This is an edited transcription of my conversation with Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze at Tiwani Contemporary, 21 February 2015. The conversation was preceded by a live performance between Ruby Amanze and Wura-Natasha Ogunji. The exhibition ‘ruby onyinyechi amanze: a story. in parts’ runs through to 28 March 2015.
Performance: Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze and Wura-Natasha Ogunji, at Tiwani Contemporary 21 February 2015, photograph taken on my mobile phone.
Tell us about your friendship with Wura-Natasha Ogunji. You share continuous dialogue as artists and as women. How did you meet?
I met Wura-Natasha Ogunji in 2012. I was at the beginning of a Fulbright in Nigeria and she was beginning a Guggenheim fellowship. It was really quite coincidental, or not, that we both returned to Nigeria. She is originally of Nigerian descent but also works in the US like I do. For us to come back to Nigeria together at the same time led to a lot of collaborations and parallels in our story. We’ve worked together on drawings, and collaborations like this performance at Tiwani. We are both very invested in drawing, in talking about drawing. We commonly exchange emails and half of our written correspondence is around drawing. We speak maybe twice a day. If I’m in my studio and I’m thinking about something or working through something I might quickly send her an email. We have an ongoing conversation.
I have some immediate responses to the live performance. I really enjoyed the way that you threaded the audience in, and the intimacy of this, the idea of the thread as a drawing in itself, of blurring performance and drawing. I also thought the silence interesting, the intimacy between you and Wura-Natasha came through very strongly. Ideas about time, displacement and space are important here: she appears to us through Skype from New York as you are here in London. As we talk about your drawings we’ll draw out thoughts about process, line, space and time. Let’s begin by talking to the performance and the impetus for it.
We initially wanted to do a performance that was a conversation between the two of us, that was about taking excerpts out of our writing. We began by figuring out a way we could carry on our conversation both with the written word and the audible word . And then it changed. We also wanted to think about drawing in a visual way, to think about line as a mark and about space and time. Wura is currently in New York so we have a time difference. We wanted to think about these things as they relate to both of our drawing practices. We use the string or thread line to talk about a drawn line: lines that appear to us, lines that we have to find in the drawing, lines that are sure and lines that are erased. In the performance, she was accumulating and I was erasing, that back and forth that happens in drawing when it comes to line.
During the performance what were you thinking? What were you feeling? Were there any unexpected things that happened? Have you done this performance before?
This is the first time for this performance, and Wura was not seeing me so it was a little bit different for her. I was counting, and thinking about time in that way, and also of the visual of her hands and the ways that her lines were forming. I was trying to have a conversation with that so thinking of my line as an extension of hers or vice versa.
Live performance is so exciting, so physical, immediate and affecting. I feel this very immediate response to it that resists any impetus to fix its meaning, and it is very poetic in that way. Your performance made me think a lot about how the art historian Griselda Pollock writes about affect which she says is not the same as emotion. She says: ‘Affect is as it is without shape or focus […] a colouring of our whole being […] an opening towards something or a complete enclosure in its grip’.  What I would like to think about here is your openness. I think as a person, as a being, as an artist there is an immense openness in a world which is very much about fixing categories, fixing people and boundaries. The performance brings into view a lot of things that are very interesting in your drawing and these are again to do with how you think about process, line, space and time. Let’s look at particular drawings and start to think more about these ideas as they relate to your work. The most distinctive aspect of the drawings here are these open, empty spaces.
This is something that I think about a lot especially with the larger works because there is so much physical space. The space that I leave is very considered. It serves two purposes for me. One is thinking about these characters and creatures that are not from this world. If I remove some clues as to geography or time then where they are becomes more ambiguous. They are literally floating in-between worlds. I am also thinking about an awkwardness in space, formal composition and decisions about how to place characters in this world that is not a fixed time and not a fixed geography. I play with the tension of the characters in this space. Perhaps less with the larger works and more with the smaller ones, you can start to see that tension between the space that is left, and the way the characters are occupying space.
Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze, ‘avoid the red ants as you climb (Twin) while ada and audre soar’, 2015, graphite, photo transfers, fluorescent acrylic, ink and coloured pencils, 182.88 x 316.84 cm, © Sylvain Deleu, Courtesy Tiwani Contemporary.
You have spoken before about the empty space being like the characters in your work.
Someone mentioned that to me and I liked that idea of the space becoming another character. I don’t feel any obligation to fill space or to have it feel densely packed. I like that there is space to move around both for the viewer and for the characters.
You talk about drawing and performance in a way that appears interconnected. In the performance where you are demarcating space you are working with a crowded space of people, the audience. Were you thinking about the relationship to your drawings in terms of space that is filled and space that is empty?
I was thinking about how Wura was in a shallow space, and that was intentional, thinking about the depth of space. There are parallels with the drawing but the performances are also separate from the drawings.
Wura does drawings with thread. I was wondering if the decision to use thread was related to this?
We just picked the thread as a physical line.
Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze: a story. in parts, Installation shot, © Sylvain Deleu, Courtesy Tiwani Contemporary.
Let’s turn to the characters you have invented in your drawing practice. You began with the alter-ego Ada the Alien. Tell us about your historical relationship to the characters, beginning with Ada. You mentioned recently that you are now thinking of her as less of an alter ego. Your work is populated by these characters and they have particular attributes and personalities. I know that you don’t like to fix things but can you give us a glimpse into your relationship with them?
The first character that was developed in the narrative is Ada the Alien. She’s the one that has the most human form. She borrows my likeness but is not me. She was born when I went to Nigeria in 2012. She was the first one born in Nigeria. I wanted to tell stories about my time in Nigeria and my experiences and how I was moving through this space as an alien even though it is also my home. This is why I developed this character: to use her and her voice to tell this story. She is florescent yellow. I was partly thinking about western images of aliens as this glowing green or glowing yellow colour. I was an alien or am an alien in Nigeria visually for many reasons. One could be my complexion so just playing on that idea of a very immediate marker and how that can separate someone. Ada is less of an alter-ego now and more just a character in a story. The other characters have I think stronger personalities. Ada has less of a distinct thing that she does. The double figure is Twin.
Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze, ‘inside water keys is really gold wine (were you invited to the party?) “shoulders sideways”, clap clap clap for yourself while you spin on top of black eyed pea mountains, but three legged tables are for dancing under, 2015, photo transfers, enamel, ink, glitter, graphite and coloured pencils’, 182.88 x 231.14 cm, © Sylvain Deleu, Courtesy Tiwani Contemporary.
Twin always has the patterning which you have spoken about as relating to Dutch Wax cloth.
Yes the fabric is wax print or Ankara that I source from the Internet.These fabrics are visually associated with West Africa, and other parts of the continent in different ways. I can’t pin these prints down and say this is Nigerian or that is Senegalese. These Dutch wax prints don’t originate in Africa. They were originally printed and designed in Holland for Indonesian textile markets but were then adopted on the African continent and transformed into a visual symbol of identity.
The Twin figures never have heads.
No. I do a lot of writing when I am thinking about the characters, and their story. I write little snippets about each of the characters. I wrote one for Twin: ‘Acrobats by profession. This cheeky doer requires supervision’. In the narrative, they are usually childlike and adventurous. They climb trees. They do handstands. They’re a little bit naughty. This is part of why they don’t have heads, it’s more to do with their physicality.
Pidgin has the head of a pigeon and a human body, and always is coloured by a sparkly green substance.
The characters fall into three categories. They are either aliens, hybrids or ghosts. Pidgin is a hybrid. He is part pigeon and part human, and appears with a green glittered body suit. Pidgin is an in-between character and can be playful and silly like Twin but can also be more serious and take on different responsibilities. The inspiration for the name Pidgin comes from Pidgin English, the Creole language in Nigeria. I am interested in this idea that you can have a language that is essentially a broken, mixed-up, inauthentic language and how you can travel throughout Nigeria (North, South, East, West) and use this to communicate. There are so many official languages and you can’t assume that you can speak the same language to someone two hours away from you.
Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze, ‘undressed’, 2015, photo transfer, ink, pen and glitter, 76.2 x 111.76 cm, © Sylvain Deleu, Courtesy Tiwani Contemporary.
Do you have a relationship with a particular place in Nigeria? You have spoken to me about water imagery and mythology before. There is an image of a merman in one of the works on this show.
My mother is from River States so right on the coast, part of a group of Delta region states. If I am in Nigeria, identity-wise, I am just considered to be from where my father is from. Where my mother is from, and that lineage, is not recognised as part of my identity. But thinking about where she is from, you may hear phrases to do with riverine people, or people from a riverine area, or riverine languages.This fascinated me, the idea that someone can identify with or connect their identity to water, or connect their identity with land in a different way. I remember stories of my mother being in water, swimming, or catching fish, and how present water was in forming her identity. I started thinking about the merman as a riverine creature and then thinking about mythologies and spirits or creatures that come out of the water. There are many of them and they take many different forms, the mermaid and the merman being one.
Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze, ‘that low hanging kind of sun, the one that lingers two feet above your head, (never dying) house plants in exchange for your freedom … orchids in exchange for your love, who are you kissing, when you kiss a mask?, 2015, photo transfers, collage, ink, metallic pigment, graphite and coloured pencils’, 182.88 x 301.63 cm, © Sylvain Deleu, Courtesy Tiwani Contemporary.
The works on this exhibition speak to many different sources. I see a reference to the familiar art historical reclining female nude, for example. You have also spoken to me about a photographic source for the dancing figures. You have told us about mythological sources and personal memories and histories, and your relationship to a place. Tell us also about the other visual sources apparent in your work.
I use a lot of collected imagery. Anyone of these stories that you see are pieces of stories, and they may also have multiple stories within them. Some of them are completely made up. Some of them are real, coming from my own experience or memories, and some are in-between. For example, I knew that I wanted to to do a piece with Ada and Audre flying: I am thinking about ‘avoid the red ants as you climb (Twin) while ada and audre soar’. I looked at images to think about the different ways that people can fly, what would I want them to look like. This is one way that I might use imagery. If I am not able to physically take a photograph I might source images that already exist. I reference art historical imagery with the nudes. This image of Ada and Audre dancing is inspired by an image by Malick Sidibé, a photograph that I have always loved [see: ‘without a care in the galaxy, we danced on galaxies (or red sand with that different kind of sky) with ghosts of your fatherland keeping watch’]. It reminds me of a personal experience that I had dancing in Nigeria. I am referencing both Sidibé’s image and a personal memory.
Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze, ‘without a care in the galaxy, we danced on galaxies (or red sand with that different kind of sky) with ghosts of your fatherland keeping watch’, 2015, graphite, photo transfers, collage, fluorescent paint, coloured pencils and ink, 182.88 x 344.81 cm, © Sylvain Deleu, Courtesy Tiwani Contemporary.
I noticed on the written message to Wura, that was part of your performance, that you addressed it to Audre.
Audre is Wura.
The floating heads are the ghosts?
Yes the disembodied heads are ghosts. I have drawn from people that I know who are connected to this story of being in-between, global citizens, however you want think about it. Sometimes that is important to me, pulling in people who I share this story with, and I share it with many people. Sometimes the ghosts are unknown to me. For the ghosts, it goes back and forth, and it is important for me that these characters are reflecting real people that I know and real people that I haven’t met yet. These are people, characters in the story that I don’t have a personal relationship with. They could be made up, in some way they are made up but they are also existing wherever they are.
In your work, the idea of a ghost is not related to loss or trauma? Ghosts are usually written about in art criticism or art history in terms of experiences that are traumatic and painful, historical haunting, psychic haunting. For you, the ghost has a different meaning, a different significance which is about the people you haven’t met or people that you share something with, a connected-ness with (You speak about global citizens).
