Nigeria is pulsating with an emerging hyperrealist art scene, and along with Arinze Stanley, Oscar Ukonu and Olumide Oresegun, Ken Nwadiogbu‘s impossibly real visuals are grabbing the attention of big media like The Guardian, CNN, or BBC. Only five years since his humble beginnings and three years since exhibiting his work for the first time in Lagos, Nigeria, the self-taught artist with a Bachelor of Science in Civil and Environmental Engineering is set to present his debut solo exhibition October 3 through 6, 2019 at The Brick Lane Gallery, East London.
Working with charcoal, pencil, and acrylic, Nwadiogbu responds on canvas to socio-political structures and issues around him and the world. Through meticulous hyperrealist technique, he constructs arresting images rich with deft use of form and space. Cleverly, his paintings regularly feature obscure portraits of everyday people peeking through the ripped paper, elevating and situating Africans in the global context. Weighty issues like gender equality, African cultures, global politics, Black power, and most recently knife-crime come to the conversation by way of his mind-boggling technique.
We reached out to Nwadiogbu just ahead of his upcoming milestone presentation to talk about the unique story of his career and personal drive, his impressive technique, and the concept of Contemporealism.
Sasha Bogojev: In learning more about your work, I came across the term Contemporealism. Could you please tell us more about it?
Ken Nwadiogbu: Contemporealism was born from my desperate approach to do more–more narratives, more ideas, more artistic expressions, more, more, and many more! Basically, what I try to do is to break the single story that Hyperrealism gives, not just create a high-resolution photograph but incorporate it with 3-Dimensional illusions and figurative elements born from conceptual ideas and contextual narratives. In some sense, all I do is deploy elements of contemporary art or illusions of form and space, usually to create emphasis in the narrative I portray
How did this become so interesting to you?
I started out by loving Trompe L’oeil and Hyperrealism. It was exciting to see so much skill and time invested in a piece of art because I was all about the skill–how best could I create something that would be amazing and leave people speechless? So I set out mixing 3-Dimensional illusion and Hyperrealism, but wasn’t satisfied as I needed to express more. Hence, more studies drove me to stumble upon another art piece where the artist showcased just a chair, the picture of a chair, and the meaning of that chair. It was the world of Contemporary Art. You see, knowledge is ever refining… and it is this development that brought me to the mystery that is CONTEMPOREALISM. Creating works of art that cover over 46 years of art practice.
Do you remember when and how you got interested in art, and how achievable was that goal in Lagos?
First let me say, Lagos six years ago would frown at any Engineering undergraduate who wanted to pursue art as a career. How do you justify leaving a huge profession like Engineering to focus on something people could only see on the roadside? That was my pain every day, as it was ridiculous to ask for support or convince anyone to see art the way I saw it. So, no, entering art as a career while studying Civil Engineering was not achievable. But I’m headstrong–I loved and needed to do art. I stumbled upon art at a 100-level course at the University when I saw a young man drawing the Dean of my University at that time. Immediately, I ran off to begin research. Research turned to obsession. Obsession turned to love. And that was how I fell in love with art.
What was the transition from studying Civil and Environmental Engineering to an active artist career?
I always told myself while in school that if I did not make a name for myself before graduating as a Civil Engineer, the pressure to work in an Engineering company would be high. Five years was all I gave myself. I started making portraits for people, then I began making exhibition pieces. Nobody wanted to exhibit me because they felt I was too young, uneducated in the art world, and lacking credentials. Thanks to an amazing friend and collector, Frank Momoh, and gallery owner, Oliver Enwonwu, I was able to have a platform to organize my first group exhibition called INSANITY, where we chose nine different Hyperrealists, including myself, to showcase at Omenka Gallery. After that, there was this wave of Hyperrealist movement in Nigeria. Before I knew it, I was having shows all over the country and internationally. By the time I was out of my Engineering degree, I had created a believable atmosphere that visual art was as lucrative as any other art career in Nigeria.
Your technical skills are impressive, especially being self-taught. How much time did you spend working on it, and do you remember any breakthrough moments from that journey?
Well, personally, I think I grew from the experience. I would draw almost four portraits a day for people. I did this until I knew how to really draw an eye, a nose, a lip, and the full-body. I didn’t have any tutorial from anyone as there were very few articles online on how to draw Hyperrealism.
