A conversation between Thierry Goldberg Gallery and Kenechukwu Victor
Thierry Goldberg: Tell us about your background and how you came to painting. What drew you to portraiture, in particular?
Kenechukwu Victor: I’ve been drawing since I was a child. Whether it was Tom and Jerry cartoons or anime, I was always looking for some form of expression. I’m a shy person, so drawing came naturally to me as an alternative to talking. I carried this interest through school, to the point where I couldn’t enter a space without drawing on something. I became a real menace to the surfaces around me.
As I kept practicing and expanding my understanding of the human anatomy, I became fascinated with how much you can learn about a person based on their facial expression. So, I got into practicing hyperrealism and my love for colors naturally led me to painting.
TG: Your portraits are quite minimal in their presentation; the subjects are often wearing one or two colors, placed against blank or floral backgrounds, and (with the exception of Lady with rabbit) they gaze directly back at you or the viewer. Who are the individuals in your paintings? What factors do you take into consideration when choosing how to portray them?
KV: Most of my subjects are people who are very close to me – my family and friends. Sometimes I will find an image on Instagram, but my portraits are never an exact representation of the person or image in front of me. I tend to leave their faces blank at first, allowing my emotions to guide me in how I portray them. It’s more about telling a story or accessing something deeper about the person. My subjects gaze back at the viewer as a technique to draw you into the work. When the work is staring back at you, it forms a telepathic bond that puts you in conversation with the work. It pulls you into its world.
TG: The figures in your portraits are all depicted with white hair and white lips. Is this a stylistic choice or is there a symbolic meaning behind these characteristics?
KV: Many of the colors that I use are recurring and have a deeper significance. The white hair and lips are incorporated from “Nzu”, a white chalk that is used in Igbo culture, symbolizing wisdom, peace, and purity. I see the white hair in my paintings as a way of depicting my subjects in their most glorious form, and the white lips as a seal of truth for each story I tell with my work.
TG: Could you talk a bit more about the act of storytelling? Why is it important to you to tell the truth through your work?
KV: Growing up, I learned about my family and my tribe through stories that were passed on. A lot of times, we don’t really know who we are until we hear the stories of those who came before us. I see my work as a form of documenting my life and what is happening in society right now, so that future generations can learn about our time and what happened before them.
If you look at history, so many stories – especially Black stories – have been told by people who did not experience what happened or who manipulated what happened to suit their interests. The relationship between storytelling and the truth is very important. A story can change a narrative for life if it’s told the wrong way. As a symbol of truth, the white chalk is a way of being held accountable for the stories I tell.
TG: Another recurring image throughout your paintings is a curved symbol with two dashes – as seen in the background of Lovelyn’s Testament, Lovelyn’s Testament II, and In My Heart and Everywhere. What does this character signify? Why have you included it within the context of these three paintings, in particular?
KV: This body of work is centered around my mother, and the symbol in those particular paintings represents motherhood. It is derived from an ancient system of ideographic writing and symbols called Nsibidi, which is used by indigenous tribes in southeastern Nigeria and other parts of West Africa. With these paintings, I wanted to portray my mother’s strength and beauty, as well as her fears, uncertainties, goals, and the pain of not having her own mother around to watch her grow into who she is now.
TG: The notions of innocence and motherhood take on a more somber tone in Endangered Species III, which depicts two young children standing with their arms crossed, heads held low. The painting is part of a series through which you have spoken more directly about Nigeria’s political climate and ongoing crises, namely school raids and the abduction of over 300 students. How do these events inform your practice and the type of work that you make?
KV: Most of the time, I paint about things that are happening in my society. Nigeria is a great nation with the potential to achieve great things, but a lot has happened recently that we, as citizens, do not deserve. Children, the future of our nation, are being kidnapped and held for ransom. They have become an endangered species of their own. Children are being used as pawns for political gain, as though by instilling a sense of fear within parents’ and families’ lives, somehow you can control a whole nation. The Endangered Species series is my way of speaking out against all of this. The children in my paintings are looking right at you, demanding your attention.