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Ken Nwadiogbu: The Rise Of Nigeria’s Contemporealist

By Njideka Agbo
29 September 2019   |   6:00 am
In 2018, in a street in Yaba, Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial and trade capital, a 23-year-old has posted a picture of his artwork that takes after a photograph: a realistic face of a man interlaced with two men fighting. The image bears a simple message: “My name is Ken Nwadiogbu, I am 23 and this is…

In 2018, in a street in Yaba, Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial and trade capital, a 23-year-old has posted a picture of his artwork that takes after a photograph: a realistic face of a man interlaced with two men fighting. The image bears a simple message: “My name is Ken Nwadiogbu, I am 23 and this is my drawing with pencil.”

A few days later, the picture will be viewed more than 3 million times, at least 633,000 people will comment, share and like the photo on Twitter under the #WeAreNigerianCreatives hashtag. It will also garner thousands of likes on Instagram as well as other social media platforms. 

Thy Brother Is Not Thy Brother Indeed

Less than a year later, Nwadiogbu is the only Nigerian headlining the Moniker International Art Fair, the world’s largest urban art fair.

Accidental Beginnings

Kenechukwu Nwadiogbu did not set out to become an artist. Born at a time when parents still choose professions for their children and fields in science were deemed the most lucrative, Nwadiogbu wanted to study civil engineering. This he pursued with vigour until puppy love knocked on his door.

The 17-year-old Nwadiogbu found himself checking social media platforms to find out the interests of the girl he had fallen in love with. “ I saw that she loved playing the guitar, dancing and art so I started learning all of them. I played the guitar and danced but she didn’t like them. Then one day I drew a very funny picture of her and I saw that it piqued her interest. I kept on trying until I drew one she really liked.”

This motivation had an unintended consequence. 

As he developed in his drawing, his fame among his small circle grew and the encouragement from his friends spurred him on. One day, a friend narrated the tale of a student who was drawing the Dean of his faculty. Intrigued, he met the student to find out how he was able to draw the Dean with precision. His interest and praise of the student will soon turn sour as the student refused to yield to any of his questions.

“I kept asking him, ‘How did you draw this?’ and he didn’t want to tell me. So the first thing I did was to search on the internet for how to draw a human being to look like a human being. That’s when I saw [that there was] something called hyperrealism,” he says laughing.

The problem with hyperrealism

Nigeria has been unofficially declared as the country with the highest number of hyperrealists in the world. A lot of this recognition stems from the #WeAreNigerianCreatives, a hashtag that showcases the artworks of many hidden talents in the country. Nigerian hyperrealist, Eli Waduba, is one of those to have benefited from the campaign having had American star, Kevin Hart purchase his art and request for more for three of his celebrity friends. Nwadiogbu is also a major beneficiary of this platform.

On the background of the collectors’ scene are musical icons SwizzBeats, and Jay Z who have declared their love for the works done by these Nigerians. Yet, Nwadiogbu says that, in the art scene, it did not receive enough appreciation.

“I organised one of the biggest group show on hyperrealism called INSANITY With Omenka Gallery and this is because nobody wanted to show me. For one, I was a hyperrealist and people did not value it at that time.”

“You literally look at the contemporary artist and all you want to understand is the narrative of the work, ‘why did you create an abstract piece?, ‘why did you put a pencil here?’ so the contemporary art asks ‘why’, while hyperrealism asks ‘how good?’ So my problem was, how do I merge these two together so that people can see my work for more than they were meant to see it if it were hyperrealism?” 

Thanks to a collector interested in his work, he declined the collectors’ offer to have a solo exhibition and brought together, other hyperrealists in what he calls “Artist Connect.” “Artist Connect” would later become [arguably] the largest gathering of hyperrealists in West Africa. INSANITY, its follow-up show will become the largest hyperrealist exhibition in Omenka Gallery.

While it was a celebrated move, another problem stared them in the face. The persistent argument that hyperrealism was just a replica of photos and cannot be entirely described as art. The only problem was, the art Nwadiogbu was creating, were not just replicas.

“Everywhere I go, no matter what I said, it was not given much impact because people have stereotyped hyperrealism to be an art piece that looks like a picture. So if any educated art person hears I am a hyperrealist, all they want to see is how good it looks like a picture but that is not what my art is about.”

Yet again, Nwadiogbu had another problem in his hands. Having no background education in the arts or a mentor, he was not warmly accepted into the Nigerian art circle.

“Nobody cared about the art I was creating. In fact, people were laughing at some point. A very popular and established Nigerian artist looked at my work in a collector’s preview and said, hyperrealism does not work in this world, think of abstract pieces.”

While he started to gain recognition in the public grabbing the attention of African rapper MI and Burna Boy whose album cover, On A Spaceship, he drew and edited, all these experiences would give birth to Contemporealism – “hyperrealism with elements of contemporary materials such as the newspapers, collages, writings, lights,” a genre he has pioneered. 

“I did this piece called “Unleashed” (a self-portrait of him coming out of paper) and people kept asking, ‘why is someone coming out of paper?.  This conversation kept on, not because it was aesthetically beautiful, but because of the action that was happening on that piece of paper. It was an eye-opener for me.” And it was all he needed to propel him to international fame in the contemporary art scene.

The “blacklist” from the art scene also saw Nwadiogbu use his only tool, social media, to push himself under the #WeAreNigerianCreatives hashtag. After his works got featured in galleries outside the country, “my country started paying attention.” 

The Wakeup call

These conversations also made him study in-depth, the contemporary works of great artists and how they used their work to speak about society.

“As a youth in Nigeria, the moment I knew that art could start conversations, I decided to start conversations about my background so one of the works that I created was me coming out of paper (a piece), me breaking out of my comfort zone and the challenges that I face as a Nigerian Youth and the things I face in society,” he notes. 

“I wish to intentionally make people reevaluate if what they believe is right or wrong. The good thing about art is that it speaks in diverse languages so you cannot completely monitor what your art preaches. So every time I create pieces, I look at the general point of view and make sure that no matter the ideology or narrative you get from my art, it will turn into something that will definitely reevaluate your ideology.”

But like many professions, life was not a bed of roses. Disappointed in the homefront was his support group, home and school, who supposed that the soon-to-be engineer should focus on his studies and not drawing.

“But that is the whole idea, to show everyone that even though you have been beaten down, eventually, you are going to make it.”

Breaking Boundaries

Today, Nwadiogbu is the only Nigerian headlining and having a mini solo show at the Moniker International Art Fair as well as his first international solo show in BrickLane Gallery in London, a laudable feat. With this, he joins the likes of Banksy, Peter Blake and Vermibus to have ever headlined the Moniker art fair. He opines that it is rather interesting how social media was very influential in telling the world that there are young artists in Nigeria.

He also says that for someone who had no art education, this is a story that tells people that their dreams can be achieved.

“For someone to completely break through the market not being mentored by anybody, or from the art society to headline the BrickLane and one of the biggest international fairs in the world [Moniker], it is pretty much very inspirational for a lot of young artists.”

“I can imagine me back home seeing an artist making this type of move. I’d be much more inspired to want to keep making art because I know someday, I’d get to that level.”

“The fact that I can inspire one person is the best thing for me. I believe that the African market is growing rapidly. I want other people to tap into that growth.”