Most people that are not invested in the arts tend to distinguish the quality of works by their technical capabilities. Perhaps this is rooted in traditional interpretations of what art is and should be, but nevertheless it is a fact that permeates through all that is classified art. Contemporary artists have striven to create works that are not traditionally considered beautiful or laden with symbolism as most pieces were previously, and they often appeal to a certain new-age aesthetic that belays much about our cultural shifts. Nigerian artist Arinze Stanley, a “wildly talented artist” has in a sense overcome all of these ideas by moving the needle a bit further. In most of the articles you will find about the artist, Stanley is heralded as an artist of great talent without a formal art education. Although we seem to have fallen out of obsession with the technically perfected, figural art of our elders, there is something exceptional, heartfelt, and truly captivating about Stanley’s work that makes it one of the few exceptions.
“Not using your art for activism is like making beautiful things without purpose,” says Arinze. “I use my art as a form of shoe-shifting – putting people in my shoes and also for people to put themselves in the shoes of others.”
Arinze Stanley Egbengwu (b.1993) is a Nigerian artist working in a genre of art known as hyperrealism. He is best known for his hyper realistic life-size portraits of regular people, primarily of African descent. Working primarily with charcoal and graphite on paper, his work is an attempt at “making a bridge between people” and it can be perceived through the thought, consideration, and purpose of each artwork. A big component of his work is connecting the world, and his aim is to help others see “a reflection of themselves in others”.
The artist began in 2012, when he was still at university studying of all things, agricultural engineering. Around 2012, through the glory of the internet he found hyperrealism and was captivated. It was to be a turning point for the artist, the time when he himself experienced first-hand the importance of life and what art can mean. In an artist statement that can be found on his website, Stanley explains that his art is “born out of the zeal for perfection both in skill, expression and devotion to create positive changes in the world.” In a press release for his current exhibition he tells Jonathan LeVine Projects that the process of drawing is “like energy transfer,” and that by transferring his energy through graphite, each blank piece of paper becomes art. By using his work as a conduit for his activists leanings, his personality is one that makes you want to support him and all of his endeavors. Focusing on issues of social and political nature, his passion for the subject matter is a thing of beauty. Oh and before you go on to say hyper realism isn’t art, just remember, that toilet wasn’t either..
Read on for our interview (!!) and get a glimpse into this brilliant artist’s mind.
AA: What would you like to focus on or what is important for the world to know about you?
AS: I would love the world to join me in the process, the process of building a bridge between people with varying ideologies. The message behind my pieces is about bringing people together --we are all a reflection of each other.
AA:In 2012 you started dabbling in hyperrealism. How did you find out about it and why did you pursue it?
AS: I started drawing in 2012 without any formal art training, when I was still attending university for Agricultural Engineering. I always had a love for art, although it was not considered a thing that could become a career. Something happened in 2012; I had encountered and faced some military men for the first time in my life. They mistook me for someone else, they didn’t listen, they just took me and began beating me up. Afterwards I had no one to talk to, Nigeria isn’t like the US where you can go to the courts and sue. I could not report them or go to the news or the police, and a lot of people in my society go through this everyday. This is when I began to take refuge in drawing, so I decided to use my art to speak and as a voice for my society. This is basically the message I would like to get across to people, to help in creating a more peaceful world as much as I can.
As for hyperrealism, I had come across a couple of artists online, but I never really thought you could make drawings that looked so real. Before that I just enjoyed drawing things, I mean, I never really knew hyperrealism was a thing. That was around 2012. As soon as I began to see that it was a genre I connected with it instantly and haven’t stopped since. It was just like “meeting the right person”. I’m excited everyday, and I don’t really feel like I'm working, I just feel like I'm contributing to society doing what I love doing.
AA: Are you still working for your family (their envelope company)?
AS: Yes, but not as much as before. I have a lot of work to do in my studio, and I don’t really see my parents much. There are a lot of deadlines and artworks to complete, exhibitions that I need to prepare for, but they understand. Once in a while I do try to stop by the factory and assist as much as I can.
AA: Do you feel like you are helping to advance Western knowledge/collections through your work or that there is a “collecting for the sake of collecting” approach to your work?
AS: I feel like personally, my artworks speak to people on an individual level. Once I had a piece named Innocence, someone from Los Angeles emailed me and told me what he was going through and why he needed the piece so badly. He had cancer, and the piece spoke to him on a personal level on his sickbed. I thought, wow someone from half-way around the world saw and found such meaning in this piece. I probably had ascribed a different meaning, but it meant something important to him. The same can be said about much of my work. I try my best to not only focus on skill, but to make sure there is meaning in every single piece. To speak about something affecting my society, but also the international community, and the role it has to play. I try to be a bridge between those things, but people will accept things from their own point of view.
