In Conversation with ruby onyinyechi amanze
Born in Nigeria, ruby onyinyechi amanze grew up in the United Kingdom before moving to the United States where she received her BFA from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, and an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art, Michigan. amanze was also awarded a 2012-2013 Fulbright Scholarship to teach briefly at the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Drawing is at the forefront of her practice, oftentimes with the incorporation of ink spills, fabric and photography. She tells us why she works almost entirely in drawing, as well as her evolving working methods.
Drawing for many artists plays only a rudimentary part of a finished painting or design. However, few artists as yourself have not only presented drawings as finished work in themselves, but have pushed the boundaries of this genre with the incorporation of ink spills, photo transfers, glitter and so on. Why is drawing such an important part of your oeuvre?
At this point, drawing has become my entire practice. I draw, every day. I think about drawing. I read about drawing. I talk about drawing. It’s become an integral part of who I am, more so than just something I do. In childhood, everyone draws (artists and non-artists alike) before they’re told that they “can’t draw well”, or in later years, before they’re brainwashed into the archaic thinking that drawing is purely a means towards a better end. In many ways, I think it’s fair to say that drawing is the most ‘honest’ and most direct way to communicate visually. By honest, I mean visceral, instinctual, raw. It’s a universal phenomenon that has been present since the beginning of time…before any other form of ‘language’ existed. It is language. Human language. I don’t know how else to ‘talk’.
Several artists like Obiora Udechukwu, Chijioke Onuorah, Olu Oguibe and yourself have exhibited, written, as well as spoken extensively on drawing. What is the future of drawing and how does it fit into global contemporary discourse in a hyper-digital contemporary art world where video, especially through performance and installation is prevalent?
I admire the contributions all the abovementioned artists have made, and continue to make to the conversation on drawing, so it’s an honour for me to align with their voices. After all is said and done with our fancy technologies, drawing will still be here. We can always return to picking up a stick, dipping it in ink and making a mark to express our humanness. I think that’s potent. There’s something to be said for lasting power; and not just lasting, but evolving at the same time. It’s not as if drawing stayed neatly confined to the parameters of ink on paper to mimic reproduction or intimacy in scale. Drawing is everything that it was, but it is also so much more. It has redefined itself over and again, both embracing its beginnings and inventing new trajectories.
I think the idea of ‘innovation’ is central in the magnetism towards these other digitally-based media, performance and installations. Yes, the art world has gone digital. Everything is sensory and immediate, and on the surface, it’s difficult for some to find contemporary relevance in age-old media such as drawing. For me, drawing absolutely participates in a contemporary global art discourse. For one thing, it’s universal in a way that digital media may never be. But similarly to digital media, it’s already living in its future. Things that were once thought impossible are being cleared like hurdles—then the next one approaches and we clear that too. To think one can go from drawing on paper with ink, to drawing in space with light, or drawing with erasure, or performance as drawing with the body (and so on) is revolutionary. I don’t think anyone can predict where it goes from here, because the possibilities seem endless. Its future, in my opinion, is a full global recognition and awareness that drawing parallels every forward movement currently happening in art. It is not behind. It is not forgotten.
You have a background of working with textiles and fabrics, which in Africa are repositories of history. How did you make the transition from textiles to drawing, and is there a connection between your use of textiles and drawing?
My first love has always been drawing, but there are many other things that have excited me creatively; textiles and fiber studies being one, architecture and also photography. At university, I majored in both fibers and photography. I quickly realized that my approach to fabric was the same as to paper. It was very intuitive— process and layer oriented, and I enjoyed the back and forth dance between addition and subtraction. I focused primarily on screen-printing, which felt close to drawing for me. It was never about pattern design or seamless repeat imagery like a machine. It was about the image or the story. There’s still that element in my drawings. I think paper and fabric are two sides of the same coin. They literally embed memories and marks like skin. They are simultaneously strong and fragile. What you can do to one, you can do to the other—fold, crease, weave, stiffen, dye, stitch, tear…
You have collaborated closely with Wura-Natasha Ogunji, another Nigerian and multi-disciplinary artist working across several media including video. Your joint works interrogate the relationship between drawing and performance. Please tell us more about this and about your future projects together?
Wura and I met in Nigeria in 2012. We’ve since worked together on several performances (including drawing performances) and maintained an ongoing exchange of writings. We share a deep love for drawing and found several overlaps in the stories we’re telling and the worlds we’ve constructed—both artistically and personally. I think our relationship to performance is different—Wura has been doing it a lot longer than I have, but we have similar approaches to the medium. For example, we’re both interested in pieces that require mental and physical endurance. In drawing, there are several parallels, which perhaps are most visible in our shared writings on drawings—like how a drawing participates in its own making, trusting the process, the way we enter these drawing worlds… Needless to say, our collaborations happened naturally, almost effortlessly. I think it’s wonderful and rare to truly find a kindred artist.
We’ve worked together on a part virtual, part physical performance in London in February, in conjunction with my exhibition there. It’s a drawing conversation that pulled from some of the writing we’ve exchanged over the past several months. We’ll also be exhibiting together at Omenka this October and in April of 2016, we’ll be doing a performance in Brazil.
Your work may be viewed as a carefully constructed world peopled with hybrid characters; ada the Alien, your alter ego; audre the Leopard, and Pidgin the bird that personifies the Nigerian derivative of Creole, a broadly acceptable language in Nigeria. Having been born in Nigeria, grown up in the U.K., and lived in the United States for most of your life, is this “galaxy” your personal way of dealing with contrasting identities and influences in your life and art, and have you in fact cast yourself in these characters?
