Victor Ehikhamenor is a painter, writer, humorist and without doubt, the African artist who has designed the most book covers at over 30 and still counting.
Recently, Ehikhamenor worked with fashion designer Ituen Basi in a groundbreaking collaboration in which Basi incorporates his paintings unto her fabrics and designs. The result has been turning heads and eliciting conversation.
In this chat with Toni Kan, Victor Ehikhamenor whose first solo exhibition is currently on in London, talks about the collaboration, what it means for contemporary Nigerian art, and his other occupations.
VE: It is something that has been ongoing for a while because some of my works lend themselves easily to fashion. I have actually photographed people with my painted canvasses wrapped around them. I did that with the writer, Chika Unigwe. She came to my Lagos studio one day and there was a canvass I had already painted but had removed from the stretcher bars, and she just wrapped herself with it. I photographed her in it and she looked looked great, kind of Massai-like.
Merging art with fashion is something that has always been at the back of my mind. I know a lot about fashion although I don’t know the business side of fashion. I could see that there have been a lot of collaborations in the west. Art and fashion have never been far from each other. They have been like Siamese twins, as far back as I can remember. So, it is something I have always wanted to do but I wanted to do it right.
TK: Why Ituen Basi?
VE: I will not say it was me that picked her or that it was her that picked me. It was rather somebody that has an eye for such things, Kemi Ogunleye, the former fashion editor of Elan and TW magazines.
Kemi and I had worked together at Next Newspapers, where she was the fashion editor and I was the Creative Director. In one edition of Elan magazine, we reviewed and featured Ituen as one of the designers to watch out for in 2009 and that was the first time I came across her work.
What struck me then were the colours and vibrancy of her works. Then in 2013 when I had an exhibition at Temple Muse in VI, Ituen also had some of her collections at the store there.
My art works were in the same space as her dresses when Kemi came around to Temple Muse. I wasn’t there when she came to see the exhibition but she called me to say “Oh men, you have a fantastic exhibition, but you know what just came to my mind, you and Ituen can actually do something together, as in collaborate.”
And I said oh great, I have always liked Ituen’s fashion sense and her designs, and Kemi said okay I will call her and see. Two days later Kemi called and said she had spoken to Ituen and she said she would “love to work with Victor but she doesn’t know if Victor would like to work with her” and I said oh why not if the conditions are right and everything is in place. She is a designer I respect a lot and I welcomed the opportunity to work with her so we agreed to meet somewhere in VI with Kemi in attendance where I showed some of my previous paintings.
After that, Kemi left the scene because all she needed to do was bring both of us together as a facilitator. That was how we started the collaboration. Afterwards we started having conversations and Ituen said she was going to be showing at Vogue Italia at Fashion Experience in Dubai. That was where the collaboration first got launched.
After sending images to her, I didn’t see her again for about three months or there about because I needed to give her space to work. By the time I got there she had converted some of the art works to fabrics already. The fabrics were manufactured somewhere outside Nigeria.
TK: Nigerian artists are yet to explore fashion and art. Why do you think that is the case?
VE: Some have, but I think it’s a matter of awareness. I am sure designers are looking for new avenues pretty much but the artists I don’t think are really looking. It’s the designers that are saying okay what more can I say or do now? Where else can I go? We have used adire. We have used this and we have used that, the natural way to go and the most sophisticated way to go is to collaborate with artists.
Although a whole lot has been used, there is still more awareness that needs to be there. Like Mr. Kolade Oshinowo has collaborated with Tiffany Amber in the past but I don’t know if was the same way that I have collaborated with Ituen Basi. So, it is all about creating more awareness about the possibilities.
For me I have travelled a lot and I have seen how these artists and fashion designer collaborations work. I have seen how people have used art works and the kind of media reviews they get from it, but you have to be careful so that your works are not commodified because you don’t want a work someone has paid about three million for to become common. It is a very fine line to balance and it is a very thin line to work along.
TK: Why have your works worked well with Ituen Basi?
VE: If you look at Modrian’s works, he painted mostly lines and squares in solid colors that are easily recognizable. Keith Haring drew patterns and figures and I draw as well with patterns you can work with and there are colours that naturally lend themselves to fashion.
So if you look at it carefully, it’s all about patterns and colours, it’s all about recognizability. Fashion designers would gravitate towards artists and artworks people can recognize. The artist is bringing artistic equity to the table. Why would you want to buy something by an unknown artist? That is regular design but if you can say oh, that is a Victor, that is a Warhol, that is a Keith Haring, that is a Modrian you know, you are bringing something to the table. You are bringing something more than fashion; something more arty. And the way we have structured things with Ituen is that, for every garment that is sold it comes with a certificate of authenticity, which is taking it to a different level and that is how I want it done.
