Arinze Stanley Speaks to the Indelible Impact of Police Brutality and How Extreme Emotion is the Key to Change
May 6, 2021
Colossal managing editor Grace Ebert spoke with Arinze Stanley from his studio in Nigeria via Zoom in March 2021. This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Shown above is “Bullets and Denim #2” (2020), charcoal and graphite on paper, 30 x 26 inches. All images © Arinze Stanley, shared with permission
Grace: I think a good place for us to start is to talk about the work that you had at Arcadia Contemporary recently. Can you tell us about that?
Arinze: This is a self-portrait. I haven’t made a self-portrait in say, three years now. Usually, I make self-portraits along the journey to kind of reflect more on myself. I would step back to observe myself deeply. I felt like that would be a perfect place to exhibit myself portrayed as I haven’t exhibited in New York City before. That was my first New York City exhibition, so I feel like it’s more like an introduction of myself into the city.
Grace: What is the process of doing a self-portrait versus another work?
Arinze: I’m also a photographer so I enjoy taking all my photos myself. In the case of a self-portrait, I’m the one in front of the camera so it’s a different experience. It’s easier for me to be behind the camera and shoot what I want to get, rather than being the one in front of the camera and shooting myself with a timer. The experience is different from the start. In the process, I tend to want to make myself look perfect in my self-portraits because I know myself very well, and I want to add those tiny details that I lived with all my life. It takes a lot more focus, so actually, you get that perfect representation of myself that I know.
The final result is usually so many answers and so many questions. Wow, I have changed a lot. I think the experience is a little bit more different than just any other portrait that I make.
Grace: How has that work been received so far? And beyond that, can we also talk about your audience in Nigeria versus the audience in the U.S. and even internationally?
Arinze: Being the first time working with Arcadia gallery—they now represent my work in New York City—I wasn’t skeptical about how the work was going to be received on the opening of the show because a lot of my work has sold to the U.S., especially New York. I think about ninety percent of my work has sold to the U.S., so I think a lot of people are already familiar with my work. I had a solo exhibition in New Jersey, which is very close to New York, in 2018, and I feel people kind of know my work and know my story, along the journey of coming to New York City.
Before the show started, the work was already sold, which was like, “okay, that’s cool.” But then it didn’t end there. I still got requests from people trying to get the self-portrait, a lot of people sending me emails personally, asking me if the work is available. The reception in New York was amazing.
I believe I have a larger audience in the U.S., although I have a lot of people asking about my work here in Nigeria. Most times, I don’t really have any works available in the studio except for what I’m working on, which are also shortlisted for future shows abroad. I had my first solo Nigerian show in 2016, where I showed among 10 other hyperrealists. This was the first of its kind. Ever since the show, it kind of set a wave of the hyperrealism movement all across Nigeria, most parts of Africa, and beyond. This was really beautiful because there are a lot of people out there who got inspired—a group of artists without formal education in arts, able to do what they love doing at a professional level. I feel like a lot of people out here were inspired here in Nigeria.
Grace: Your work deals with larger political themes, whether it’s police brutality or the series you did with the crude oil dripping down your subjects’ faces. I think it’s really interesting that those conversations, which seem like they would be location-specific or country-specific, really do resonate with audiences around the world, right?
Arinze: Yes. That’s a conscious decision I make in my works. I know that there are a lot of people that will receive my work in one way or the other. That’s why I have the white background. I do not associate it with any form of lifestyle or background in any sort of literal form. We have the same issues of police brutality here in Nigeria and in the U.S.A. What you see in my works comes from my personal experiences. I have suffered several cases of police brutality. Not just police brutality. I’ve suffered force brutality from the military so many times. Last year, in September, I just had eye surgery because of a slap from a policeman in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
The intimidation by police here is 100 percent caused by their ability to get away with it. They have the guns, the impunity, so they feel like they have control over you. —Arinze Stanley
The intimidation by police here is 100 percent caused by their ability to get away with it. They have the guns, the impunity, so they feel like they have control over you. The government has been idle to the cries of human rights violations, and that’s why I believe it’s important to use my works to amplify those cries because I’m also affected.
