From almost losing an eye to being inspired by hyperrealism arts in his later days at the University, Nigerian artist, Ken Nwadiogbu, has had a number of success stories on his journey in the artsphere. Snagging a few accolades and awards to his name, Ken is one of the talented artists from Nigeria that fuses contemporary arts with hyperrealism to make arts that speaks largely to his environment, his experiences and journey through life, and socio-political issues.
Unlike many artists who might have known all their lives that they would be artists, for Ken, it wasn’t clear until his fifth year in university.
Studying engineering and embarking on artistic construction unwittingly prepared him for the painter he is today. And almost losing an eye at some point, Ken now tells his story through the eyes – an apparent feature of his work. That one powerful experience has gone on to influence and inform his art and has created a sense of curiosity for his audience who are always trying to decipher the story in the art.
Writer, Michael Isaac spoke to Ken over a telephone conversation – after what seemed to have dragged for over a year – about his art, finding his muse, how he has navigated through the COVID-19 Pandemic and an upcoming project in Hawaii.
Ken, how are you and how long you been in London?
I’m okay, cold due to London’s weather but I’m fine. Yeah. Doing great, Michael. And err… for London, not too long, I think two months now. I came before this lockdown and when I got here, the lockdown began and I’ve been here ever since.
I want to talk about your first show. What experience do you want to tell us about your first show that you think has influenced you moving forward?
Oh, that’s eternity. That was 2016, that was a very important show for me. I think that basically did everything for me. My first show was partly organized by me. You know how we started doing arts. Arts was not popular in Nigeria, there was no avenue for people to learn arts informally, everybody I went to for learning arts said to finish my engineering degree then come back and do a degree in arts but I knew that it wasn’t going to be possible because my parents wouldn’t let me finish engineering and start an arts degree. And also, I knew that I couldn’t leave engineering because you know in Nigeria, if you’re an engineer, na you get mouth.
It’s a more respected profession. I knew that I couldn’t leave engineering and nobody wanted to give me that support so I started trying to learn through the internet which was the only thing we had. The most documented art form on the internet at that time was ‘Hyperrealism’ because hyperrealism got more attention than any other form of art and so it got my own attention. There was this gallery in London who at that time came to Lagos and bought one of my works and introduced me to some art persons, art collectors and you know, and they led me to this amazing art collector called Sam Momoh who had a foundation that helps invest in young people’s ideas, I told him that I wanted to do the biggest art gallery in Lagos and he sponsored it, it’s called the “Artist Connect” which is still functioning till date. From Artist Connect, we decided to make an art exhibition with about ten different artists. The first Hyperrealism exhibition in Nigeria. I was very happy in sorting out everything; you know meeting people and the gallery.
It’s apparent that the first show was important and gave room for many things but now let’s talk about what seems to be your muse in your art? Everyone who knows Ken and who is familiar with your work knows that there’s this thing that we look out for which is the eye. Let’s talk about the eye. Largely, I can say that is your muse, right?
Okay, so how does that play into your art? How are you able to use the eye to tell a story?
The whole ‘eye’ conversation started a long time ago when I almost lost my eye. I was young and my brother and I were playing and I ran into my parent’s room and the handle of the door pierced my eye and it tore the skin covering my eye and my eye dangled out. My eye was sewn back while I was still awake. Coming back from that, all my life became about my eye. From secondary school and all people mocked my eyes and called me names. Teachers would look at me and feel some sort of way. I felt less happy. But my mom made it all better for me. She used to say that the eye is the gateway to the world and the bigger your eyes, the bigger things you can see. So subconsciously, my brain just settled with the power of the eye and it is really powerful the eye. I began using the eye to represent people more than their physical being. It represents human beings, what they’ve gone through, and represents the truth. To be honest, that what my work is about and the eye essentially represents a person. You can tell a lot about people just by looking at them in the eye.
At what point did you know that you would become an artist or was there any significant event that happened?
It was during my five hundred level. After my IT as a civil engineer that I realized that I didn’t see myself two decades from then, being an engineer. It was glaring to me at that point and all I could think of was the inability to paint while I was in the office and I hardly went to the office because I was back home painting and I realized that if I became a civil engineer, I’d have a repetitive cycle of coming late to work or I wouldn’t be really serious. That was one of the conversations I had in my head about me being an artist and me not practicing engineering. I realized that there’s a way engineering could influence art. It’s still art but it has structures and ideologies of engineering. It’s still a work in progress trying to merge them together. It was during my IT that I dec8that I wanted to be an artist regardless of whatever consequences that may be.
All right, let’s talk about last year. We had the pandemic and the lockdown due to that, how did that affect you as an artist and how were you able to maintain your sanity in that period? How were you able to navigate all of what happened last year as an artist?
At the beginning of last year when the lockdown started, I got really depressed during the first two months because I’d just finished my show in London and it was like I wasn’t happy with myself not because of the show but because it felt like I should be doing something different. Still art but it felt like I should be doing something extra and then the COVID happened. I was depressed for two months before having a conversation with a colleague who told me that it was now when the whole world was sleeping that the greatest people would be working. It was with this thought that I got to work and started buying products for art with my leftover money from the last show. That was how I worked through my depression; I solidified who I wanted to be. For me, it was from depression to discovery.
Lastly, you are working on something coming up in May, a show ‘Pow-Wow, the First Decade’ what is this show about?
Oh, it’s this thing by Think Space Gallery, I’ve been a fan of Think Space Gallery for almost four years. I was honored to do my first US show with them which just ended last month, March. I have never felt so happy to be a visual artist not because of the sales but because first of all, the fact that I could be in one of my dream galleries, it means that everything is possible. Secondly, new people could see my work, you know, my work is about my friends, the kind of things I experience. It’s a very beautiful fulfillment for me. You know, learning my story, learning who I am, where I came from, the things that affect me. They invited me to be a part of the Pow-Wow. This time it will be in Hawaii and it’s something I believe a lot of people will relate to that.
Do you think that your work has driven or played into any call for social change over the years?
I feel so, maybe not on a large scale—I mean, you can never know the impact that you’ve had in the world until you die. So for me, it’s the individual impact that has connected me at the moment. For somebody to hit me up and say “this conversation about this work has changed my view”. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people who have said “this has touched me and I’m going to be giving my child this kind of opportunity”. That’s how I bring my story into my world and people connect with it. If you connect with one person and that person can learn from you, it’s fulfilling.
Briefly talk about @EverythingKen, I believe that’s an account that belongs to you. What’s really going on there?
I’ve been so scared of posting most of the things that I work on. I still need to triumph over that feeling, I’ve been so scared of posting on my regular page, the uncertainty of my work being properly organized yet or if I’ve finished what it represents yet, so @everythingken is my practice. I shoot a lot of videos. I put the content there. I do a lot of music covers. On it, I did Burna Boy’s On A Spaceship album cover, I put all that in part of the portfolio of @everythingken. And yeah, it’s more of my ‘oh look at me I can be fun’ page. Sometimes it’s serious, sometimes it’s not.
Michael Isaac is a creative writer, journalist, and podcaster. He’s on a mission to create noteworthy contents that serve to keep his generation informed and enlightened.
Michael is available on Instagram and Twitter @themichaelfaya