The works are actually numbered and limited editions and it is not going to be for every tom, dick and harry. If you are tired of wearing what you have collected, you can hang it as artwork and it can also be exhibited as an art work in any gallery or museum around the world.
TK: How did you determine which paintings would go and wouldn’t in this collaboration?
VE: As an artist and a designer, I can switch my brain to different things and imagine things. I design magazines so I read magazines a lot. I consume fashion a lot so I am kind of like, what could possibly work with this new direction, what kind of colours or pattern goes with what? I looked at my different works and imagined them on various designs.
Out of the fourteen works I sent Ituen she too had to go to work to narrow them down and see what works for her. Remember she is the one that is on the receiving end and she had to decide and say; “okay this is what I know will work for me.”
She had to merge some of the artworks to form a new artwork and some she left in full and that’s where I have to give her credit because she did well with interpreting my work in a different way. Plus I also gave her some lee-way by saying “do what you think is right” but I said I have to see things before they become public, and that was what happened.
TK: I was going to ask you what is the basis of your collaboration, you giving your work and she interpreting it…?
VE: It is a two way lane. What happened is that she took the time to study my works because I was very apprehensive about the works not being properly used. Seeing the final product, I must say she actually took her time because you can’t just cut things from the middle of nowhere without losing meaning. At the same time she also had to maintain her own creative identity; so riding on both our identity is where the success of the collaboration comes from. That is why you can still see a dress and say that is a Victor Ehikhamenor, and those that are familiar with Ituen can say oh that is Ituen Basi.
I am happy I did it with her because some inexperienced person could have taken my works and slammed them on fabrics with no sense of creativity at all. Now her interpreting my work in an interesting way is like you, Toni, critiquing my artworks or writing in a newspaper review. The result is a successful visual interpretation of a visual existence which is something that is not easy to do because she could have easily destroyed the works.
TK: Modrian’s works can easily be used for T-shirts because of the colours and grid like paintings but for you, your works are more stylized?
VE: If I cut a little piece of my work, you can still tell it’s mine, so they are unique in that way. When I was saying Ituen didn’t really cut, but she still cut in a way but for you that has experienced and know my work and my collectors they can still say “oh that is a Victor?” or they can say that “looks like a Victor”. Funny thing is that the first time some people saw the pictures from the Vogue Italia show in Dubai on Facebook, they commented – “Why does this look like a Victor.” Ayo Okulaja, a former colleague at Next put it on his Facebook wall and said “this looks like oga Victor’s work”, before other people started saying “oh yes,” “off course,” “definitely”, “did you do a collaboration?”
Since late last year that Ituen first showed what we did, this is the first interview I am giving regarding the collaboration. It was interesting seeing people’s reaction to it without me saying anything.
TK: So far, what has been the response from your collectors, from people who know your work?
VE: They are excited, especially the female collectors. I have a lot of female collectors and they are excited to see this type of collaboration. They want to own a piece of it, you know, to wear a piece of me and say “I own this work.”
People have been calling to get in touch with Ituen so they can order. All my major collectors in Nigeria who are aware of the collaboration are excited and you have to understand the power of fashion too; it’s like putting matches and petrol together. It is a collaboration that I hope will be the first collaboration that is properly done the way it should be done, bringing two energetically creative forces together.
TK: First you did just art and photography, then you started doing book covers and now you are doing fashion. What are you trying to do by extending the paintings from canvas to other platforms?
VE: Let me be honest with you; I want to stretch things beyond the traditional canvas. You and I have travelled around the world and you know that when I travel all I do is visit museums almost every day.
When I go to London – Rom Isichei, Kainebi or any other artist friend or anybody close to me – know that I will never say to them – let’s go to a night club. My first question is – where is the nearest gallery here guys?
I spend money in travelling the world to see galleries and museums and also get informed on what’s happening in the art world beyond our shores.
In the same way, we have to bring the world to Nigeria and when the world comes to Nigeria they can see that, yes, we too are doing interesting things when it comes to creativity.
Those people who think they are the only ones who understand what the contemporary way of interpreting art should be or of using fashion and art; when they come to Nigeria they can say “yes, you are doing it right.”
So, that is why I am doing what I am doing and I am constantly searching for ways to extend and expand my works. That is why you can see them on book covers, magazine covers and story illustrations. These and many more are the kind of things going on around the world.
