decided to put the image of “The Flower of a Girl” on a book, a mug or a T-shirt. No, I said. If I was neurotic enough to buy art that I could not afford, I was paying for something more than the original artwork. I was paying to own part of his legacy and muscle and prescience and past. I was paying to put the girl up on my wall and worship quietly. I was paying for a portal, for conversations with spirits. I was paying for the right to traverse all the dimensions hidden in the platform of admirers. I didn’t care if by market standards, my artwork could now fetch more money. I had no intention of selling the girl. I could not be expected to engage emotionally with the art just until it was time to decide the terms of purchase, then when we got to that juncture I was to put my emotions away and concentrate on canvas, charcoal and legalese. People like myself, who buy art, tend to do so for emotional reasons, not out of necessity. Victor had diminished my sense of ownership, and not even because he truly believed in the diminishment. I didn’t believe that he believed that she belonged on a book cover.
Victor said that the argument was akin to Andy Warhol on a mug… I wondered if it wouldn’t perhaps be more artistically conscientious if he let the girl live long enough – a generous number of decades – long enough to die a natural death commemorated by millions of reproductions smudged on mugs and cheap paper, and maybe even an expensive brand of afro hair cream? Didn’t artists leave these kinds of vandalism to their ungrateful progeny who were significantly not artists and therefore had no moral obligations, no heartstrings, no spiritual relationship with the person of the artwork? I rushed to end the conversation.
Victor Ehikhamenor is too good to be juxtaposed with Andy Warhol, even if the minimalism and starkness of that fact did nothing to stop the comparison being made by Victor himself. The words “like Warhol” leapt out and stood in shabby attendance in my room. I had no choice but to respond with painstakingly articulated cringing. Victor Ehikhamenor is by multifaceted dimensions more critical than Andy Warhol, and he isn’t a dead artist yet. What is galling is that Victor doesn’t know, or isn’t committed to his own real-time significance. The terms of reference that he was brandishing and their reverberations were spitting fat on hissing coals; without any doubt tatters of an oleaginous gallery owner’s nonsense offered to convince Victor to let him import, display and sell his work in “The USA”.
How I needed my Mac keyboard and its superior osmotic management of aggression in expressing myself that day …
The point was – is – Warhol is irrelevant to the terra firma on which we stood arguing; irrelevant to the wheel-in-a-wheel force of Victor’s art and the kinetic mojo of rims and cogs filled with eyes; irrelevant to the distinction of Now plus Nigeria plus individual creative expression that is Victor Ehikhamenor’s watering hole and unique legacy. Warhol is too undernourished to be the compulsorily fat poster child traversing dimensions of spirit and time and politics and ecclesiastical exhaust fumes.
By the time Victor went on to interject something about “Warhol on mugs” I was so appalled, I didn’t bother to tell him what I think of him – the outstanding, the mundanely bad, and the words that need the cover-pot of loud blips. I had tried to stop him while he was ahead of the treads of the banalities but he was running roughshod over the slow words my high-strung fingers were nitpicking out of too-small keys. What Victor was in fact attempting to do was bamboozle me with Warhol’s celebrated superficiality into agreeing with his point of view. It was barefaced disparagement – Perky and Saggy breasts. I needed to remind Victor that I was a woman and I know what real breasts are like. I need no expert to tell me about what is on my chest.
A Cameroonian friend of mine has a more respectful comparison than the artist has for himself. He says Victor reminds him of District Six-born photographer, George Hallett. I agree with him but feel a need to add something, not as the apogee of irrepressible expressionism or an upgrade of the artist, but as a suggestion of horizontal movement on those wheels-in-wheels that persistently run through Victor’s work. The wheels that I know for sure are under his Agbada; the wheels that he wants us to believe are hip and flippant feet, walking the Nigerian cliché walk of artist who can “sell market”. An embroidered arewa hat perched on one side of his head, wearing “Vote With ink Not Blood”, playing the playground handsome-bobo who can juggle and dance; be prophetically inspired and mass-market in one beat. I am suggesting that Victor shun à la mode for true prophetic power. He owns the wheels, he needs a moral responsibility to the real pop that pops. Shun the global parallels. Create an incomparable field of power like Kerry James Marshall. Stop the nonsensical brandishing of the banal.
“The Flower of a Girl” says a lot about Victor Ehikhamenor. So much force in the patient tacking of stitches, so much hidden and portrayed depth, so many astute religious insinuations filed in to create a smooth surface, such fine-tuned witchcraft, intentional infuriating distractions from the true picture, political correctness and misplaced restraint; brilliance anyway just brimming over in every stitch. Victor Ehikhamenor is burnished to blistering when he is serious. Not when he is flippantly telling satirical stories. I have read many of his nonfiction pieces from Excuse Me but I am sometimes put off by their hopscotch temperament and unfortunate editing. My favourite stories are the ones he tells himself with an Esan accent so strong it is nearly incongruent to the funky T-shirt- and jeans-wearing Lagosian you often see him depicting.