How are you feeling about your technique at the moment, and would you ever consider using anything other than charcoal and graphite pencil?
Contemporealism gives me the ability to expand my expression from just a canvas to the environment around me. One thing you’ll see in my Hyperrealistic works and NY OF MY art is my approach to create Contemporary Art along. I’ve also always wanted to see my charcoal artwork side by side with a painting in a museum. That’ll be cool. So let that happen first.
Did the work of Arinze Stanley influence you?
Not at all. We’ve been acquaintances for a long time, and I put on his first show called INSANITY at Omenka Gallery, Lagos. He’s also a great hyperrealist; but as you can see, my art is a lot different from his – both in the process and narrative. Plus, calling myself a Contemporealist completely takes me out of his genre, as well as other hyperrealists like him.
Your work is known for touching some heavy subjects, both locally and worldwide. What urges you to speak about things like gender equality, African feminism, female rights, #metoo movement?
My subjects are born from the constant irritation that surrounds me while living in the world. In a time when Nigeria holds the record for housing one of the largest fraud cases in the world, where the President of the United States of America sees immigrants as diseases, when xenophobic attack is at its peak, and the world births its largest rape case ever, someone has to come out to speak and call out these abnormalities. This is what drives me to create art every day – to evaluate, interrogate and challenge the socio-political structures and issues within the society. While doing this, I believe I am able to inspire one or two people to also re-valuate their socio-political structures as we know it.
Who are your subjects and do you take your own reference photos for the work?
My subjects aren’t always thought of after. I see a person and I just immediate have the instinct to create a certain type of work with the person. I take my references photos myself, as I have a photo shop in my art studio.
How did you come up with the concept of faces peeking through ripped paper, and what is the symbolism?
It started with me trying to create a work titled Unleashed. The idea was to express my trying to break into an industry that never accepted me. Nobody understood me at that time, it was almost like I was in a dark room. I began making works like that to express myself breaking out of something. Eventually, it became symbolic of my art. I began expressing everything with it, both the strong, the weak, the mighty, and the dead. I began making the tear into symbols and silhouettes. My narratives grew work by work until it is what it is today.
When did you start getting attention from outside Lagos and how much did that influence your career and work?
It is evident that “A Prophet has no honor in his own country” (John 4:44). This was my case. My first show outside with Creative Debuts burst me into the international art scene and even back at home. People began recognizing my work.
Do you now consider yourself a professional artist, and would it be possible if there wasn’t interest from abroad?
Yes, I am definitely a professional artist. Art is my life, and nothing can change that, International or not. If there was no interest abroad, I would have just stepped on a lot of people’s toes not studying Engineering, but by doing art fulltime.
Can you tell us a bit about the London debut that you’re currently working on?
I’ve had offers for a solo show before but only the Premier Art team has come to understand my visions and helped them come to life. It has been AMAZING! I have worked so hard for this show. It’s pretty stressful putting on a solo show, but I have been involved in the whole process, from seeing videos of the venues, flyer design, and being involved in each step with Premier Art Solutions. I’m even spending time with The Urban Framer in the UK to decide how the artworks will look at the venues.
So, what are your hopes for your first major international solo show?
This is major for me. I hope people leave with something – a work, a feeling, an expression, an inspiration, something, but positive.
What type of work are you preparing for the show, and what subjects will you be tackling?
Well, the show is to introduce my pioneer style, CONTEMPOREALISM, and it’ll mean a lot of people can feel how I felt creating these works of art. Mostly, what you’ll see is the horrific trend of this 21st century and a sense of Empathy.
Are you preparing any special releases to mark the exhibition?
Yes, we do have a print release and there’ll also be print signing during the VIP, press and collectors’ preview for the Moniker International Art Fair in Chelsea, West London.
Where do you see yourself career-wise compared to the hopes and dreams you had when you started, and do you have any major goals you’d like to achieve?
Career-wise? Never thought about it, but I definitely know my success is Divine, and I surprise myself all the time. Honestly, I just want to create more art and inspire a whole generation of Nigerian Artists. So many Nigerians are very talented but are scared to practice because they feel it’s only for the old or not lucrative enough. Most are uneducated about the global art world. This is my goal, to use myself as a mantle of change and become a voice for the voiceless.
Ken Nwadiogbu’s Contemporealism is open at The Brick Lane Gallery, East London from October 3rd, through October 6, 2019.