It isn’t trauma in this story at this point. If I tell my story that I am from Nigeria, and the UK and the US very quickly it can go to displacement and loss, and not belonging in a negative way. It is important for me in this story that this is not the energy that is conveyed, that these characters are not lost. They are quite at home. They have created a world for themselves where they exist. They exist comfortably. They exist playfully. They have fights. They have interactions as normal people would but that idea of it being a traumatic experience to be from many places is not the story that I am interested in telling.
I think this is important, that your work is potentially a source of reparative thought. Displacement can be a source of trauma for many people. What is interesting about you as an artist is how you use your art to enter into these imaginary, fantastical worlds where you can travel through space and time even if it is only through imagination. There is a lightness about your work which I enjoy. Your work resists an authoritarian narrative of fixing, shutting down, pinning down our experience of the world. I have also been thinking a lot about time in your work, of words like ephemeral, transient, non-linear. And also different kinds of time: virtual time, historical time, the unpredictability of time as memory, displacements of time across geography or galaxies. This was very much a part of your performance with Wura. Galaxies and the idea of outer space comes up a lot in your work through the alien. I am also thinking here of the figure with the space helmet which you blur with the figure of the art historical nude. Can you reflect on time in your practice for us now, and comment on the different kinds of time you explore, is this something that you are conscious of when you’re making work, thinking about work?
I am definitely interested in time in this story and I like the words that you use, ephemeral and transient. I think this comes back to my experiences, and the way in which I move through the world and the way in which I think many people move through the world now. I can be at home in many places, and so there is that nature of being transient. I feel that I move very easily in space. In the drawings I am trying to convey some of that ease of movement. Times go in and out so there might be a drawing that has multiple times within it where you see the characters repeat. Just like in the real world you can’t be in the same place at the same time. [Referring to ‘astroturf rooftop picnics (Lagos), ghana must go (bags) somewhere, anywhere …’] There is Ada the Alien opening her heart, and there is a smaller image of Ada the Alien doing a handstand. How is Ada able to exist in that plain simultaneously? There has to be some shift in time. I am not suggesting that this is now, and that’s then. I’m not giving you what that time is. But I am suggesting that some time has passed and one is an image of a particular place in time, and one is an image of another place in time. I live in Brooklyn and I can be walking down the street in Brooklyn, and in my head I can remember a specific moment walking down a street in Lagos. This happens frequently. I can physically be in one space and time but mentally or emotionally be somewhere completely different. I think that this is part of the package of being someone who calls many places home. You carry all of them, all these different places: Lagos time, British time, American time. These are actually different times that at any one given time I can carry with me.
Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze, ‘astroturf rooftop picnics (Lagos), ghana must go (bags) somewhere, anywhere – overweight luggage unpacked at airport counters, isn’t a chandelier like a plant? a delicate semblance of permanence, neon hearts, we all have them’ (Detail), 2015, ink, fluorescent acrylic, graphite, coloured pencils, photo transfers, metallic pigment and glitter © Sylvain Deleu, Courtesy Tiwani Contemporary.
Can you tell us a bit about the media that you use, and talk in a very immediate way to mark-making. You use different kinds of media.
I began I think like many artists just with a love for drawing in the very traditional sense of graphite on paper. This was definitely a very early love, and there is that in the work. The only things that are drawn or drawn with pencil in that way are the ghosts. Ada is always drawn and after that it goes in and out. I will always come back to that mark or that way of making marks. This is something that I really love about drawing in that way, drawing in a representational way, and my medium of choice for that is pencil. With Audre the Leopard I use photo transfers for the head, the same with Twin’s skin. Anywhere you see that fabric pattern for the skin, it’s all photo transfer. I like that in the drawing language because it’s different from collage that has the ink and the paper adhere to the surface. The transfer is just the ink. It’s the thinnest application of something onto the surface for me. Something I am interested in with drawing is the accumulation of these layers with whatever the materials are. With paper and drawing there’s a build-up of marks that get embedded into the surface. With the larger works, I sit on them, I lie on them, I am inside that space, and there’s things that happen, that accumulate. The photo transfer is a way for me to apply a layer but apply a layer that’s so thin that it becomes the paper.