You need a whole white wall to view “The Flower of a Girl” well-well. To judge the bones of contention between Victor and me belonging in her head and shoulders. Her chin is tilted coquettishly. Her mouth fell clean from a cake template. Her skin is studiously gleaned with Victor’s idiosyncratic curlicues and zigs. Her head of hair is superlative. The strict curve of her hairline sneaks in evocation of Catholic art Mary mother of Jesus, of glorious hair as headdress, and headdress as a wheel of inspiration. The attitude of her head suggests that it is weighed down under the burden of hair. Behind the angles of her shoulders, behind the windows of her eyes with blinds dropped just enough for you to observe her irises rotating with weariness, there is a backdrop of steamrollered admirers’ expressions given three-quarters of the canvas space to speak. Their observations of the girl with the flower in her hair are elaborately sketched. There are those wheels of expression who adore her, those leering at her, those who are lovesick and many who are inscrutable in their observation. The spools of expressions raise the canvas upwards into a platform and give it categorical motion. Your eyes are compelled to follow the wheels within wheels. Victor’s work is a sorcerer’s study of observation. The girl is being watched. We are watching her and her watchers. We are gaining understanding of who she might be by virtue of their watchfulness. The girl’s composed eyes are a complete contrast to her unfurling gigantic drinking ear – a clue to full self-awareness and lost innocence. Her mouth is prim but her shoulders are raw. She is tending to a little man just like Mary nurturing Jesus but this man is undeserving of her. He is a splat of incompetence on her face. He is a scar. He is one-dimensional, with no expression that counts. His hands and feet are oversized and disfigured. His penis is like a quickly smoked and discarded cigarette. There is nothing right about the fellow. He is not even capable of forming decent eyebrows or bridge of nose for the girl. He is a thorough stain on her beauty but her mouth and facial expression and shoulders suggest she is totally devoted to him. Everything is drawn with the heavy-handedness of an adult with an uncorrected fine motor skill disorder. The red flower is like the crucifixes in Victor’s work drawing attention to the most inelegant of clichés.
My favourite things about Victor Ehikhamenor are the understated things – the fact that I am welcome into his home to look at what he is working on. There, his wife is embracing, warm, with a deadly sense of humour. His children are struggling with homework while trying to sneak in views of television, just like my own children that I left at home. Victor Ehikhamenor is afraid to fly, so on airplane trips, he doodles anxiously on newspaper pages – on the New York Times Art and Leisure page – to palliate fear of falling out of the sky. I have one of these treasures framed and hanging over my kitchen counter. I love it so much, I wake up, walk past it and pause to soak in the scrawls, appendages of spirits, wide-eyed expressions playing tug-of-war with newsprint.
My favourite Victor Ehikhamenor story is the one where he discovers in the middle of creating a piece that he is ambidextrous. That power flows alike from any hand to the drawing implement. He is drawing with his right hand, then he hits an obstruction that makes him instinctively switch hands – the artist himself is surprised by the power he wields like a spirit that jumps out of the sacrament and terrifies the priest. It is my favourite story because it is spiritually sneaky, trumping the compulsive cluttering with religious crucifixes.
Most of the information you will find about Victor Ehikhamenor on the internet enthusiastically recounts his versatility: how irrepressible he is; how he designed pages of 234Next and has produced numerous book covers; how educated – BA, MS in Technology Management, MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. Ad nauseam. It reads like the unfortunate reams of justification that Nigerians must constantly generate to be afforded a modicum of respect. I’m constantly bypassing the cant to feast on Victor’s work.
Stop the nonsensical brandishing of the banal – easier said than done!
I was once told a story about Gerald Chukwumah, the artist whose wood panel assemblages are evocative of the work of the Ghanaian master sculptor El Anatsui. Chukwumah is a first-rate contemporary Nigerian artist in his own right. He is hardworking and dedicated to his craft and has firmly earned his dissociation from the designation of El Anatsui protégé. The story goes that he struggled like most artists do in the beginning to sell his work until the late President Umaru Yar’adua decided that a GDY – a Gerald Chukwuma piece – was the ideal present to be given to friends and colleagues.
In 2009 I bought a GDY from under a friend’s staircase. I had to take the panels home and call in a carpenter to assemble them. The friend who sold the GDY was not by nature gregarious. Her selling point was simple: “Buy it now; he is going to be big.” In 2011 I walked into the Terra Kulture gallery in Lagos. A friend and I stood chatting with Bolanle Austen-Peters, the founder and CEO of Terra Kulture. We stood in front of a GDY. My friend mentioned that I had a similar GDY, and Austen-Peters couldn’t help herself. She did a slow double-take, her eyes moving from the top of my head to my tattered jeans. I wanted to reassure her that she need not be alarmed. I had paid a third of its current value for it, and I had paid small-small.