If I have travelled far, the question then is what did I bring back? And the answer is knowledge. The knowledge of how things can be done right and properly without losing one’s identity. For me it is let us do it in our own way without altering our own culture, but let it stand shoulder to shoulder with any work from anywhere in the world.
TK:. When do you say no, I can’t apply my art to this. Has it ever happened to you before?
VE: Yes. I am very careful with what I put my works on. I can’t put my work on ordinary handkerchiefs or stuff like that. I also stay away from T-shirts, except the ones I do for myself. I can’t commodify some works because they have to remain high art. I don’t know, maybe when I become hundred or when I am gone and my estate, or my children, decide to put my art on China plates and mugs, it will be their own decision not mine – and that’s okay by me.
TK: I see you have done wine bottles…
VE: Yes but those are prototypes. I am just saying this is what can happen or this is possible. I am waiting for BMW to come and say, ‘okay do this for us.’ Now, when you travel around Nigeria, you see a lot of new BMWs. Why can’t BMW come to Victor to say I want your art work on a BMW like they did with other artists around the world.
Maybe one day, I can decide to have some fun, I might just go and get a new BMW and paint it, who knows. Do you also remember the Absolut Vodka ad campaign back in the days? They commissioned artists to stylize their bottles for ads and put the artist’s name on the ad copies, Now that is the high end way of pushing art.
Going back to what I said earlier about recognizability, it was a way of Absolut saying “okay we have recognized your body of work.” When you look at works that are used for situations like that, you realise they are not just styles you can’t recognize, they are patterns, you can tell the artists behind them and they have to be works that can lend themselves to those kind of things.
TK: By my own estimate, you have over 20 book covers, how did that start?
VE: I have done more than that actually, well that was at your last count. I can say I have done the highest book covers for a living artist, let say Nigeria because I don’t want to say Africa. It was Chika Unigwe, the writer, that first came and requested for my work to be on a her book cover.
“I want to use your work as my Ph.D thesis cover.” After that, Chimamanda instructed her publishers to contact me for the cover of her first novel, Purple Hibiscus. And I have done for your books too, Helon Habila, Lola Shoneyin, Maik Nwosu, Unoma, Obi Nwakanma and so many people within and outside the country. Initially it was just people wanting my work but now I do the whole conceptualization and designs for a whole lot of writers around the world. I think that is probably because I am also a writer, so I can kind of understand what a writer might want.
TK: So how do you go about designing a book cover?
A: It is a collaboration between the writer, the publisher and the cover designer. It is not autocratic, it is democratic to a large extent. I have done many for you and with you, so you know how we go back and forth and how I have to listen to your suggestions, especially the one we did for Julius Agwu. The concept can come from the writer or the publisher, then I visualize and actualize. Other times, it is just me and my team. But first, I read the book. I have to know what the book is saying. Now I work with a team of young vibrant Nigerian designers in my office, I am teaching them the rudiments of cover design and also learning from them.
Some covers you can design and say let me do it for beauty sake but sometimes you have to battle with publishers because they might have a different agenda.
You might say I know this guy, I know his writing but most of the time when I am designing a book cover I ask myself, how does it stand out? If you put this in a book store, how will it stand out? Sometimes you have to remember it’s all about stocking and marketability. If you look at most of my covers, I tend to use white because white will stand out among so many colours of books, even in low lights. The latest cover I did was for your biography project on “S.O Shonibare – Legend of All Times.”
TK: Have you ever done a cover that the client refused?
VE: Yes, I have. I was supposed to have worked on Chimamanda’s latest novel, Americanah, but for some reason that didn’t work out at the time the publishers were working on it. When I saw the Kenyan cover, the Kwani version of Americanah, I flipped. It is absolutely fantastic. It is the best cover I have seen of that book so far. I took, no, I seized it from Eghosa Imasuen. It is all white with the old wooden comb rendered in black. So, of course, sometimes, people will reject your work and you move on to the next project.
TK: After this collaboration with Ituen, will you do more?
VE: Fashion wise? Yes of course. I will definitely do more. You know, this is my first time of doing this. So, I will probably do things differently and tie some loose ends properly, especially on the business aspect of things. As well as the way things should be structured.
You know as an artist, you get into these things and you are not looking at some aspect and you know how the Nigerian situation is, it is a developing market in areas like this where you don’t really have people that have handled art businesses, licensing and all that before.
So, yes definitely, it is not a one-time thing but it has to be done right and it will always be high end.