Ikechukwu Ezeigwe’s Hybrid World of Politics and Satire
Beast of No Nation, a virtual exhibition by fast-rising contemporary artist Ikechukwu Ezeigwe, opened recently to critical acclaim at Omenka Gallery. A graduate of fine art at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Ezeigwe’s politically charged work often laced with satire can be described as a form of activism for credible governance. In this interview, he talks to us about his technique and inspiration—drawn mainly from election campaign posters, history and ancient mythology—for his first solo exhibition.
In your work, animals become a powerful tool to convey symbolically, human traits such as greed, corruption and an unabated thirst for power. Please tell us the experiences that influenced this thrust, as well as the role of art in shaping society.
Before I started exploring anthropomorphic animals, I was doing well with conventional paintings especially the figurative. One day in 2017, I visited a client with some of my works. He liked them but advised me to find a different path, as figures were common and everyone was painting them.
Up until that moment, I had never thought about or seen any painting of animal hybrids. However, I became hungry for something different. Eventually, in December 2017, I casually came across a design on someone’s shirt that triggered the idea. It excited me and I have since continued to depict different kinds of animals in my paintings, to make socio-political and economic commentaries. Though my solo exhibition at Omenka Gallery is centred on politics, I also engage other themes like affection and love. As a result, my paintings do not only engage the political, but also the aesthetic.
Your subjects are drawn from several periods and geographical locations to further context and imbue your work with a sense of time. However, you avoid elements that allow the easy identification of historical figures; why?
Yes, my paintings in the exhibition have subjects and ideas from different periods and geographical locations. It was intentional to further illustrate the repetition of history with regard to the nature of man, his quest for, and abuse of power. These tendencies are not strange; they are an age-long instinct of human nature—from the rulers of ancient civilisation and the kings of Medieval Europe to the generals of the 20th century and till date.
I also try to avoid the easy identification of historic figures because I want to arouse the curiosity of the viewer. I am a witness to everyone who has seen my work, their initial reaction is always one of curiosity. This reaction is important as it first gets the viewer’s attention. Second, it provokes a discussion because he wants to know who and what the work symbolises. Generally, the idea is to make the viewer wonder what in the world a pig is doing in a human body.
Which artists inspired you early on in your career, and how do you see your work evolving over time, in response to critics who fear you may have limited your development within a defined framework?
Growing up, I loved the work of Edosa Eguigo, the renowned Nigerian painter; his figure paintings excited me. Interestingly, no artist inspired my current anthropomorphic paintings. However, one person I admire who challenged me is the curator and owner of Signature Gallery, Rhaman Akar.
I enjoy painting in this style and see myself exploring different kinds of animal hybrids away from the popular paintings of apes I am known for. More exciting is the fact that I like playing with several interesting themes. My second solo is already in planning and it explores an entirely different theme.
Kindly explain your interest in spirituality including Greek mythology, and how it comes to bear in your work?
I loved cartoons as a young lad. Almost all the Marvel comic characters were the subjects of my drawings. Soon, I began reading more about them and found out they are leading figures in ancient mythology like Thor and Hercules. Today, these figures feature prominently in my narrative.
Broad sweeping gestural strokes and residual construction lines lend immediacy to your work. Why are they so central to your practice?
The broad sweeping gestural strokes and lines are a borrowed idea from my friend and fellow artist, Ada Godspower. I once shared a studio facility with him where I watched him work. I loved the way he introduced lines in his paintings and so I adopted them.
Please explain the thinking behind ‘Colonialist’, ‘The General and the Stripped Chicken’, and ‘Struggle against Corruption’.
The Colonialist depicts a proud chimpanzee in imperial regalia. Behind him to his right is a globe sitting atop a pedestal. Above his head is a banner with the inscription Berlin Conference 1884. The painting recounts the historic event that led to the colonisation of the African continent. It shows the human character of dominance and avarice.
The General and the Stripped Chicken is a story of oppression. In 1935, a popular Communist Russian general addressed his governors on how to rule the people. In a striking example, he caught a chicken and began stripping it of its feathers. The chicken squawked in pain as he continued. When his task was done, he placed the weakened bird on the ground, then gathered some grains of corn. Walking away slowly, he scattered a few around. While his governors watched in amazement as the chicken hobbled after him, gratefully eating up the grains, he said to them, that’s how you rule the masses. In other words, despite large amounts of pain you inflict on the masses, they will be further committed if you keep them hungry, only feeding them palliatively.
Struggle Against Corruption is inspired by the mythological account of Hercules and his quest to assume his place amongst the gods. To attain this lofty height, he had to overcome several obstacles including a centaur in mortal combat. The legend largely suggests, as well as reminds us of our own pursuit to build a proper society where things work. We will be challenged by such social ills as corruption, but we must overcome them to achieve the society of our dreams.
January 26, 2021
January 25, 2021