ruby onyinyechi amanze embeds a notion of scholarly artist in a true sense. Next to her large drawings on paper stands a mind that is influenced by spatiality in a geographical sense. The artist employs a design sensibility that gives her drawings variable perspectives. ruby amanze completed her art degrees, worked in art institutions, and as the Director of Education at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA). She was a Fulbright Scholar teaching art at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 2012-2013. Currently, while still teaching art, her artistic practice evolves in a studio located in Brooklyn, New York City.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: It is fascinating how you translate the theme of hybridity into formations with so much vivid color and fluidity. Do you think this resonates with the fact that you were transferring between various continents?
ruby: Most definitely. There is a way of being and moving in space, that I feel is unique to the experience of having come from many places. Automatically, there is less permanence associated with land (geography) or a sense of home. My understanding of home was that it changed a lot. So I adapted into a shared consciousness that home equates fluidity. Also, that my physical body had the right to claim space wherever I was- nothing felt off limits. I started to identify myself as a hybrid and to recognize that there were many narratives of hybridity. Initially, there was an idea that people who moved in that kind of way didn’t belong anywhere- that they had no home and somehow weren’t “authentic”. Or that they lost something…something they would always search for. I disagree.
I feel that my life is enriched by these multiple homes. I meet people from all over the world who have had similar transcontinental experiences, and I know I’m part of a borderless, expansive “country”. We don’t have a landmass. But the space is a legitimate one. A lot of this informs my spatial decisions in the drawings.
What does being ‘African’ mean to you personally, was there a strong sense of a Nigerian community in England where you grew up?
ruby: Being African for me can mean many different things, depending on the context. Generally speaking, I think it’s far too broad and simple of a “classification”. What I know of Africa is miniscule compared to its vastness. And that goes for any of us, who refer to the region so lightly…the truth is we know next to nothing. Even to zoom in to Nigeria, where I’m from- the same sort of complexity exists. Non-African colonizers, as is the case for many – if not all African ‘countries’ – arbitrarily decided the country’s borders. The writer Taiye Selasi said in a Ted Talk, “nations are concepts”. They’re inventions. She said that what makes more sense, is to think about where you are ‘local’ of, as opposed to a ‘national’. I think this is true, so while I was born on the landmass we call Nigeria, what is more accurate to say right now, is that I have a relationship with the city of Lagos. That’s what I know most of Nigeria. That’s where I have friends and routines…where I invest time and spirit. That’s where I am at home. Yes, there was and still are, large communities of Nigerians throughout England. Growing up there, my family was part of a circle of families that emigrated around the same time, some of whom had known themselves in Nigeria prior to relocating. My generation of this circle is still close. We grew up essentially as cousins.
When did you start making art, how did your career path take direction?
ruby: I’ve been making art, and identifying as an artist, since I was a small child. It has always been, everything I’ve wanted to do and be. My pursuit of it was single minded. At every point that there was an option, I chose art. Coming from a family of Nigerian immigrants, who had grown up with the societal framework that art is not a career, I had to be quite stubborn and relentless in advocating for it. To my favor, I excelled in all academic areas, so my parents didn’t fight me too much, and perhaps took the mentality of ‘waiting it out’ to see if it would pass! It didn’t pass and here I am today, as I knew I would be. All of my life choices have been around art. I did my B.F.A and M.F.A worked in art institutions, taught art (and still currently do)…The turning point for my career was when I decided to leave the best job I’d had, as the Director of Education at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA). I left to do a Fulbright on contemporary drawing in Nigeria. It was a year commitment primarily to the studio. When I returned, there was no going back to anything other than a full time dedication to my career as an artist. This was the best decision I ever made…
Can you recall your aesthetic language? Somewhere in the drawings/paper, the characters dance, move, and seem to be very mobile?
ruby: Funny that you say that, as I’m influenced a lot by dance, performance and movement languages such as Gaga (that I recently discovered and have since incorporated into my extended ‘studio’ practice). Also films…slow moving, non-linear, beautifully ‘choreographed’ spaces and exchanges. I go to the cinema every other week if I can, and am completely absorbed into the imagery. It’s like going to library and collecting books for research. I collect images, not knowing when or how exactly they’ll resurface. Architecture and design influence my imagery a lot.
In hindsight, I’m aware of many instances where I aligned myself with design conversations and practices. I don’t think I had the language to make the connections before…to talk about my drawings as design. It just was a pull that I kept following. After my M.F.A, I contemplated returning to school to study architecture. I think architectural drawings are so beautiful. And the ways they think about space, as something malleable that can be shifted or constructed, is fascinating to me.
Your drawings on paper seem to be narrating things, and yet say something very poetic in their way of leaving lots of white space around the figures and colors. How about, are any of these patterns and colors influenced by some African aesthetic traditions, and folk features?
ruby: I think of the drawings as non-linear narratives. Story telling is a fluid art, and even when it’s ‘true’, there is always an element of fiction in it. I’m a storyteller. And I leave space for the viewers to insert themselves or participate in constructing the narrative. There are clues- some of which come from actual experiences (mine or sampled), some of which are entirely fabricated. I don’t feel any obligation to give the viewer everything. Nor do I feel that art is a platform solely for me to communicate a particular and clear ‘message’. That’s not my job as an artist.
While spending time in Nigeria, what did you learn and study? How was the experience like; did it feel foreign at times, or was it more like returning home?
ruby: I’m sure I learned many things…but mostly from the normal day-to-day living, as anyone would wherever they found themselves. There were no grand epiphanies. Generally speaking, there was no “adjusting”. I wasn’t there as a student, but in the position of a professor, I think there’s always a reverse learning that happens in the classroom- if nothing else, how to be a better professor. I was there and it was my home, my life- it felt familiar. Of course, there were things that were different. But the only thing that really rattled me were social attitudes that seemed antiquated when it came to gender or sexual equality. Let’s just say, I got into a few fights!
Do the paper works without borders or frames imply different moods than the ones with frames?
ruby: No, it’s just a different presentation. I like that paper does many things.
Could you tell a little about the experience and feedback you received at the Armory Show, you were there with Mariane Ibrahim Gallery during the first week of March?
ruby: I’m happy to have had the opportunity. It can be a complicated space for an artist to navigate, because it’s a market. There is little conversation about practice or curatorial interests. I had to separate it in my mind from the studio. In making the work, I was very intentional about maintaining my integrity. Time wise, the work was shown at the Armory, but in a different time, it could have been shown anywhere. In other words, showing at the Armory didn’t change anything for me in terms of what I’m interested in exploring in the studio. More than sales, what I’m most excited about is the visibility…the introduction to museums and such.
Where are you heading next, artistic plans for the future?
ruby: I look forward to many things in my career as an artist. But the number one joy in all of this is what happens in the studio. That’s where I’m heading next…
Artist website: www.rubyamanze.com