A Third Space
ruby onyinyechi amanze's hybrid drawings at Frieze New York

Her drawings look like expansive stage spaces in which a kind of surreal dance theater is performed. On May 3rd her drawing performance „twin“ together with the artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji will take place in front of the fair tent. New York-based Nigerian artist ruby onyinyechi amanze has been represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection for some time. Now Deutsche Bank is showing her work—at once fantastic and minimalist, and bringing a completely new corporeality to the medium of drawing at Frieze New York. A talk about cultural identity, architecture, paper, and transcendence in sports.
twin - a performance by ruby onyinyechi amanze and Wura-Natasha Ogunji

ArtMag: Certain characters make regular appearances in your drawings, like the astronaut and the leopard man. How did you come up with these figures and how would you describe their interaction?

ruby onyinyechi amanze: The figures initially came about between 2012 and 2013, while I was in Nigeria. They have evolved since then, but mostly maintain a consistent form. Each figure has its own birth and origin. That was important to me at the time, because in Nigeria I felt like a local and a foreigner simultaneously. In terms of the relationship between the characters, I would describe them as cohorts. There are no explicit familial ties, nor are they romantically involved. But the relationship between them is nevertheless intimate. It creates a feeling of care and belonging, and that can be sensed in the drawings.

Where do the surreal titles of your drawings come from?

I really enjoy writing, and the titles are a way for me to play with language. They never come to me before or even during the drawing process—always afterward. I sit down and study a work very closely, then I think about what connects the different motifs. It’s more like a process of free associations. The titles may come quickly, or may need several rounds of reshuffling before they really sit. Every now and then, a title may change completely after a few months or years—they’re fluid.

Heads turn into abstract spaces in your drawings, and bodies open up like buildings with entrances. Where does your interest in architecture come from?

Architecture always fascinated me. So much so, that I considered returning to university to study architecture after finishing my MFA. I’m particularly intrigued by floor plans—two-dimensional drawings that can be turned into reality and filled with life. I moved very often while growing up, for me “home” was something to be packed up and carried. I was also excited about drawing because I could draw things like a home for myself. That home was one that could be folded up and taken with.

At the same time, that was also an expression of my cultural and national hybridity; how I identified with others. I felt as if I belonged in a third space, a kind of in between or overlapping space. I loved the idea that space was malleable and not restricted to geography or borders put up by people. All of that formed my early interest in the two- and three-dimensional, in the poetic and metaphoric language of architecture.

What kinds of spaces interest you?

I collect digital images of buildings—mostly residential ones from the past thirty or forty years. I also make sketches of places and architecture that I see when I travel, but then more often from memory. I very rarely take photographs. I pull disjointed references from this archive and rearrange them into the fictitious space of the drawing. I love open and minimal structures when it comes to spatial composition; the feeling of airiness, of clean and simple lines—but not in a slick or sterile way. The warmth and imperfection of human presence is also extremely important in terms of my relationship to places.

Why is there so much white space in your drawings?

Someone once remarked that the white space in my drawings seemed like a character of its own. That is completely different from the feeling that something might be missing. I liked that interpretation because it's an apt description of what I do. I start with the space and what kind of dance or movement I see in it. It’s never an afterthought. The image never feels empty to me. On the contrary, I feel as if its full of energy … it’s alive. The paper itself, as an expanse, is beautiful to me as well. Its surface holds so much potential, yet feels valid and complete on its own. I tend toward minimalism. The “ever more,” the overloaded, just doesn’t fit my aesthetic sensibilities.

The world you create seems mythological and at the same time futuristic. Your hybrid figures could come from African myths or a genetic engineering lab. Do you allude to Afrofuturism or the work of artists like Ellen Gallagher and Wangechi Mutu? What are your artistic influences?

There are elements of mythology and folklore in my work, as well as futurist narratives, I'm interested in both. But I think they converge in the present or in a certain timelessness in my work. The same goes for my relationship to Afrofuturism. It exists very much in the here and now. Artistically, the writings of Marlene Dumas really resonate with me. I return to her book Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts 1982–2014 over and over again in my studio. Several of the dancers and choreographers from the days of the Judson Dance Theater, like Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown, are also very important to me. In terms of visual artists, I love the expansive scale of Toba Khedoori’s drawings; the sculptures of Richard Serra, which are like drawings to me; and Cy Twombly’s work. I was introduced to the work of Ellen Gallagher and Wangechi Mutu in graduate school—I have a lot of respect for both of them. Mutu in particular, was the first contemporary reference that showed me a woman of African descent can make it in the art world. She'll always hold that place of honor for me, and no doubt for many others, too.

The figures in your drawings seem to be dancing or performing. There is always a connotation of a stage or a screen. You also produce videos and do performances. How are they connected to drawing?

In my secret life, I’m a dancer! In my actual life, I’m a runner and an athlete. The physical capabilities of the body are astounding, and as long as I’m in this body I hope to keep moving and deriving joy from it. I can be strong and lift more than my own body weight. I can endure great pain or discomfort and fight through it. I can transcend my body and enter into an entirely new state of consciousness. I can be graceful and extremely slow, exploring minute gestures and nuances. All of that is important in terms of the experience of being here on earth. It shows itself in my drawings in terms of the way I position the figures. I practice Gaga, a movement language and training method developed by choreographer Ohad Naharin. I go to see dance performances, read the biographies of choreographers and dancers. I want to bring what dance can do, what poetry can do, to drawing. The surface of a piece of paper isn’t flat to me. It’s a space that one moves through, from which one emerges, into which one disappears. Drawing, at its core, is ultimately something performative. It’s nothing other than the body leaving a trace in time and space.

Frieze New York
May 2 – 5, 2019
Randall’s Island Park

twin: performance + drawing
by ruby onyinyechi amanze and Wura-Natasha Ogunji
Fri May 3rd, 12.30-4pm
on the grass outside the North Entrance of the fair on Randalls Island