Ekene Emeka-Maduka is a master of her own visage. She is not the first, and undoubtedly will not be the last in a long line of artists that have explored the world of auto-portraiture. Her work so far has mostly consisted of images featuring the artist’s likeness, depicted against a variety of set designs, and artfully orchestrated scenes to communicate whatever she wants to send across to its viewer. At the age of 23, Emeka-Maduka is on a bit of a rising streak. Having recently come out of art school, she is already gaining recognition from the prestigious auction house, Christie's, on their Instagram. She has been the recipient of several grants and awards such as the Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys initiated, The Dean Collection Start-up Grant. She has completed commissions for writer/activist, Janet Mock, for American actor/activist, Jesse Williams, and for stylist to the stars, Jason Bolden. She also got a glowing shout-out from Mock in a recent Marie Claire feature lauding Emeka-Maduka’s work as part of her mission to continue supporting emerging Black artists.
I sat down with the budding Winnipeg-based artist a few weeks ago as she was working on new work for an upcoming solo exhibition in the UK. We discuss the creative environment she was fortunate enough to grew up in as a young girl in Kano state, Nigeria. Emeka-Maduka’s parents are both professionals in art-related fields and she tells me that she was always encouraged to create and this inevitably helped foster her career path within the arts. She even remembers her early days in nursery school where they worked on several artistic projects and was always urged to explore creatively. Additionally, having an older sister who first entered art school and seeing the kind of work she was doing, Emeka-Maduka knew this was a world she wanted to be part of.
Emeka-Maduka cites Montreal-born figurative painter, Chloe Wise, as an early influence when she stumbled upon her work on Tumblr some years ago. Like Wise, Emeka-Maduka’s paintings operate (intentionally or not) within an art historical space that has been upheld by a kind of mastery exclusive to a white boy club. Their work then in the continuum of art history, serves to look the other way, unfazed by the canonical inertia of the space they willfully take up.
At Emeka-Maduka’s well furnished apartment/studio, I’m sitting on the couch mid-conversation with the artist herself. The living room, which doubles as a makeshift studio area, is well lit by the natural brightness streaming through the wide windows. I follow the light to the corner, where there’s evidence of the work that came before I arrived: a white stool dotted with every colour of the rainbow, an easel, a palette, and stacked against the wall, a collection of canvasses varying in size and degrees of completion. The painting at the forefront catches my attention, mostly because it features an assortment of figures all wearing the same face, yet with expressions and characteristics so diverse as to deceive my mind into thinking I am witnessing a line-up of individuals. Perhaps more striking, is the conspicuous awareness that several of the figures seem to have their eyes trained directly on me. And this is best summed up by a quote from the creator herself: “there is always a figure looking directly at the viewer, and it allows a kind of power balance between the subject and the viewer to exist.” Maduka goes on to note that part of her inspiration for this choice was in challenging the age-old odalisque concept of the female nude, seeking to create a space where the female body is the subject as opposed to being objectified, and an intimate conversation is created between the subject and the viewer.
One thing we often say in school when we were younger [in Nigeria] is "cleanliness is next to godliness". I was always curious about that emphasis and the incessant need to be presentable and well-received. It is very much embedded in [our] culture. I do believe there are so many ways that this standard of living is a side effect of colonialism.
How did your focus within the arts become concentrated on painting?
I actually did art in high school. My art teacher was an artist himself and our class was very intimate in a way that gave me a lot of exposure. At that time I painted with acrylics which wasn’t my favourite medium, but I definitely knew I was interested in working with figures. Coming to Canada was really helpful, especially with the way that the program is set up. In the first year you take a lot of classes where you can experiment with multiple mediums such as photography, etc. I had an interest in painting so I took my first painting class to become familiar with oil as a medium which was great. From that point I started to investigate the medium and what I could do with it and it’s just gone on from there.
You’ve mentioned that you were interested in the body, how did you begin exploring that in your work? Did you start by painting people around you?
No actually, it’s always primarily been myself. I’m not entirely sure why, but I just knew that I was interested in myself as a subject. Of course, I have painted others, mostly friends, apart from mine, but for the most part I focus on my own form.
Do you think that was a way of exploring yourself as a person, as well as a subject?
Perhaps that was part of it, but I was more interested in personal experiences and showcasing my own perspective in a way that people could possibly relate to. Also I wanted to position myself as the mouthpiece for whatever topic I was expressing. It is easier for me to use myself or manipulate my own figure rather than use others’.
You mentioned earlier the importance of the interaction between the viewer and the subject, or the work in general. At your first solo show Walk Back Home, did you pay attention to the ways that people interacted with the pieces?
