Ken Nwadiogbu: Contemporealism
Ken Nwadiogbu, popularly known as KenArt, is a Nigerian-born multidisciplinary artist. Self-taught, he calls his method “Contemporealism” —a fusion of hyper-realism (a genre of painting and sculpture resembling high-resolution photographs) and contemporary art. Nwadiogbu was recently awarded The Future Africa Award Prize for visual and applied arts, for his contributions to the Nigerian art community. In this interview, Nwadiogbu addresses issues like criticism of his work and shares more about his philosophy, techniques, and significant moments in his artistic journey.
Despite studying civil engineering, you chose to pursue a career in art with no formal training. Why the radical change, and what major aspect of your background in engineering may have prepared you for your current trajectory?
Well, I wouldn’t call it a “radical change.” It wasn’t a switch that was planned. For me, my art career began by chance. I saw a drawing by someone and dared myself to draw something better than he did, and I did, in a very amateur way. As time went by, and I honed my skills, I realised that art had become much more than a hobby, and that I could do more with it. I further honed my skills, as I became inspired by issues relating to my peers and those around me. Hence, I began to challenge and investigate socio-political structures and issues, in hopes of making a change in my community.
I will always be grateful for being able to earn a degree in civil engineering, despite having an active art career. In terms of preparing me for my current trajectory, it was quite impactful. It has helped with precision and with creating hyper-realism drawings as realistically as possible. There is a connection between drawing and engineering. My study of engineering basically helped me be a better artist.
In your artistic statement, you style yourself as the pioneer of the “Contemporealism” movement. What guiding principles drive it, and what is the numerical strength of your followership?
“Contemporealism” is largely centred around the fusion of hyper-realism and contemporary art. It is a welcome deviation from the traditional hyper-realism movement. My work has since evolved from hyper-realism, as I infuse elements from contemporary art into my work, hence, “Contemporealism.” This can be seen in series like ‘The Headline,’ where I use newspapers, charcoal, acrylic, collage, and photography to shed light on issues overlooked or ignored by the Nigerian press.
One of my core focuses is to inspire young creatives, and I am very happy that artists like Emmanuel Odumade, Lekan Abatan, and a few others have embarked on this journey with me.
How would you react to criticism that hyper-realistic art merely imitates the digital camera?
I would say that is irrevocably false and belittles the precision and detail born of several hours in front of a paper or canvas by hyper-realism artists. However, everyone is entitled to their opinion or criticism, but I strongly believe that rather than imitate, hyper-realism gives better depth to a subject, for instance 2D and 3D drawings.
Your first solo exhibition Contemporealism held in October at The Brick Lane Gallery, East London, and featured over 25 original pieces. How well was the exhibition received? Were your expectations met?
It was very well received, and it was a dream come true. I am very happy with the outcome and how I was able to shed light on several issues, including knife crime in the UK through my piece A Mother’s Cry. Also, for the first time, I had a debut print release for The Value of Nothing III, which was also well received. I am grateful to my team and family and friends, who constantly support me with words of encouragement.
Please talk about some of the works on view, taking care to describe your conceptual phase, philosophy, as well as working methods and techniques.
At the show, I presented 27 original pieces at The Brick Lane Gallery, including ‘Eye Witnesses’ (16 works), ‘Identity Crisis’ (5 works), ‘Value of Nothing Series’ (2 works), as well as Baggage, A Mother’s Cry, There Was a Voice, and Too Much Talk No Dey Full Basket. As I mentioned earlier, they were all well received.
The philosophy that drives my work is simple: I want to inspire and create change everywhere that my work is presented. I don’t just want to make works for the sake for it. If you look closely at each piece, I am always trying to say something. From issues relating to African migration to bad government and feminism, I shed light on it all.
I am always inspired by issues of those surrounding me and as well as recent happenings in the news. I conceptualise ideas for my work this way and then I pen down the idea and then I start to draw. It sounds really simple, but it is quite complicated, especially in the detailing of each work. It often takes hours just to achieve a particular detail; and, I must admit, I am always happy with the result.
What has been the impact on your career following your recent participation in the tenth edition of the Moniker International Art Fair, widely recognised as the world’s leading urban and new contemporary art fair?
I presented seven extra pieces, including The Value of Nothing IV, two pieces from my ‘Eye Witnesses’ series, Hurry Up and Come Back, ‘Identity Crisis’ series, and Everybody Is a Fucking Hypocrite” at my Contemporealism solo booth at the Moniker Art Fair. Presenting a mini solo show at Moniker Art Fair was another dream come true, and I do not take the opportunity for granted.
One major benefit was that it was an opportunity for me to present my works to a new audience, and as a result, I have been contacted for several exhibitions and art fairs in a number of countries next year. I am excited about the possibility of presenting my works in other continents and bringing to consciousness the issues affecting Black people.
You described your art as “interrogating and challenging the socio-political structures and issues within society.” How influential is contemporary art from Africa in a political context?
I believe African artists have the ability to change the narrative through their work. We are often presented with opportunities to exhibit outside of Africa, and I believe these opportunities should not be taken for granted. There are so many issues plaguing Africans, from bad government to mass migration to poor infrastructure and so on. It is our duty as artists to initiate change. To answer your question, I believe it is very influential.
What are your greatest influences and achievements so far?
My greatest influence is Chuck Close. He was the first hyper-realism artist I studied in-depth, and from studying him, I was able to develop my own style.
For achievements, I would say participating in my first group show, Insanity, at Omenka Gallery; presenting my first solo show at The Brick Lane Gallery, London; presenting at Moniker Art Fair; being nominated for Future Awards in the visual arts category; establishing Artland Contemporary Limited (for managing creatives); and co-founding Artists Connect Ng (largest gathering of young Nigerian visual artists).
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