We’ve spoken before about the process of drawing and how potentially when you’re drawing the paper might tear, or there might be a smudge. Unexpected things might happen, apparent failures, which are an important part of the process.
Yes. I’m open to them, to a certain degree. I am open to things happening with the materials in a way that I’m not controlling. I have an idea when I come to the drawing. But I think that the drawing has an idea when it comes to me, and we have to work together and go back and forth in this conversation. And that might be that my arm moves in a particular way and smudges charcoal and then I have to respond to that. There is a space in the process where I know that some of these things are going to happen. It doesn’t have anything to do with me dictating that this is what the drawing is going to look like. I’m not a machine. I’m not trying to be a machine. That human-ness, including mistakes and failures, is something that I am open to and it is part of the conversation between me, and the materials, and the process.
Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze: a story. in parts, Installation shot, © Sylvain Deleu, Courtesy Tiwani Contemporary.
What is so compelling for you about bringing human figures and animals, human figures and aliens together?
This idea of hybridity, of how two things can join together to make a new thing. It’s less that Audre is a human figure with a leopard head. That’s just what Audre is. It’s a new thing, it’s not a human and it’s not a leopard. This is something that is part of the story, that I’m interested in, this idea of cultural hybridity. You have one thing here and a separate thing here, and if you make a new thing it’s its own thing. It’s not from A. It’s not from B. Its from this new thing which is C. It’s the same thing with the hybrids: they exist as they are, they’re not two things anymore.
As a young artist do you see a dialogue between yourself and other artists who have been working, for example, with the Dutch wax cloth. I am thinking here of Yinka Shonibare. Nathalie Bikoro recently used the wax fabric in a performance at the Pitt Rivers Museum where she made a flag. Do you see yourself in a dialogue with older generations of artists such as Shonibare, and with peers who are exploring these things, and do you think there is something that you are specifically trying to do? Are you making interventions into ideas and practices that have historical precedents?
I think that I can’t dissociate myself from what has happened before me or from what is currently happening by people who have been doing it for twenty/thirty years. I do remember someone like Yinka Shonibare being one of the first Nigerian or African artists whose work I saw, and it was a piece that used a lot of the wax prints. I think that with things that we see in the world and with things that we learn in a very formal way, its all just filed. Images and things are filed away, and will come in and out, sometimes intentionally sometimes not. I can only speak for my intentions, not to say that it’s something brand new but to say that this is how I am using it.I am not in any of their studios to know what their personal relationship is with it but I do see that connection.
I don’t think artists are under any pressure to do something that hasn’t been done before. I think what is more interesting is intellectual and visual dialogue, and to see a greater art history, and how artists are exploring political and social and ethical issues, and finding ways to do it that comes from themselves and their own subjectivities and experiences. Is there anything particular that you would like to say about your work in closing?
Although I am starting from a very specific place in terms of my own experience my work has come a long way from that point. That is always what I will go back to but it’s more about the power in making a world, in the creation of a world, whether that is an imaginary world or a real world, just the power in being able to make for yourself a universe. This body of work is about a year and a half, two years old, and it is something that I see developing. Perhaps there are new characters, there are characters that fall out. It’s exciting for me to delve into that and to live part time, in this other world that I’ve made up. I hope that it’s apparent that this is not the world that we live in, this is some other universe where these creatures exist peacefully. And whatever struggles they go through, that any person may have, they are there by choice or not, and they’re happy. There’s a connectivity between them. The story is open, it’s fluid. I think that people have their different interpretations but seeing the world, and the characters, and how they move through the space, and that they are content in the space, is important for me now.
Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze, ‘ada rests in places unknown’, 2014, graphite, fluorescent ink, photo transfers and collaged paper, 76.2 x 111.76 cm, © Sylvain Deleu, Courtesy Tiwani Contemporary.
Pollock, G. After-affects/After-images: Trauma and aesthetic transformation in the virtual feminist museum. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013, p.27.