Transnationalism and migration are often treated as tragic subjects, but not by ruby onyinyechi amanze. Her art playfully embraces the transcience of place and self.
ruby onyinyechi amanze
Born in Nigeria, raised in the UK, and currently residing in the US, ruby onyinyechi amanze is a visual artist who renders the space of the paper into a chimeric universe where humans, hybrid creatures, and their kindred forms are “simultaneously positioned both nowhere and everywhere.” Drawing upon her experiences of transnational movement, she uses architecture, design, photography and various dance and movement languages to give form to the feeling of transience – to circumscribe and legitimate the experience of impermanence without, however, imposing an authoritative definition upon it.
I first encountered her work in the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, and was immediately captivated by her playful approach to a subject that is traditionally treated as tragic: the experience of transnationalism, migration, and displacement. Rather than conveying a sense of longing or nostalgia for an authentic homeland to which she might someday return, amanze’s drawings seem to question instead the authenticity of the nation-state as a legitimate form capable of containing the infinite dimensions of her experience.
I sat down with her to discuss the concept of identity as a source of play, and her ongoing attempt to capture the experience of transience and impermanence on paper.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background, and how you came to drawing specifically as a medium of expression?
Art was my first love, outside of family. Other loves were added, but first came art – specifically the love of drawing. I knew as a child that I wanted to be an artist. I had no idea what that meant career-wise (I’m still figuring it out), but I was sure that I was here to make art. So I did. And I was relentless in my conviction, even as a young child.
I went to art school and studied photography and fibers/textile arts. They both felt like a space for brutal honesty. By the time I entered college, I’d kept sketchbooks for several years. They were secret and raw – a place where fragments got woven together, embedded, plastered over. Photography and fibers were a fit for me at the time, and continue to surface now in subtle ways.
From undergrad, I went straight to graduate school. My school wasn’t based around the common class structure as a way of learning. There were no classes, only Artists-in-Residence that served as ‘department heads.’ We were there to essentially stumble our way into being studio artists. To figure out the ebbs and flows of what it meant to develop and nurture a studio practice. I remember that time fondly. I think if it wasn’t for that way of learning, I’m not sure who I would be.
It wasn’t until after graduate school that I returned to drawing in the traditional sense. My work has centered around the medium ever since, and I’m excited for possibly a life-long commitment to its exploration. There’s so much in drawing that captivates me. As arguably the first medium, it’s deeply rooted in humanity – outside of academia, outside of race or class, outside of any pretense. We draw because we are human. We are compelled to mark our existence.
I’m interested in the playful quality of your drawings, and how that relates to your themes of place and identity. So often, the idea of feeling “in between” places or identities – the feeling of not quite fitting in anywhere – gets conveyed as a sense of tragic dislocation. But I feel like your drawings offer a different way of thinking about that experience. When I look at your drawings, I feel a sense of freedom and playfulness, rather than tragedy. Can you speak to this aesthetic of playfulness in your drawings?
It’s exactly that – ‘a sense of freedom and playfulness, rather than tragedy.’ What is there to be tragic about? That I have multiple homes instead of one? I know this isn’t the narrative when migration is violently forced and abrupt. Understandably there’s likely to be some trauma in those situations, but that’s not my personal narrative. I think there’s a bizarre romanticism in the ‘other’ as tragic, but I can’t adopt sentiments of dislocation if they’re not mine.
I went through the chapter of angst and non-belonging, and I’m happy that I moved past it – that it’s behind me. I’m here and I’m thankful for the variety of experiences I’ve had so far. I’m not interested in identity as an inflexibility, or as something prescribed by the gatekeepers of culture. It’s easy to divide those perceived as authentic from those perceived otherwise. My authenticity is in being human, not in which languages I do or don’t speak.
I took to play, because I realized there was something really liberating about being able to live in between worlds. I’m not sure what shifted it, but it was a moment of, ‘ah, maybe this is a gift!’ Maybe I have super powers?! Nothing has been lost – but it started to feel as though something had been gained. I could never check a simple box to say what or who I was (based on geography or cultural markers) and maybe that makes other people uncomfortable. But on the other side of the coin, I was never constrained by those limitations of being – I was free to be nothing and everything, free to invent. The blank canvas of making things up is the essence of play. As is the ability to shift those rules at any given point. Children in an open, unidentified space can transform it into lava, or a deep ocean or the forest. I don’t think that’s from naiveté, on the contrary I find curiosity and innovation to be invaluable.
Many of your drawings remind me of collages, both in the groundless, floating, dreamy quality of the figures, as well as the way in which they bring together fragments and characters that don’t necessarily appear to belong together. (I’m thinking especially of your piece Kindred here). Was this affinity with collage art intentional? If not, can you speak to the way in which you address the notion of belonging and non-belonging in the composition of your works?
I’m coming from a textiles background where imagery (including non figurative surface areas) were often layered on top of each other. It might take weeks to dye a single piece of cloth, because dying something was a process of dying over and over again...of building and really embedding the color into the fibers. I think this is where my collage aesthetic comes from and less so from collaging paper – although I enjoyed doing so in sketchbooks and making postcards for friends. I think of a layering method and also a fragmented visual, as connecting back to storytelling and narrative. Stories, both invented and ‘true,’ blur the lines of time and sequence. Details get omitted or placed out of order, embellishments are added alongside facts. I think of paper as being very similar to fabric, and perfect for storytelling, in its amazing ability to bury histories.
