A Nigerian-born Artist Meditates on Displacement and Longing in “Salt Water”

Artsy Editorial
Dec 15, 2015 2:58PM

“The cure for anything,” wrote Isak Dinesen, “is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.” It’s a theme that ruby onyinyechi amanze explores in her latest large-scale mixed-media drawings, currently on view in “Salt Water,” the artist’s first solo exhibition at Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.

So what, the viewer may wonder, is the ailment in question? For amanze, as for Dinesen (the pen name for the Danish author Karen Blixen), it’s a sense of displacement—the dilemma of being out of one’s element. The writer’s famous line about salt water, after all, comes from Out of Africa (1937), Dinesen’s memoir about the seventeen years she lived in Kenya. Amanze, too, knows a thing or two about living in different places: the artist was born in Nigeria, raised in the U.K., and currently resides in Brooklyn.

Indeed, amanze’s latest works convey a sense of wistfulness that’s almost palpable. There’s the visual style—nonlinear and slightly abstract, featuring solitary figures adrift in dreamy landscapes, characters in stories we can only guess at. And then there are the works’ titles, evocative of love, loss, and separation: The weight of nothing [even plants fly] (2015), and When farewells become fantasies or sweet mundanes (2015), and Baptized (the others are with you always) (2015), to name but a few. Elegantly rendered in a delicate assemblage of graphite, ink, photo transfers, and metallic enamel, they’re poetic and enigmatic.

While a ghost balanced galaxies, She remained unmoved, 2015
Goodman Gallery
The way you think is like a wing, 2015
Goodman Gallery

It’s easy to read some of the works’ central subjects as stand-ins for the artist herself: the girl staring off into the distance in While a ghost balanced galaxies, She remained unmoved (2015), or the headless woman of The way you think is like a wing (2015). Headless, as if her mind is removed from the physical location of her body—a feeling all too familiar for anyone who’s ever felt homesick.

But amanze is quick to point out that her latest pieces aren’t only expressive of longing. The work is “as much about beauty and make-believe, as it is a commentary on cultural hybridity,” the artist has said, citing magic realism as an influence. Though she’s studied and worked in textiles, photography and printmaking, her current work is centered around drawing. It’s a medium she’s loved since childhood, a fact that comes across in “Salt Water.” For all of their adult themes and technical sophistication, these pieces possess a childlike whimsy. Perhaps the longing we feel, amanze seems to suggest, is not only for places we’ve left, but for our youthful days gone by—a nostalgia you can feel even if you never left your country.

Bridget Gleeson

Salt Water” is on view at Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, Nov. 19 – Dec. 19, 2015.

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