The Nigerian art market no longer belongs to my kind of sentimental self-righteous cheeseparing under-the-stairs buyer. I can no longer afford a third of a GDY. I certainly cannot afford a Victor Ehikhamenor. Most certainly not “The Flower of a Girl” by today’s appraisal. This year, the Nigerian secondary art market value is predicted to rise by double what it did last year. The romantic rationales for the extraordinary growth include an impeccably groomed Kavita Chellaram of Arthouse Contemporary Limited who started an art auctioneering business in 2008 and single-mindedly grew it into a world class secondary art market with a sumptuous catalogue. In 2013, between Arthouse Contemporary Limited, Terra Kulture and Myrim Gallery, Nigerian art worth over N200 million was sold for the Nigerian artist in Nigeria. Other rationales for growth quote economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa; top African art coming out of Nigeria; and money to buy that art situated in Nigeria and in South Africa. These factors will increase the value of African art to the same degree as the contemporary Chinese art market. In other words, greater disposable incomes are available to Nigerians with the means and increasingly enlightened eye for buying Nigerian art. And there is, significantly, an explosion in the purchase of African art among international collectors.
In 2016 Victor Ehikhamenor would not have to put up with the argumentative pay-small-smaller. “The Flower of a Girl” would easily be in the fitting possession of sophisticated folk with respect for Andy Warhol. In the top ten rankings of internationally recognised Nigerian artists are the likes of Victor Ehikhamenor. The new art world is a fantastic relief for him and for his contemporaries. He has hustled for years to sell art in one of the most economically traumatic countries in the world, in one of the most disrespectful environments to artists that I know of. He deserves to be rescued from the BBM arguments in the middle of the working day, from exhausting redundant debates on who owns the image and whether commissioned art is moral. He deserves to be rescued from the indignities of the selling point, from under-the-staircase business, from worrying about rent, buying art materials, buying more time with his family. This is the side of Victor’s argument by BBM that day that I know he was too political to express – I was someone’s wife, who had no obligation or strain to bring home the bacon. He had gone out of his way to keep his word and not sell my art to the highest bidder. I really ought to have looked the other way and not nitpicked over “The Flower of a Girl”. My principles reeked of privilege. In Nigeria, that kind of privilege has its own brand of deeply embedded bullshit.
Fair enough. The untold part of the story though is that my kind of economic middling art lover status, even though brutally eroded by Nigeria’s troubles, is still vital. Victor needs my kind around. My struggles to pay for his art add value to his art. The romantic rationales for the spectacular growth in the secondary art market are not 100 per cent truth in any case. There are fractures too in this new sphere, where art is peddled at Wheatbaker Hotel with good strong air-conditioning and sponsorship by Champagne sellers. Victor escapes the idealistic, artistically sensitive world, with its ghouls of failure and destitution safely chained, squarely into that of hardcore money-laundering and government officials desperate to make money disappear. Nigerian money is tumbling in value with every fresh day. The money in Nigerian banks is being harassed by new bank regulations that have five different charges for every time a kobo blinks. There is a kind of sleek art buyer who saunters into the gallery cool as a cucumber. He points indifferently to the artwork of his choice and goes home. The artwork will be delivered to his house and he will forget them in the damp guestroom, like money under the mattress. There is no love there. Only the worst kind of worldweariness, expressed through the buying of art. It is all about money hidden away in decorated purses.
The look that Bolanle Austen-Peters gave me had nothing to do with me personally, everything to do with the engine oil needed for that vehicle with which luxury goods are sold in Nigeria. Snobbery is indispensable for this kind of business, for keeping values of products inflated and generating healthy buyers’ premiums. Holders of wealth who are buying the art must be reassured that they will never become the man on the street or have to rub shoulders with him. If Kavita Chelleram was any less perfectly coiffed, her venue for the auctions of Nigerian art less distinguished, she would be cutting off her own legs. The visual artist categorically cannot turn up at his exhibition in Lagos dressed as he likes, truculent in his manner, sure of himself. He must be able to channel the flippant easygoing playground bobo in an arewa hat and a “Vote With Ink Not Blood” T-shirt. He must know how to drop global cultural comparisons in conversations. He must know how to make small talk and use words like “chairman” and “oga”. He must be prophet and cultural celebrity. He can’t just make art. The prophet is a fool; the man of the spirit is mad and the wheels-within-wheels must remain concealed.
After our quarrel, I had a dream about Victor. I was invited over to his house and offered a chaise longue with a view of an exaggeratedly high ceiling. The view of the ceiling showed Victor’s landlord’s bathroom fittings and furniture bound to the ceiling with thick chains. I asked a friend, “What do you think the dream means?”
“Isn’t it that light-skinned fellow that is always running off to his village in Udomi-Uwessan in Edo?”
“Yes. Victor Ehikhamenor.”
“That guy! That guy… no be ordinary eye e dey use paint o. The guy get as e be.”
This story features in the Chronic (April 2016). To purchase in print or as a PDF head to our online shop.