Victor Ehikhamenor, I am Ogiso, the King from Heaven, 2017. Rosary beads on lace textile. 262 x 177 x 10 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Tyburn Gallery.
A story is told of Ahiamen-oro, a bird of prophecy, and an Oba’s relationship with it. Depending on the nature of its cry, listeners could tell what fortune awaited, whether good or bad, whether to cower or advance. On a certain occasion—legends agree it was a war, sometime in the sixteenth century, but differ on the enemy, Igbos or Igala—the Oba of Benin, supposedly Oba Esigie, disregarded the bird’s cry of misfortune. He went on to victory, and became, in the estimation of generations present and past, master over the course of history.
I perceive two forms of mastery: the Oba’s and the bird’s before him. One is master over all stages of time—past, present and future. The bird, standing on one ledge, could watch events as they unfolded. But the other mastery is over the transitional stages within time. It is mastery over what happens across time; it is less about the ledges, and more a leap from one ledge to the next. For while the bird, seeing the future, could cry disaster, the Oba, heedless of that cry, leapt to outwit fate.
Victor Ehikhamenor, I am Ahiamen-oro, the bird of prophecy, 2017. Perforated paper. Unframed: diameter 108 cm; framed: 119 x 119 x 4.5 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Tyburn Gallery.
In the past several years, as the Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor began to attend to the possibilities of sculpture, his mixed-media work has taken on a kind of gut appeal. This impact was there all along in his paintings, indicating what he was yet to achieve. His unique masterstrokes, his lush calligraphy, seemed merely ornate, even if alluring. His transformation—the fact that now some of his work is composed of tiny perforations and rosary beads that glow in the dark—could be said to result from the urgency of his address to time.
The disaster the bird of prophecy forewarned has occurred. If it were possible to find promise in peril, to work regardless of the evil of colonialism, how might an artist proceed? To speak in urgent fashion is to speak with an insistent voice; no address to time is ever finished. I suppose Ehikhamenor understands this. The history of the Benin kingdom, and the mythologies associated with it, has remained the source of his investigations.
Ehikhamenor’s new body of work, currently on view at Tyburn Gallery, London, is entitled In the Kingdom of This World. His declared intention is to place the Benin Kingdom within the same imaginative spectrum as the British Empire. This is a striking historical juxtaposition. For months leading to the exhibition, he sent me snapshots of the work in progress, the movement of ideas from head to hand. I perceived at the time I received the snapshots, and now state without doubt, that the audacity indicated in the fusion of two kingdoms exists in his use of materials. He has sewn rosary beads into portraits of a king and a queen, each almost twice the size of a standing human. The symbolism is direct: to turn colonialism on its head, take the symbol with which the empire justified its violence, and deck the representative of the dispossessed.
Victor Ehikhamenor, My last dance as King before Sir Harry Rawson’s army arrived, 2017. Rosary beads on lace textile. 320 x 191 x 10 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Tyburn Gallery.
In My last dance as King before Sir Harry Rawson’s army arrived (2017), the rosary beads have been sewn into a giant portrait of Oba Eweka II, holding the royal sword. His hand is outstretched, and so the sword might be extended as a gift or to indicate sovereignty. I speculate in this way having received from Ehikhamenor a photograph taken by his uncle, Enis Ehikhamenor (a prominent Independence-era studio photographer), when Queen Elizabeth visited Nigeria in 1956. In that photograph, the Oba bends in respectful acknowledgment of the erect queen, their hands joined in greeting. The second image, outlined in rosary beads, in which the sword stands in place of the queen’s hand, is a rebuttal of the first. Not only that. Oba Akenzua, who greeted the queen, was the grandson of Oba Ovonramwen, whose palace Sir Harry Rawson ransacked in 1897. Placed in relation, the images indicate deference to, and attempt to reclaim authority.
Victor Ehikhamenor, I am Queen Idia, the Angel of Kings, 2017. Rosary beads on lace textile. 396 x 292 x 10 cm. Copyright the artist, Courtesy Tyburn Gallery.
Ehikhamenor also sent me an image of a beaded female figure, aglow in the night: I am Queen Idia, the Angel of Kings (2017). In the sixteenth century Queen Idia stood in battle with her son Oba Esigie, and upon his victory earned the title Iyoba, Queen Mother. Successive Obas have worn her pendant over their chests. Cast in angel wings she is guardian and protector. What’s most telling is Ehikhamenor’s repurposed use of Christian iconography. If he is inclined to, for want of a better phrase, remythologize the Benin kingdom, “Queen Idia” is his most visionary gesture. He designates a new symbol of the past. Yes, the pagan queen is saintly enough to be visualized as a Christian angel.
Victor Ehikhamenor: In the Kingdom of this World is on view at Tyburn Gallery in London until January 31.