Exploring space, identity and belonging with ruby onyinyechi amanze, featured artist of the Deutsche Bank Wealth Management Lounge at Frieze New York 2019.
The notion of home is complex when you are from a number of places, and a product of all and none at the same time. Artist ruby onyinyechi amanze – spelled without capital letters by her aesthetic preference – was raised on three continents and considers Lagos, London, Brooklyn and Philadelphia all home, yet feels no connection to any of them. “Home can be many different places,” she explains, “not just geographical places with borders and points on a map, but mental, emotional and spiritual places that you can go between very easily.”
The critical theorist Homi Bhabha may call this a ‘third space’ – a new place created by colliding cultures that enables the possibility of something different and potentially better than its origins. In amanze’s artwork, home is a Wonderland for hybrid beings who soar, dive, float, fall, dance, lumber, tumble, run, jerk and lounge across great empty expanses, while objects such as birds, plants, motorcycles, Astroturf and architectural elements project a sense of place – but, intentionally, not a very specific one; this home is not static. As for her most recent works, they look increasingly at the use of space and the ways to physically manipulate the two-dimensional plane of the paper. They are playful explorations rendered in ink, graphite, colored pencils and photo transfers.
Inspiration in motion: amanze's early life
amanze was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, in 1982. Her parents were both lecturing in local universities. Shortly after her birth, the family emigrated to Birmingham in the UK, where her father pursued a PhD in Biological Chemistry and her mother an MA in Education. In 1995, just as amanze hit her teens, the family moved to the US. It was the year Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building; the year of Toy Story, the first computer-animated feature film; and the year OJ Simpson was pronounced innocent. amanze’s first memory on US soil is of her new home in the suburbs of Philadelphia. “I remember the house feeling very American. It was big by our former British standards and had a finished basement and an attic, just like the TV shows of American life we’d watched. On the corner was a small mom-and-pop store that sold hoagies [sandwiches] and on the other corner was a tattoo shop and a church.”
In high school, amanze took advantage of a strong arts program, practically living in the art studios. A Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) seemed a natural next step. Her parents “mildly discouraged” her creative pursuits, hoping they were a phase. “At the time,” amanze says, “it wasn’t part of the immigrant story to say you want to study art or be an artist.”
amanze received a BFA – summa cum laude – from Philadelphia’s Tyler School of Art, Temple University, in 2004. Two years later, she graduated with a Master of Fine Arts from the esteemed Cranbrook Academy of Art, near Detroit, Michigan, which was followed by teaching jobs. In 2009, she was hired as the Director of Education at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn, New York. During this period amanze was also active in group exhibitions throughout the US as well as New York, where she showed ‘Works on Paper’ at the South Shore Art Center in 2007 and held an exhibition at The Cooper Union School of Art in 2011, capping off the residency she had just completed there. Her work then was already investigating themes of home and hybridity, but in abstract form, void of figures and relying on ink more than graphite.
In 2012, the artist was awarded a Fulbright teaching and research scholarship that took her back to Nigeria for only the third time since leaving as an infant. The trip marked a turning point in her work as she moved from abstract to figurative artworks. It was during this time that amanze unleashed the characters that would become the central figures of her ongoing body of work, Aliens, Hybrids and Ghosts.
A hybrid menagerie: amanze's recurring cast
“The characters came because I was living in Nigeria as an adult for the first time and creating a narrative about being an alien in that space,” amanze shares. “But also, it was a familiar home space, so there was a back and forth between those two extremes and I wanted to look at that through the lens of these other beings and not as a self-portrait.”
The first character to arrive was ada the Alien. Except for her fluorescent yellow skin, she is the mirror image of amanze. She has the lithe, angular limbs of a dancer and seems introspective, self-assured and perhaps a little melancholy. audre the Leopard (a leopard-headed human hybrid) appeared next. He is aloof but protective, and it is clear that he and ada have a thing. They dance, they embrace, and in 10 Litres of Air (The Divers II) (2016), audre pins ada under one arm as she plunges downward, dressed in a bathing suit and space helmet. Or maybe he is stopping her from floating up and out of Wonderland? In The Divers (2016) it is the other way around, with ada holding audre as they sink or rise together.
Presence in absence: why amanze is increasingly exploring space
As the characters and chapters of the Hybrids series progressed, with exhibitions in Ohio, Lagos, London and New York, amanze became less interested in exploring ideas of hybridity and more interested in the actual space – the voluminous zero-gravity white of the paper that her characters occupy.
“I think there’s something in the drawing process and in the larger context of how one can move through space,” she says. “There’s something magical about that. Also, on the paper plane, to be able to move and push and pull, and create entrances and windows and alleyways, and all of these things that suggest the space is the meat of the work and less the issue of cultural hybridity.”
amanze recently began to add physical depth to her paper. She made some of her drawings three-dimensional, using wooden forms, deep shadow boxes, or layers of resin to manipulate space beyond the paper’s surface. Her 2018 exhibition ‘there are even moonbeams we can unfold’ at Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, showcased several of these sculptural drawings. Deutsche Bank's Art, Culture & Sports department acquired their first work by amanze in 2015 for their London office, and have now seized the opportunity to make her the featured artist of the Deutsche Bank Wealth Management Lounge at
Sitting in the third-floor studio of the house that she and her husband bought in Philadelphia, not far from where her family went to church when she was growing up, amanze says that creating sculptural drawings is the most exciting part of her practice right now. She adds: “Part of the process is discovering ways that the paper can hold physical weight and have a presence in the space it is in, and how it can physically engage with the viewer and the architecture. That comes from what happens inside the drawings – allowing the drawn world to become a three-dimensional world as well.”
But to amanze, the drawings were never flat. She sees depth in her paper the way that a sculptor of marble may see a form hidden in a slab of rock. She physically enters the drawings when she works, lying on them and leaving marks and impressions of herself as she dances her characters across the stage of heavy cotton paper. In her large works, there is room for you, the viewer, in the space of the drawing as well. So, whether you are one of the multitudes who share a relationship to space akin to amanze’s or not, you can still visit Wonderland, if only for a moment.
Clint McLean is a writer and photographer specialising in arts and culture. He is based in Denmark.
This article first appeared in the May 2019 edition of WERTE, the client magazine of Deutsche Bank Wealth Management.
Twin: A performance + drawing
On Friday May 3, 2019 at Frieze New York, from 12.30pm to 4pm, amanze will be performing live with longstanding collaborator Wura-Natasha Ogunji on the lawn outside the north entrance of the fair on Randall's Island. For more information, please visit db.com/art