At the same time, I hope to educate people about things that are happening where I am because it would be ridiculous if being from Nigeria, I ignore everything happening here and start to speak about things happening in N. Korea for example. In 2017, I made a portrait of three figures named “Wailing, Wailing, Wailing”. The figures have tape wrapped around their bodies, and beneath them is a barcode, the numbers on the barcode mean “I will heal”. I made that piece because of the importance of what was happening then; There was evidence that people from Nigeria and Liberia were trying to get to Europe, but being sold as slaves. That was also around the time when I was invited to my first international exhibition (Art Basel Miami), so I saw it as an opportunity to use my artwork to speak about what was happening, with regard to the issues in Africa and the slave trade. I was shocked that a lot of people did not know what was happening, but by bringing awareness to the issue I feel like I did my part for my society.
AA: How do you select your figures? Who do you see and think yes, you!
AS: I like to ponder this a lot, I mean there are 7 billion people on the planet and I have to choose one to be a single muse of a piece. First off, I have an idea - I have a lot of ideas that I would like to put down onto paper- but then I kind of find it difficult to find a muse that will create the idea. I have a pretty small circle of friends, so each time I try to make a piece I try to make a new friend. I make a new friend, and because of my love for photography, I try to connect with the person on a real level. How they express themselves, how they smile. That helps a lot with understanding how the personal will fit in with what I have to make with my mind, sometimes, I just let the person to guide or create the piece, because I feel like each of us are unique in our own different ways, but then we connect on a somewhat spiritual level. And sometimes when I see someone, it just comes through me. I’m not sure where it comes from, but I know deep down inside, yeah, this is the person I need to use for this shot, and we can take over 1,000 photos just to get the one that I also agree will be the best. So it is more of a process..
AA: You are an activist at heart. It is beautiful, can you explain more about your activist leanings?
AS: I feel like doing what I am doing, alone -I should also explain that, where I am from (Nigeria), there are not a lot of opportunities- I mean there are a lot of opportunities, but to be honest there is also a lot of systemic corruption and a lot of unemployed young people that are trying to find a purpose. But, just being Arinze Stanley and being focused enough to pursue my dreams, this is in and of itself an inspiration to a lot of people in my society. Seeing me grow doing what im doing, pursuing my dreams, it is a huge inspiration to a couple of people out there in a way that is hard to explain. Since my first exhibition in 2016, there has been a huge rise in hyperrealism in art in general in Nigeria.
A lot of people out there would usually remain jobless and resort to violence or criminal activity, but they could pick up a pencil and try to make themselves a part of society. I see a lot of people, young people, pursuing their dreams. So that is the first part. Secondly, I feel like I’ve been blessed to have a platform that I can speak to a larger audience. It makes it easier, you have a louder voice, you can comfortably speak to 100k+ people in just a moment. I hope that I can keep doing what I do, speaking about things that have meaning. The internet is a very influential tool, and the world has changed dramatically from what it used to be, but I know that if I continue what I am doing and speaking to people about things that matter, eventually they will open their ears enough to listen and see things for what they truly are.
AA: As a self-taught artist, do you think it is important for communities to support or elevate self-taught artists?
AS: This is an important question, because I see myself as a different kind of person and I feel like fate has made me a self taught artist for a reason. It may sound ignorant when I say this, but see it from my perspective. I do not read a lot of certain types of books (art books), but the reason I do this is because I do not want to be influenced by other people’s views or perspectives. I want to be 100% original and true to what and who I am. I feel like there are a lot of things that can influence people in different ways, and that is exactly the same way I see the art industry -I feel like art cannot be taught. It is simply a part of someone; you can teach them to coordinate themselves, but you cannot teach them to make art. You can teach someone to draw or the principles of art, but you cannot teach a person to become an artist. So when you talk about the educational aspects of art, If you have a vision or goal as an artist, you need to then pursue it. Many people will say, you didn’t go to art school, so you are not a real artist.. I do not agree.
AA: In an interview you mentioned that you consider art a good job. Can you explain what helped you think of it this way and/or why?
AS: At first, I started drawing without thinking of making it into a career. I started because I loved drawing and it was the only thing that came naturally to me, apart from music. So, at some point I had to build a bridge between monetizing my art and being a full-time artist. That was a defining point in my career, I realized then that if I am going to do what I love doing, I am going to have to give up being an everyday normal person and then I took the huge step. Every since then I haven’t stopped. But this is very interesting, because where I am from, being an artist is not even considered a job. Yet with the help of social media, the world has become a smaller place and you have a wider audience than ever before. A lot of people here have not fully understood social media and the impact it can have. Most of them want to stay with the traditional ways of living and earning.
My first exhibition in Nigeria was in 2016 and I made three pieces. Each of them sold for less than $1,000, and I was so excited because I did not even think people in Nigeria were going to buy my work for that much. The following year, for the first time someone was so interested in purchasing my work that he wanted to buy everything I had. I thought it over and since I had sold the previous pieces, I decided to increase the work to $2,000 that year. He was fine with it, and just like that I became a millionaire. I was so happy -doing what I loved, I had become a millionaire.
—It should be noted that his most recent solo show (2018) at the Jonathan Levine Gallery sold pieces for $15,000. I think it is safe to say, his work will only continue to awe and continue to impress over time.
Stanley’s work has also recently featured on the BBC Arts & Culture page, link provided below.