Victor Ehikhamenor paints to music.
To watch Victor Ehikhamenor at work is to be opportune: to wake up at dawn before the sun, to gain access into his Ikoyi studio, sit on his famous Ankara armchair, watch him feet-shod, apron-tied, his paint-brush dripping oil, head-phones secured, about to perform on a landscape of stretched canvass.
“The whole idea of painting to music was to transport myself back home when I was abroad. Music is a big wake-up memory for me. I remember when I was a kid dancing to all these music, to Ohenhen, Dombraye, Joseph Osayomore,” he says, eyes illumined with nostalgia, while recalling his childhood heroes whose music he first encountered from the cassette players and stereos of young men in the village.
Those acquainted with Victor Ehikhamenor—beneficiaries of his elegant thoughts, expansive brushstrokes and the boom of his roaring laughter—know what his village means to him.
It has been a long time since his early days in the village to his odyssey around the world. Although, he returns to Udomi-Uwessan as often as he can, he carries a portion of it with him, through which he transacts his interaction with art.
Ehikhamenor was born in the ‘70s, a decade that saw the gradual decline of highlife music from the centre stage. Originating from coastal towns of Ghana and Sierra Leone, highlife music moved into Nigeria through tours of notable musicians from the early 1930s. By far the most influential touring musician was the Ghanaian pharmacist and trumpeter, E.T. Mensah, whose style of dance band swept through our towns and cities, inspiring our musicians.
Once the aesthetics of highlife music was rooted within the Nigerian soundscape, musicians ran with the method of fusing their indigenous sound with the possibilities of modern instruments. This blew highlife from a minor Ghanaian export to a major Nigerian explosion.
Mid-West Nigeria was not exempted from this tendency. Funeral ceremonies ranked highest amongst their range of festivities. Popularly known as ‘Obito’, obituaries were celebrated with a big dance in honour of the life of the deceased. Obitos usually shut down the circadian rhythms of villages and the bigger the dance band scheduled to perform, the larger the crowd.
Ehikhamenor still has vivid memories of the first time he watched Dombraye Aghama and his Stars of Benin Band in Udomi-Uwessan. It was at the burial of the father of a taxi driver whom he remembers as Paul. Ehikhamenor was aged ten and that indelible memory of a vigil of dance and fine music continues to segue into his work.
Bini highlife music sets him in the mood to paint. The music triggers memory the moment it fills his consciousness. “I can describe my entire village for you, the friends I have, the festivals that are happening”, he says, animated by recollection. With highlife music, the physical rigour of painting transforms from a chore to a dainty dance—or how does one explain enduring long hours typical of the scale of his work?
His preference in Bini highlife is that of a certain era, the period of his childhood and early adolescence, when the inherent beauty of the civilisation at Udomi-Uwessan shaped his worldview. Music, as soundtrack of nostalgia, is the backdrop against which his most cherished memories were made—and this is where he revisits when the booming big band dance music filters into a room in Maryland or Ikoyi or Johannesburg. Regardless of his geographical location, the music takes him back to his childhood where creativity is a moving force and possibilities are untethered.
The tune must be fast-paced and up-tempo, like the delirious guitar riffs of Dombraye Aghama, once banned in Uromi town because of what women did to it with their backsides. The highlife must be elaborate, like an orchestra and the lyrical content may range from admonition to praise, but praise is preferred.
Osakpamwam Ohenhen may be Ehikhamenor’s favourite musician because he never watched him perform live. Ohenhen, for the want of a better description, is Edo state’s response to Cardinal Rex Lawson, on account of his soulful singing, mastery of his band and his short life span. His openings always arrest; horns and rhythms in sync as you would expect from a disciplined band, and the music is an intricate journey of sonic mastery that accompanies Ehikhamenor, egging him on as he reproduces his vision with acrylic or oil or charcoal or lead.
When Ehikhamenor’s work playlist strays, he is led from the nostalgia of highlife to the contemporariness of hip-hop music.
Whilst working on his last solo exhibition, Daydream Esoterica, his sonic hype was the music of Jay-Z. Of his impressive discography, Ehikhamenor’s preferred ditty is, admittedly, “Picasso Baby!”