Expert Eye

Curator and Artist Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze on the Ancient, Universal Language of Drawing

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Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze
Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze
Installation view of "Six Draughsmen" at MoCADA
Installation view of "Six Draughsmen" at MoCADA
Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze, "A Structure Spanning + Providing Passage Over the Chasm that is Us," 2012
Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze, "A Structure Spanning + Providing Passage Over the Chasm that is Us," 2012
Nnenna Okore, "Untold," 2013
Nnenna Okore, "Untold," 2013

In a modest, perhaps overlooked, museum in Fort Greene, the curator and artist Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze has installed a show centered exclusively on the modest medium of drawing as it has been practiced by a certainly overlooked community: female Nigerian artists. On the occasion of the show, "Six Draughtsman," on view through January 19 at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, Amanze spoke to Artspace about the role that Nigeria plays in contemporary African art, and why her work as a teacher, curator, and artist has always led back to the timeless pursuit of drawing. 

Nigeria is thought to have one of the most thriving contemporary art scenes in Africa right now. Having spent some time there recently on a Fulbright, would you agree?

I think the contemporary art scene in Nigeria, with an emphasis on Lagos in particular, is small, but growing. I'm not sure I would say it's thriving. The Centre for Contemporary Art Lagos continues to serve as a lighthouse of innovation in an environment where people's understanding and appreciation of art is heavily rooted in tradition. Spaces like the CCA, which has an international reputation, make things seem hopeful. But CCA is carrying a fairly large load, almost solo. Don't get me wrong, there are other positive things happening in the country's art scene such as the stellar, brand-new Art21 gallery in the Eko Hotel.

Advances such as this will inevitably increase the caliber of artists who exhibit in Nigeria, and perhaps help to bring in more funding for the arts. I met many passionate and talented artists there, so that's not the problem either. But when you consider Nigeria as the so-called "Giant of Africa," let alone think of the impact it continues to have on the world at large, I'm excited for the day where its support of artists, improved art education and funding for the arts, and broadened perspective on contemporary art can reach the next level. I'm confident that it's going to happen, because people are working diligently toward this. But, in my opinion, and keeping in mind that I speak from the inside, not as an outsider, there is still much to be done.  

The artists in “Six Draughtsmen” are all of Nigerian descent. What role does the medium of drawing play in contemporary Nigerian art, and why did you want to focus on it in particular?

My focus on drawing was what took me to Nigeria. The aim was twofold: to make drawings and expand my body of work in a different, yet intrinsically familiar environment, and then to research current drawing practices through teaching and curating a culminating exhibition, "Six Draughtsmen." It really just came out of a love for drawing, and wanting to see and learn how my contemporaries in Nigeria were playing with the medium. I quickly discovered that drawing's role in contemporary Nigerian art is a second-tier one. There is a very clear-cut hierarchy of mediums, and drawing just doesn't carry the same weight as something like painting. It exists, and is very much a part of the history of art in Nigeria, but if you're talking about what is being exhibited, bought, and generally respected in Nigerian art, it isn't drawing. That's an almost laughable idea. 

Why do you think that is?

Drawing in Nigeria is very much considered a preparatory act, a means to an end. Everyone draws, but very few artists I met are thinking about drawing as a finished medium, let alone their primary medium. There are pioneers of Nigerian art such as Obiora Udechuku and more contemporary figures such as Chijioke Onuora and Olu Oguibe who are known in part for their drawings. Drawing has an undeniable history in Nigeria, so I'm not entirely sure why contemporary drawing has not been embraced. I speculate that it has something to do with African art being pigeonholed into three primary categories: painting, sculpture, and textiles. Both the galleries and the academic system there fully supports this structure, so there is little room to break out and experiment with other mediums or even reinvent the existing ones. 

I understand that this exhibition came about as part of your Fulbright research in Nigeria. Is this how you met the participating artists? Or were you familiar with their work beforehand?

Prior to the time I spent in Nigeria, Toyin Odutola was the only artist whose work I was familiar with. Perhaps a month or so before I began the Fulbright, I was virtually introduced to Nnenna Okore and Wura-Natasha Ogunji by Bisi Silva of the Centre for Contemporary Art Lagos. Nnenna was also there on a Fulbright, and Wura was there as a Guggenheim Fellow. I don't want to use the word "coincidence" because I think it was meant to happen this way—that at the exact same time and for the same duration, three women artists of Nigerian descent returned to Nigeria to make art. This meeting really opened up what will hopefully become a lifelong exchange of ideas and opportunities for collaboration. It was also through Bisi that I met the artists Temitayo Ogunbiyi and Odun Orimolade, who was introduced to me as one of the very few Nigerian artists who use drawing as their primary medium. 

How does drawing fit into your own artistic practice? In what ways does it relate to your interest in printmaking and other media?

At this point, and for the past few years, drawing has become my entire artistic practice. It's not something I think about as a supplement or offshoot of anything else. It's everything I do. Like many others, drawing was my first introduction to art. We all draw to express ourselves as children, but along the way we learn a "correct" way of drawing that is centered solely on observation and representation. I've always loved to draw, but moved away from it as my primary medium in college, where I majored in photography and textiles. Ultimately, what I enjoyed in both was the ability to layer imagery. I enjoyed how process-oriented these mediums were. They brought me back to my first love of drawing, and by graduate school I was working mostly on paper again and starting to draw with text and other marks.

Now, drawing consumes me. Aside from making drawings, I read about drawing, write about drawing, teach drawing, follow drawing exhibitions, sit on drawing panels. The medium is classic. It's universal. It's as old as time, older even than written language. But at the same time, it's constantly reinventing itself and doing away with former parameters of what it could or could not be. I'm interested in the discussion of drawing's role in this hyper-digital contemporary art world where video, especially through performance and installation, seem to dominate.

How did you begin working with the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, which is located in Fort Greene, Brooklyn?

I started with MoCADA as the director of education in 2009. I was with the institution until I left for Nigeria, which was in August of 2012. MoCADA was written into my Fulbright proposal as the host gallery for my culminating exhibition, "Six Draughtsmen." Aside from preparing for the exhibition, I continued to work virtually on a few other projects while I was away. MoCADA in many ways was a major stepping stone in my journey and personal development. It really opened a lot of doors and continues to be an amazing support and family structure for me. Since returning to the U.S., I now work full-time as an artist. I'm excited to see MoCADA grow to the next level, and I look forward to a new relationship with the organization where I can continue to be a part of that growth. 

What’s next for you? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects in the works?

I have a few exhibitions coming up in 2014, which I'm really excited about: one in January at the Harvey B. Gantt Center in North Carolina, and then a drawing exhibition at Tiwani Contemporary in London in May. I'm also looking forward to a group exhibition in 2015 at the Seattle Art Museum, where I'll be showing alongside Wura-Natasha Ogunji and some other contemporary African artists. I really hope to get back to Nigeria in the summer for some projects that are still in the planning phase. So, for right now, what's next is to continue work in the studio. I'm constantly thinking about new drawings and how to push the work. Being invited for exhibitions and starting to build a schedule in this way, is a new and wonderful experience for me. But before all of that, the most important thing is that I maintain the integrity of my studio practice. These opportunities wouldn't come up if not for the work that happens in the studio. 

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