Definitely. I always like to hear what people have to say, especially since my work is portraiture. I like to hear the different perspectives people have because it allows me to see the pieces in a different way and also be open to other people’s experiences. There’s two ways I think about my work: both personal and open. With the personal, a lot of the work has to do with recollection and revisiting. It’s almost a way for me to process certain moments in my life that I might not have been able to closely analyse or fully digest as I was experiencing them. For example, I spent most of my youth and childhood in Nigeria, so a lot of my work is now looking back on certain things and asking questions, analysing, or even trying to make a statement about certain parts of that traditional Nigerian culture from a subjective viewpoint. But at the same time I like to leave it as open as possible so that people who might not have had similar experiences to mine can relate to it on some level. For example, the painting titled Longings for Ulo had mixed responses. Most people who were Canadian born related to it on the level of the coldness of winter or being stuck in a bus shelter and the isolation that came with that, but for the immigrants like myself- especially those from Nigeria- the passport itself held a deeper meaning and they related to it on that level.
With regards to your work being influenced by your childhood in Nigeria, do you think that your physical distance from the place itself makes you more curious or more interested in exploring it through your work?
One hundred percent. I think not just for me, but for a lot of creative individuals in diaspora, the work is heavily influenced by their ‘homes’. There’s a lot of re-thinking and learning that occurs when you leave a physical space be it your home city or home nation. Leaving allows you to look at the ways that you experienced that space in ways you might not have been able to when you were physically there. One of the things I experience here in Canada is visiting places that mentally transport me back ‘home’. It’s definitely an uncanny feeling. For example, on one occasion I went to a salon to get my hair braided. The moment I stepped into that space it was as though I’d walked through à portal unbeknownst to myself, and had been transported back to Nigeria. The sounds, the smells, they all had that quality of home to them. Moments like that are a type of cultural recharge as well as a way of connecting to that former part of my life without physically being there.
Do you also look at work by artists whose practices engage in the self as subject? For example, Cindy Sherman and Samuel Fosso?
I definitely consider Sherman as a reference, because I do like to look at artists that present their likeness in their work as I do . Whereas Sherman works with photography, I use paint, which I believe can be easier to manipulate and also to push beyond limits. Another big reference for me is Njideka Akunliyi Crosby who often depicts herself although not exclusively. Her work is amazing. I think in the creative world no concept is necessarily novel. Everything has been done, I mean, Frida Kahlo depicted versions of her own likeness long before Sherman. I can only try and express this way of working in a new form. I definitely think it’s important to compile references and inspiration from people that came before and create your own lane or build more on top of that conversation. While Sherman might be limited to only a single figure, painting gives me the liberty of creating multiple renditions of myself within the space of a single picture plane. It allows me to present different expressions or personalities while choosing how much of myself is given and how much is manipulated. Viewers might see the work and relate to each figure or character on a different level and to the different experiences that they might portray. I want to continue to make use of those types of allowances and freedoms in my work to the best of my ability.
What does the process feel like for you? Not just physically but also the actual activity of painting yourself, how does that feel mentally for you? Is there a type of detachment that occurs or does it feel like a different process each time.
Honestly, looking back to the first time I painted myself, I can’t remember exactly how I felt because I was on a timeline and I was more concerned with finishing my assignment than concentrating on the process. But in general I do feel detached in a way, I don’t see my image as a person, especially because painting isn’t three dimensional, it’s flat, and also it’s a space that I created where whatever can happen so the image itself could be anything. I give myself so many different hairstyles, and dress myself in ways that I might not necessarily dress in real life. So in that way the work is very performative. I’ve performed as my family members, and as Trump and even as “yahoo” boys or fraudsters. It’s not necessarily me but it’s me playing a role, or me curating the subject or space that I want to be in. It feels more mechanical in that it’s literally a process of me layering colours rather than actually making a representation of myself. It only ever feels weird when I paint a character and the facial expression is so similar to one that I would often make so then it’s like looking in a mirror.
I’m aware that you’ve done portraits of others. How does that compare to painting yourself ?
I find that I do not feel the same kind of freedom or creative agency in painting others that I do in painting myself. It’s a lot easier for me to manipulate my own appearance in order to achieve the desired effect, but with others I have to take into consideration what they might think, or getting the depiction perfect, which I find worrying. Additionally there is a certain level of discomfort I have at the idea of selling someone else’s appearance to a buyer. With the pieces that have my own image, there isn’t really a sense of uneasiness other than wanting to make sure that whoever I am selling to actually appreciates the work or understands it on some level. But having to sell other people’s images is something I am not completely comfortable with, and combined with the lack of agency or malleability that comes with painting others, I definitely prefer to use myself as the subject.
So with regards to the actual act of painting, are there things you would like to experiment with that you haven't already? Or perhaps even with other mediums?
I think even looking at my current work and the work I first started with, I would say it’s definitely matured. There’s a lot more that I can do with painting and I definitely consider myself as still very controlled in the way that I work so I would like to push myself more. One of the things I’ve been experimenting with is leaving part of the canvas bare. At some point I felt like I was filling the canvas up so much in a very traditional way. Now I’m trying to work with negative space. I have been looking at expanding the medium itself, even up to the ways that I was going to install the work. I’ve been playing around with perspective and thinking of non-conventional ways to showcase the work, like above eye-level, or below eye-level, and that would also impact the way that the viewer would interact and relate with the work. I was also considering using mirrors in the installation process and all of that would have contributed to the viewers’ experience. For example, if someone had to position themselves a certain way or do a certain gesture in order to properly view the work, that would influence the way that their perspective and understanding of it.
