Myth, memory, folklore, history – all potent territories of intersection between truth and untruth. Can they be teased apart? Should they be? Is mythological-realism the ultimate love letter to the hybrid nature of our modern lives, constantly twisting and shape-shifting nebulously, on and on? The work of artist ruby onyinyechi amanze climbs directly into these spaces of ambiguity and revels in the freedom to play indefinitely, with form, character and place. ART AFRICA spoke to amanze about her practice, her personal myth making and what it means to her to be an ‘African’ artist today.
ART AFRICA: You were born in Nigeria, raised in England and a suburb of Philadelphia, and schooled at Cranbrook Academy in the U.S. How has living in these vastly different places informed your focus on hybridity, identity and cultural displacement in your work?
ruby onyinyechi amanze: Yes, I’ve lived in many different places and that’s been a large part of where my interest in space-shifting and hybridity initially came from. I personally don’t feel displaced. Terms like that seem, to me, to carry a subtle negative connotation that suggests being uprooted against one’s will, or a certain brokenness or incompleteness. For sure, there is a unique brand of identity that results from being from many places, but it isn’t necessarily synonymous with identity trauma. Especially as time moves on… at this point, a Nigerian Brit is old news, we’ve been making that transition and hybridising in that way for decades!
Many of the things that influence my work tend to deal with space shifting in some way. Architecture – both in the two-dimensional drawing space and in constructed projects – is an example of this. After graduate school, I contemplated going back to study architecture because I’ve always loved it. Architects play with millimetres, angles and lines… but also emotion, and how to move and construct energy within a space. It’s simultaneously calculated and intuitive… that balance intrigues me and the possibilities seem in nite. For similar reasons, lm, dance and movement – as languages – in influence me; the way a director or choreographer thinks visually about space. The freedom and play (play in many forms is a constant theme in my practice) of dance forms like Gaga.
Currently, my work is more about using the characters I’ve invented to play with, to create and manipulate spaces… and also to suggest a story that may or may not be real.
What do you think abstraction allows for in your work that perhaps figurative forms wouldn’t? And can you tell us about the role of myth in your work?
I’m excited by this question. From graduate school (2004- 2006) until around 2012, there were no figures in my work at all. I was working entirely with abstraction and non-representation. The work considered similar things, specifically architecture, space and the memory and psychology of home, but I used symbols as stand-ins for people.
I’m still very interested in abstraction, particularly environment, texture and surface. I come from a textiles background and I approach paper with similar visual and process sensibilities, of layering and evidence of the hand. Abstraction makes the space. The characters occupy it. I’ve thought about what the work would be without them (the characters). At some point, I’m sure they’ll leave me and that’s okay – the work will always evolve. In this chapter, I enjoy them. I enjoy drawing them, and thinking about what they would or wouldn’t do. It’s not just about space-shifting, it’s also about play. Spaces, in and of themselves, don’t play. Characters do.
I’m a storyteller and mythology is something I think about a lot. How stories come into being as some combination of reality and fiction. Even ‘true’ stories possess some amount of untruth. It’s an inevitable part of the process of perception, which subconsciously considers context, history, time, emotion and so on. Mythology and folklore are so full of these things. Stories may seem simple, but are actually an accumulation of many voices and years-worth of perception, imagination, symbolism and reality.
For example, take the mermaid or merman (there is a character in my work called Merman): a mythological creature that is centuries old and finds variations of itself in numerous cultural narratives all over the world. Expansively, it belongs to the category of water spirits not unlike the infamous Mami Wata, found in various West African and Caribbean traditional religions. For me, Merman initially came out of thinking about people in the Niger- Delta river region of Nigeria that often refer to themselves and their cultures as ‘Riverine’ (or coming from the water). We tend to think about geographical identity as a connection to land but for some, that identity is more accurately connected to water. From here, I researched narratives of people or creatures that ‘come from’ or belong to the water. Mythology has all sorts of narratives, all up for interpretation and retelling. Even contemporary or pop culture narratives, in some way, are mythologies in the making. Needless to say, it remains an active point of return for me in the work.
With some of your recurring characters being identified as parts of your personality – ada the Alien being described as an alter ego, for example – how do you navigate drawing from a deeply personal narrative and creating work for an art marketplace?
I think as artists, our starting point is, more often than not, somewhere personal. We pull from what we know, consciously or subconsciously. What I’m excited about in art is its ability to evolve beyond the individual. The work isn’t about me, despite it starting with personal explorations. ada the Alien as an alter ego feels like a distant beginning for her (now) as a form. In the first drawings of her, she represented an aspect of me, but the reasons that was necessary no longer exist. Now, she’s a character like the rest of them. I don’t draw her and see myself anymore.
In terms of personal narrative, I think there is a humanness that transcends time, culture and ethnicity. I think there are stories that are shared… they’re not exactly the same… the details are nuanced; but the essence of my hybrid story, for example, does not belong to me alone. I remember feeling this way when I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah. I recognised the ‘voice’ she spoke with and appreciated that, a story of hybridity was being told and made visible for ‘us.’
I’m not telling a story that I feel ownership of, nor am I expressing something I feel is deeply personal. I’m not even really telling a story, at least not a concrete one. I’m simply suggesting a story – a very uid, non-linear and mostly made up ‘story.’ Some elements are personal. For example, the openness of space without clues to a singular location comes partly from a mentality (or relationship) I have to space, as a person who has moved around a lot. But it’s also just about formal decisions. When people connect to the work, it’s because they are able to access it, relate to it and see themselves reflected in it. And the only way that’s possible is if I, as the artist, create room.