It started from that…recognizing that there was a third population of people, each with their own individual stories that live ‘in-between’. Just to be clear though, it’s not a bad thing to be dealing with, as people often think. There is no shame, or feeling of loss or displacement for me when it comes to accepting this hybrid identity. It’s simply that I don’t quite fit neatly into any single identity—Nigerian, British or American. I’m not any one of them, I’m all of them and it is just what it is. The middle space is its own space, and at the end of the day, existing in it has made me who I am. The world I’m creating on paper is a representation of all of ‘us’. Every person/group has to have a voice to tell his or her own story. It cannot be told for us and it certainly cannot be told through the lens of being so-called “authentically African”. That voice continues to perpetuate an ‘oyibo shame’. I wanted to tell a story that wasn’t about searching, or roots or dislocation. That there was neither glory or despair in this middle identity. The narrative is about being present, simply as you are and surrounded by others who share that world. The things that happen between the characters are often quite mundane and normal. They’re not fantastic, special or strange. They just are. ada the Alien was the first character born. I created her when I was living and working in Nigeria in 2012-2013. She takes my physical likeness, and I used her as an alter ego through which to tell aspects of my experiences—but I insist that she’s not me. Other characters are inspired by people I know, but just as a point of departure; they’ve become their own thing.
Why is the concept of space so central to your drawings?
It’s partly a formal decision. Having no desire to over saturate every square inch with something; allowing space to breathe and move. I don’t need to give you everything—just enough. I think the space is part of my trusting that the viewer’s eyes will piece it together for them, or allow for them to insert themselves into the story—there’s room for that. The other part of it is that this world I’ve created is an unknown place. I never give clues to its location, landscape or climate and any suggestions of architecture are minimized, partial or abstracted. It’s nowhere and everywhere, and I employ space in the drawing to aid in the concept of being in-between. It’s less about a place and more about who these characters are and how they relate to each other.
Please explain your working methods and how your drawings have developed over time?
In graduate school, I incorporated text heavily in the drawings. Postgrad, I used to work in between abstraction and nonrepresentation. The work was minimal and I used symbols as language. I did this for several years before ever drawing a representational figure. Then the symbols came back to integrate with the figure. Methods are cyclical. They’re stored in our artist psyche and are rarely deleted entirely. As we change, they change. Then they reappear to us in different chapters of the work, in hopefully what is an evolved form. I don’t understand when an artist’s work stays the same year after year. I don’t understand how that is possible. For this chapter, the work has elements of realism and representational, figurative drawing. It also has areas that are flat, distorted and stylized. When I look back on previous bodies of work, I can see that they’re all connected. Things have been added, but otherwise, it’s all just been redefined or reinterpreted, which makes sense. I’m not a brand new person, I’m just an older and more experienced version of the same core. I don’t know what the work will become in the next chapter. I trust though, that it will always retain elements of this hand.
You also work with diverse media, from packing paper, digital print, metallic pigment, charcoal and porcelain slips to chalk, oil pastels, enamel and tracing paper. Do any of each hold any significance or a sense of history for you?
It’s just what the drawing calls for in the moment. I think of most of my drawing materials as being “traditional drawing materials”—graphite, ink and pens, these have always been the base for me. But, at the time when I needed a chalky veil to obscure certain areas, porcelain slip came about. On the opposite side of that was enamel, for areas of extreme density or opaqueness. I no longer use packing paper, charcoal or pastels. I don’t have a current need for them. ada the Alien has fluorescent skin, so I started using a fluorescent acrylic paint pen. Pidgin wears a shiny green bodysuit, hence the glitter. The significance of the choices is just what’s needed at the time. And because I’m working on paper, I consider each choice partially based on that.
You are also a curator and teacher, having worked at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) as the Director of Education and presently at the Essex County College Art Department, Newark. How do you combine such a hectic schedule?
Everything works alongside my studio life, which is my priority. Being a professor is its own separate thing, which I do genuinely love—but I was, and I’m first an artist. I will be teaching drawing at Pratt Institute this year. It’s been a goal of mine to teach at an art school, so I’m looking forward to it. I wouldn’t call myself a curator. I curated Six Draughtsmen at MoCADA, an exhibition featuring six contemporary Nigerian women artists who draw. It was a great experience, and perhaps I will curate again in the future, but it’s not something I think about. My only full-time job is my studio, and I love it this way.
What are your plans for the future?
Mainly to live my full life. There are too many unhappy, unfulfilled people in the world like that’s just the way it’s supposed to be. I don’t believe in that. I think I can have anything I want, and happiness and health are high on the list. Artistically, my plan is to make art that continues to challenge me; art that forces me to ask questions and solve problems. Art that I feel is beautiful and honest. I also plan to exhibit, a lot, in galleries and museums all over the world. I look forward to traveling with my work. I love traveling, so combining it with work seems perfect. Ultimately, I want for the work and for my voice to participate in the global conversation of drawing and of contemporary art by African artists— African women artists. We need more of those voices.
First published in Omenka Magazine Volume II Issue VI.
Oliver Enwonwu is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Omenka magazine, Director, Omenka Gallery and Chief Executive, Revilo. He holds a first degree in Biochemistry, advanced diploma in Exploration Geophysics (distinction), Post Graduate Diplomas in Applied Geophysics and Visual Art (distinction) and a Masters in Art History, all from the University of Lagos. He is the founder, Executive Director, and trustee of The Ben Enwonwu Foundation. He also sits on the board of several organizations including the National Gallery of Art, Nigeria and the Reproduction Rights Society of Nigeria. Enwonwu is also president of both the Society of Nigerian Artists and the Alliance of Nigerian Art Galleries.
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