With regards to other mediums, I think for now I’m just going to focus on painting. As I mentioned, I think there are so many boundaries that I can push with my painting. I would actually like to execute that show as I have it planned out already and it would be great to implement some of the ideas that I had.
What do you think about the work being read simply as narcissistic given your repeated appearance and especially in a time when we live in a very “me” centered world with the rise of social media etc? Do you see any validity in that reading?
I'm a strong believer of the notion that whenever work has left an artist's studio, there's only so much control you can have over the receiving and interpretation of your intentions. I see my intentions as being limited to me–in my head the work is about so many different things and strangely, I often refer to the subjects as their own individuals. I often refer to my subjects with different pronouns, seeing some of them as having a different gender than I embody in real life. Some of them I see as being younger, older and very often, some I remain curious about. There's a disassociation that happens a lot of the time. Say the morning assembly painting for example, I often say "the boys" when I talk about them with people in my circle. In some ways, I wonder if our faces are the most prominent thing we have in common but in reality, this notion runs counter to the fact that they are living through some versions of my experiences. I guess the subjects and I are community members.
Going back to what I said about the artists' intention though, I think it's fine and maybe even valid for people to think the work is narcissistic. I feel selfishness exists in a lot of the things we do as humans. We curate our lives down to the choices we make and people we associate with based on how we want our own lives to be. Everyone is sort of the main character of the world they live in and others [around them] play the roles of second lead, bit parts, day players, etc. Unfamiliar people you meet on the bus or the server at a restaurant can be an extra in the movie. That same pedestrian or server at the restaurant has their own movie and you, a stranger to them, are equally an extra in their world.
I want to talk about your work in relation to ideas of class in the context post colonial Nigeria. There's a sense of opulence and excess in the work; in terms of colour, expressions, clothing, set design etc. It sometimes seems very aspirational. I’m interested in your opinion on what this idea of showing excessive wealth or having expensive tastes means. How it relates to ideas of class in Nigerian culture, and how that perhaps shows up in your work.
I'll start off answering this by saying one thing: I always remember how in the communities I lived in, there is an emphasis on looking good. You dare not go to church without your makeup, your Gele, your sequined dress! Imagine Christmas day in Nigeria without the excess cooking, the killing of a goat, or the dazzling clothes and this way of thinking is something I can boldly say we value across classes of society. A local tailor is making a big Madam's heavily beaded cloth in the same small trailer store she's making clothes for a middle class family and it's equally bedded and bedazzled. One thing we often say in school when we were younger [in Nigeria] is "cleanliness is next to godliness". I was always curious about that emphasis and the incessant need to be presentable and well-received. It is very much embedded in [our] culture. I do believe there are so many ways that this standard of living is a side effect of colonialism. The very fact that Africans were made to see themselves in this light of being lesser than or not enough there could potentially be a need to want to acquire more in material goods to be seen and validated. I am part of that society and this is even applicable to me–I never go out looking a way I don't want to look. There are stay home clothes and there are clothes for going out ironically, moving to Canada, I see some people moving around in pajamas and this could be upper class people too. The best example I can link this to, is rappers and how they desire to affiliate themselves with riches, diamonds, cars, wanting in excess. It can be a way to disassociate ourselves from the notions of being less worthy. That being said however, there is something so complex that exists in this notion, where our culture is naturally rich and exuberant, I can't help but see that there potentially lies this feeling to exaggerate that exuberance in order to feel worthy.
Do you consider your work to be political? Or do you create your pieces with the intention of making them political.
Well the truth is, everything can be political. Body politics, hair politics. One of my first pieces titled “look it’s just blood”, definitely had a political undertone to it, and I wanted it to incite a strong reaction in the viewer. My mother actually saw it and told me that she understood the concept but that it was too visceral for her. But that was my intention. I don’t make my work fearing what people might think. Whatever you do, someone is always going to disagree with you so it’s important not to focus on that. I just want to create a conversation surrounding whatever issue the work is trying to express, and different people have different responses and opinions to it which often makes the experience interesting.
Do you create the pieces with an intention for the space you would like to see them displayed? Does that ever cross your mind?
I focus more on the work itself. I think that when you work on your craft and perfect it, it will inevitably find its way into spaces that it deserves to be in or that you might want it to be in. Usually unless I’m creating a piece for a show, I don’t think too much of where the work is going. The most important thing for me is the work rather than the opportunities. I’m trying to focus on the quality of the work and building language that is specific to me as an artist. Obviously everyone has goals or spaces that they might consider prestigious for their work to be in, and even that is relative. But just as with everything else in life, we might have plans and the universe has other plans. So for me, the best thing is to focus on the work. In some cases when I finish a piece and it doesn’t come out perfectly, it’s always a learning curve or an opportunity for me to grow.
Do you like interviews? Do you find them useful to you in anyway?
That's a very good question. I find they help me understand the work I make and rethink even deeper why I made them and what they mean to me. I like to write before I paint too but in my phone. I also feel it's a good reference to see how I was thinking at a specific time in my life (in the future).