The work isn’t about belonging and non-belonging. It’s about freedom and the malleability of space (all space; tangible and metaphoric). Although they all take different pseudo-human forms, the characters/creatures are a family unit. They each have their personalities and inherent natures, and the centering force of their relationship is that they don’t question ‘otherness.’ The just exist. Kindred was the first family portrait where they all appeared together in the same picture plane. Since that drawing, there have been some additions to the family who are present in subsequent portraits.
You’ve spoken before about the fluidity of identity, and how you try to capture that in all of your work. Can you tell me a little bit more about when and how you began thinking about this concept?
In some ways it may have just been wired into me unconsciously. I think in some cultural regards, fluid identities were actually the opposite of what I was ‘supposed’ to learn and adopt. Gender was fixed, age limitations were fixed... even things like profession – it felt like they were housed in very rigid boxes that were sometimes decided for you.
But on the other hand, fluidity was ingrained in me by virtue of my family moving across three continents in twelve years. At one point, though we lived in the same city, we moved every single year for approximately six or seven years. We were a bit nomadic in that sense. We invented and reinvented many times over. Friends and homes became transient things – not intended for permanency. Cities, states, countries, continents quickly began to feel borderless and arbitrary. I realized early on, that my body/mind/spirit could be anywhere and could even split themselves, so my body was in Philadelphia and my mind was in London.
It became a magic trick. To be nothing in particular, but all the things wrapped into one. I find that empowering, and a story that for a long time was shunned for its inauthenticity. To be a national is to be proud. I’m not a national of anywhere, so I began being free instead, and finding a different version of pride in my ability to invent.
Can you speak a little bit about your alter-ego (ada the Alien) and the way it appears in your drawings? When did you conceive of this alter ego, and under what circumstances? How does the presence of an alter-ego speak to your larger themes about fluidity of identity and playfulness?
I’ll start by saying that ada the Alien is no longer my alter-ego. She was, and then I no longer needed her, so she stopped. She was the first in a long line of characters and creatures that I have invented in my work, and was born during a year-long chapter where I lived in Nigeria. I wanted someone to tell the stories through. From the beginning, I didn’t want it to be about me.
She stopped being my alter-ego when the work shifted into a conversation more about space and less about these beings and what they represented, or who they were. She’s still drawn from my likeness. It didn’t feel necessary to borrow another face, plus I liked that she looked anywhere from vaguely to very much like me. She was familiar still. The detachment from my persona followed a change in geography. When I left, she became something else.
Where does inspiration come from for you specifically? Are there certain artists that you feel a kinship or lineage with?
One of my favorite quotes is by Kerry James Marshall: “Inspiration comes from work.” And also what David Hammons was talking about when he described the “process to get to brilliancy” – that you have to empty your head of every silly idea that comes into it, and essentially teach yourself how to think in a way that’s unique to you because the process was unique.
It’s a nice idea to be able to say so and so, and such and such inspired the work, but that doesn’t feel quite true to me in this moment. Sure, there are visual artists who I admire and respect, often for reasons outside of their actual art work. For example, the way they may put words to paper – Marlene Dumas’s book, Notes and Texts, is one of my studio “bibles,” as is the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s, Letters to a Young Poet. I respect Agnes Martin and Louise Bourgeois for their pioneering longevity, particularly as women artists. Also Frida Kahlo, simply for who she was.
When the admiration is more about the work itself, one might find it difficult to draw a visual parallel between their aesthetics and mine. Artists such as Egon Schiele and Cy Twombly with their raw, sprawling mark. (Twombly was the first artist that made me sit down in the gallery and dream of sleeping there for ever and ever…) I’ve always loved Richard Serra’s sculptures, and more recently the work of Martin Puryear. Toba Khedoori is another artist whose large, minimalist drawings make me sit down and simply feel their weight.
Many, many more. Lots of writers, architects, dancers, choreographers. I make it a point to watch films monthly. There are many things that make me think, that push me to expansion.
But at the end of the day, no one is in the studio with me. Literally, in that sense, I am alone and have to find inspiration in the reality of that level of solitude.
Can you speak a little about the significance of animals in your drawings, particularly the leopard, which seems to be a recurring figure?
It’s funny because I no longer see them as animals! I’m actually not sure if I ever did. There’s a new figure that is flirting with being born into the drawings. It’s a zebra and the first that for me is read as an animal. The rest on an initial encounter are pseudo human, hybrid creatures. But hopefully, people will come to see them more as forms. As shapes that inhabit space.
audre the Leopard was the first hybrid. They are inspired by an artist friend of mine, with whom I’ve collaborated with in different ways for the past four years. audre is stoic and wields a certain, calm power. They are also quite loving towards the others. I don’t know much about leopards, but I imagine there is some truth in those attributes as it relates to the animal. My friend and I invented audre the Leopard together. I said I wanted to include them in my narrative and asked how they wanted to appear. They responded with a leopard, who we collectively named ‘audre,’ after audre lorde. Now the leopard exists. But not as a leopard, more as a form I’m drawn to.