If there is one principle that has consistently defined Victor Ehikhamenor’s art practice, it is the idea that the art he creates (and all art) is autonomous. Art is sentient and chooses its vessel,; the medium in which it is expressed, the time and place where it decides to exist. True art cannot be rushed or used as a tool for personal advancement. This principle manifests in the choice of residencies Ehikhamenor has participated in and the exhibits he has presented to the public. It could explain why he has waited nearly 9 years to host a solo exhibition in Nigeria.
As one of the country’s foremost multidisciplinary artists and polyglots, Ehikhamenor has been busy, participating in residencies and group and solo exhibits across the world since his last solo exhibition in Lagos at Ugonma Adegoke’s Bloom gallery in 2012. In 2017, he made history as part of the first Nigerian group to exhibit at the prestigious Venice Biennale, one of the world’s foremost gatherings of contemporary artists and biennial commentary on the state of global art. He also made news for other reasons, specifically his decision to highlight the gross misconduct of British artist Damien Hirst, whose exhibition appropriated prominent cultural art pieces from across the world, stripping them of their context and history. That singular act seemed to intensify the conversation around the complicity of Western museums and art industries in colonialism and the industrial complex that profits off the theft of centuries-old art from colonized regions and set Ehikhamenor up as a cardinal voice in that fight.
‘Daydream Esoterica’, the artist’s new solo exhibition is in many ways, Victor’s attempt to steer the conversation back to the art and the people that inspire it. Supported by Johnnie Walker’s Gold Label and Johnnie Walker 18, the exhibition is a triumphant entry for the artist who spent years away in pursuit of the creative muse. He returned in 2018 to establish a studio in Lagos and Angels and Muse, an art residency that seeks to serve the indigent art and literary community, in which he is very involved. The art that is exhibited as part of ‘Daydream Esoterica’ completes this idea of returning home. It focuses on Lagos, Ehikhamenor’s adopted home for many decades, and the dreamlike state in which its inhabitants live, suspended between disgust for its flaws and infatuation with its many wonders.
Daydream Esoterica is the expression of an artist in his prime, refining his creative ethos, challenging himself with a difficult subject matter and paying homage to the city that inspires him. It makes sense that he would partner with Johnnie Walker for the exhibition as they share many of his principles; they have both evolved to represent the culture in which they operate, they are vocal about the values they express and believe in the power of whimsy and serendipity. Much like Johnnie Walker’s iconic mantra ‘Keep Walking’, Ehikhamenor’s oeuvre has focused on doing the work without any distractions or setbacks and letting the work speak for itself and find its audience.
Interpreted in his signature style, ‘We the People and other dreamers’ the exhibition’s centrepiece explores the idea of Lagos as unassuming to the untrained eye but ultimately defined by its ability to entice and entrap the unsuspecting. Elsewhere, the influence is much subtler, this light hand chosen in service of the exhibition’s more overt themes of religious iconography as metaphor for the devotion that Lagos demands from its denizens. The paintings offered in choruses of 4’s, 5’s and 6’s and coded into the art are motifs of sleep and wakefulness. Doors and windows, some shut, some half-open and framing indecipherable silhouettes, all in motion, represents transience. Faceless characters bent in supplication, virginal figures, and wide-eyed faces reflecting the near manic alertness that characterizes living in a city as swift and vicious as Lagos.
However, the exhibitions quiet charmers are a triptych rendered in wax crayon on oil paint. Each face in the triptych is crazed, with multiple eyes and mouths all trapped in rictus of horror. It is in stark contrast to the exhibition other treasure, an onsite installation of hundreds of plastic festive sunglasses, traditionally worn by children during the few but cherished public celebrations that bookend childhood. Each pair is fragile and ephemeral but intricately tied to a distinct childhood memory. Together they map the beginning of the dream that is Lagos and the eventual waking mania that forces people to leave it.
Daydream Esoterica opened on the 19th of May and runs until the end of June 2019.