Victor Ehikhamenor: Portraits from a world in transition

Story highlights

Victor Ehikhamenor's portraits show transient culture within a small rural village.

He wanted to document the people and their environment, before they left.

CNN  — 

Victor Ehikhamenor is on a mission to recount his country’s history and the newer influences shaping its future. The award-winning visual artist was born in Udomi-Uwessan, a small village in Edo State, Nigeria, which he left in 1994 during political turmoil.

His latest project ‘American Invasion’ captures teenagers in the small village of southern Nigeria, donning western clothing despite its rural location.

Victor Ehikhamenor's American Invasion series

The town stands just outside of Benin City, which once served as the seat of old Benin Empire – a kingdom dating back to the 11th century. The artist is interested in the bridging of these two worlds.

Going back in 2009, “seeing some of the kids now dressed as Americans,” Ehikhamenor reflected. “I was wondering how the culture is getting to them, because there was only about maybe three or four people that have a TV in the village.”

In the series Ehikhamenor captures youths - set against a backdrop of African print fabrics - suggesting a context that jars with its subject matter.

“It was kind of interesting to look at that cross referencing of cultures,” he told CNN at London’s 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair earlier this month.

Before They Leave, a series of photos captured in 2010

Regarded as one of the most innovative contemporary artists to emerge from Nigeria, Ehikhamenor believes it is important that nuanced stories such as these are documented and retold through art.

His earlier series ‘Before They Leave’ aimed to preserve the memories of the older generations living in Benin, many of which are the parents of those captured in his American Invasion project.

“I realized that every time I travel back and visit my village, one person has died,” said Ehikhamenor. “These are the people that I grew up knowing as uncles, as aunts, they were vibrant, they were dancers, they were the ones that would make sure they disciplined you if you weren’t doing well at school.”

Those in the portraits had previously never been photographed.

“It’s scary how many of them have actually [since] passed away,” Ehikhamenor reflected.

A feminist riot

The Prayer Room installation at 2016 Dak'Art Biennale.

Among Lagos’ bohemian creatives, the artist has become a household name, earning the accolade of one of 42 African Innovators to Watch. After a formative career in the US spent producing abstract artworks detailing Nigeria’s political history, he returned in 2008 to creative direct Nigerian newspaper Next. At Dak’Art 2016 his colossal installation The Prayer Room was a much talked about main feature of the Biennale.

Ehikhamenor’s works are peppered with Nigeria’s colonial past – 1929 Girls of Aba Riot –conceptually recounts the “Women’s War” a period in Nigeria’s history where women in the provinces of Calabar and Owerri rioted against colonial rule.

“They didn’t have words like feminism [back then],” said Ehikhamenor. “They just realized that what was bad was bad so they went to work and empowered themselves.”

For him, Nigeria is the focal point from where stories begin.

“There is a parable in my village…you have food to eat at home but you go elsewhere and start begging for food it doesn’t make sense,” he explained. “So I’m constantly referencing Nigeria, I am constantly referencing my village. From there I expand to the world because it’s from that source that I see the world.”

Art awareness

Child Of The Sky installation piece by Victor Ehikhamenor.

The artist now wants to encourage younger generations to start using art as way of documenting lived experiences. He is soon to launch a gallery space in the country hoping to prepare kids for the commercial international art market.

“Creativity is the greatest job provider in our country at the moment,” said Ehikhamenor.

“You have photographers, you have writers, you have filmmakers so we have to figure out a way to harness this and make sure we don’t lose that traction and we don’t have people being discouraged.”

He believes the country’s biggest issue, when it comes to art is that national galleries are virtually non-existent. Although evolving, “there are not enough [art] collectors in Nigeria,” and therefore, “we have no equipped museum,” he declared.

He hopes that through greater art awareness, this will encourage homegrown collectors of Africa’s booming art market.

“It’s important for Nigerians to be aware of their works and art that is going on,” he said. “Instead of them going to Bonham’s 15 years from now and have to pay through their nose for it. From what they could’ve [purchased] at the back of their house.”

Through the new space, upcoming artist will learn, crucially, how to approach curators for exhibitions, and how to utilize social technology in creating a local and global platform.