You asked about creating work for the art marketplace. I never think of it in that way… that I’m making work for the market. If that were the case, it would dictate or influence what I do in the studio, and it doesn’t. The studio and the market are two completely separate spaces and I’m very intentional about keeping it that way. I’m thankful to have the access to sell my work in certain forums, so by no means am I denying my participation in the market. But I make the work for two primary reasons: first and foremost, for the sheer joy of it, and secondly to contribute to a conversation that can live beyond me. For the latter reason, the market seems to be an inevitable aspect of how that happens and although it doesn’t serve me anything to resist it, it does serve me to ensure that it doesn’t change the work I do. I’ll always make the work I want to make and if someone wants to buy it after it’s left my studio, then great.
You’ve suggested that paper is one of the more ephemeral and intangible of mediums. How does the use of paper intersect with your project on celebrating your hybridity?
I love paper. I always have. I studied textiles in undergrad and then transitioned back to working on paper in graduate school. They felt similar, paper and fabric. Like skins that hold information… that information or memory can be buried inside of. Also, I am drawn to its strength versus its temporality, impermanence and fragility. There are papers that have lasted fairly intact for centuries. Interwoven pulp fibers that can easily be ripped or crumpled, that are continuously disintegrating, yet still present? That’s amazing to me and part of why I love paper so much – because it feels alive. It’s not a thematic commentary. It’s more a material and aesthetic choice.
I don’t think I’m celebrating hybridity. I’m not not celebrating it, but it feels too centred around a ‘message’ (my work is more of an open read…) for me to fully embrace the notion of celebrating something. That was more accurate about drawings from a few years ago. I used to talk about the middle spaces in my drawings as ‘valid,’ ‘authentic’ and even ‘advantageous.’ At the time, I needed to claim that for myself.
Hybridity feels, at this point, so engrained as my normal that there’s no need to draw particular attention to it. It’s almost a ‘whatever’ or an arbitrary part of my identity. I could as easily have been born in Ghana, moved to France and then to Canada. Why does it even matter? I wonder when we will stop isolating the ‘other’ for better or worse? I think attention or celebration, in that way, is similar to exoticism and I’m not interested in exoticising myself or anyone else.
How do you relate to your Africanness as an artist of the diaspora and do you consider yourself an ‘African artist’?
What is Africanness? I’m not trying to be contrary, but really, what do we (all of us) mean by that? More and more, it’s being put on me – or highlighted in relation to my practice – that I’m from Africa. It’s not a lie, I absolutely am. And I’m equally proud and indifferent about it. But what’s the conversation after we make that distinction? I’m from Africa, now what?
Truth is, I know little of ‘Africanness.’ None of us do. It’s a catch-all concept that attempts to encompass and minimalise things that are too vast to be measured. It’s romantic, at times sexy, intriguing… and of course marketable. I’ve visited a handful of cities in only five African countries, each country having anywhere from a handful of spoken languages to over three hundred of them. Each country has its own histories and a plurality of stories and cultures. I’m not going to sum those experiences up to apply them to a whole that I have little to no relationship with. Of course, I recognise that there are many parallels across African cultures, but we have to see them as distinct entities also. And perhaps talk more broadly about how we share a landmass and humanity.
What would it look like if white artists were asked about their ‘Europeanness’ or ‘Americanness’? Can you imagine? Or, the alternative is that none of us need to be de ned and we could just talk about the art?
I am African, so by some valid contexts, I am an African artist. I’m also an artist that wears jeans and likes running as a sport. Are these classifications worth noting? More specifically than being African, I’m Nigerian and, even more specifically, I have a personal and localised relationship with Lagos (which is nine to eleven hours away from my ethnic home). There’s little discussion of the micro when we talk about ‘Africa.’ It is important to me, for very personal reasons, to maintain connections, to be visible and to participate in shaping the conversation around art throughout Africa.
What I won’t do though, is limit the conversation of my work to continental geography. I won’t singularly subscribe to anything that doesn’t make sense to me if the work can only live within the parameters of ‘contemporary African art.’ If my being an ‘African or Nigerian artist’ means I’m excluded from being an artist who draws on paper… or thinks about architecture and design… or has a minimal aesthetic… or is interested in play and movement… then being an ‘African artist’ is a limitation that I’m not keen on adopting.
Lastly, as art fairs focus increasingly on art and cultural production from Africa and the diaspora, have you personally observed any differences in your reception in the north and in the south?
Not really. When I was making work in Nigeria, it was apparent to my students and peer faculty that my visual languages were cultivated elsewhere. There was an aesthetic, very broadly speaking, that didn’t feel ‘Nigerian.’ But that wasn’t a surprise, nor did it become a separating factor or hindrance.
I have mixed feelings about art fairs’ current focus on Africa and its diaspora. I think the visibility it is affording artists like myself is, generally speaking, a positive thing. If that exposure leads to something else – something more globally inclusive and sustainable – then great. And if that exposure means participating in shifting a rather stale conversation, then we need more of it. But on the other hand, it often feels like it’s just a passing trend, and artistic trends tend to lack curatorial focus. No one is asking any questions or making connections. They’re just lumping us all together.
This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of ART AFRICA magazine, ‘The North American Issue.’