In 2012, the year I decided to take on art, I was still a student studying engineering. I visited my friend’s room right in our hostel. It was a very sunny morning, and we’re just getting ready to go to school. All of a sudden, we got a knock on the door. It was some armed military men outside. I was scared because I didn’t do anything. I walked up to them and asked them, “is there a problem, sir?” They told me to come outside. When I came outside, they brutally beat me with sticks and a torn fan belt. Then they were asking me if I knew someone, and I was like, “I don’t even stay here. This isn’t my room.” They didn’t want to listen to me. They kept beating me. The more I tried to talk the more I was beaten. One of them shouted, “obey before complain,” which is a popular slang used by the military here in Nigeria.
They didn’t listen. They just beat me. They made me do a frog jump all the way down to their van outside the hostel, and then they made me lie down on the metal floor of the military van under the hot, scorching sun. While I was there lying, I felt helpless. I was reflecting on the fact that I lived in a country where nobody’s going to fight for you. That’s how a lot of people in Nigeria feel. If you don’t have connections, nobody’s going to fight for you. So right there, I started to think, “I have this gift to be able to create something that is appreciated by a lot of people. I can use this gift to amplify the voice of many people that don’t have the ability to speak about what’s happening.”
Fast forward to 2020 when I was having my solo exhibition at Corey Helford Gallery. As soon as the show started, there were a lot of events that happened simultaneously. This was around the time I was assaulted by the police and almost lost my eye. There were a lot of other things that were happening in the background. News of young people like me getting shot by the members of the police special unit called SARS, which led to weeks of protest, a very strong movement #Endsars. I was proudly part of the movement. Even shortly after I just had my eye surgery, I went out there to protest and speak. Meanwhile, my works were speaking to the outside world in my solo exhibition in the U.S.
It was so amazing because I felt like, “yes, I am doing what I have been instructed to do in life.” Art gave me purpose in life. It was all connected. It felt like I was given this ability to speak, and there was a platform to speak. I had already made these works months ago, but then it was still relevant now because that is really my reality.
That was surreal for me. I mean, I believe this is all I want as an artist: to be able to create meaningful change. That is just how this whole experience has been for me, from Nigeria and abroad. It’s been an amazing journey. And yes, the special unit SARS was finally disbanded after the protests went global.
Grace: I am so sorry that that happened to you. That’s horrifying, and it’s so powerful that you’re able to translate that into your work. What are the issues that you’re thinking about right now?
Arinze: For this answer, if you’re privileged to come from a country like mine, you don’t have to think. This is your reality. A lot is happening here in Nigeria. My work speaks about those things already. Right now, I’m making my biggest piece ever.
Grace: Can you tell me about it?
Arinze: Yeah, the piece is about the government, a piece I would like to use (to expose) the corruption that exists (in) and (is) eating up democracy in all arms of our government from the judiciary to the legislature and the executive.
I have a new piece here that I just completed this morning. I haven’t quite given it a name yet, but the piece, to me, speaks about vanity, in general. It speaks about the value of life. The work starts from here, and as it goes down, it begins to fade into nothingness. As it fades, the jewelry on the lady also fades as well. I’m trying to use this to talk about the value of life itself.
Most of my works just speak about life. Where I’m from, you have people who have houses in the States, who have estates in States, while people here are languishing in poverty. A lot of corrupt politicians exist, and the ratio between the rich and the poor in Nigeria, the margin is unbelievable. It’s a case of emergency because people are extremely poor. A lot of people make below $400 a year in Nigeria. They don’t say this enough in the news. We need other outlets to amplify these issues, and I feel like that’s basically what I’m doing in my art.
Grace: It’s interesting to think about the broader issues that you’re bringing in and then just how personal and how emotional your works are. You often portray someone at the height of distress, whether they’re screaming, trapped. But in the portrait that you have behind you, the one you just talked about, the woman looks very calm, which seems like a contrast to some other pieces.
Arinze: Like I said, I’m a photographer. I like to take a lot of shots. My artworks are a reflection of my photography. They exist in a symbiotic relationship, and what defines and separates my art from my photography is my ability to select which of the photographs that I’ve taken connects the most with me.
I have no training in art so I know what I learned for myself. I believe doing what I do comes naturally and effortlessly to me, and I don’t know why, but I feel like it’s more of a blessing, so I treat it as such.
Whenever I take a photo, I have to feel connected with the photo before I draw from it, and when I’m drawing, it becomes easier because of that connection. When I take my photos, I try to be 100 percent authentic to my message in the most realistic way possible, and in the process, sometimes I make my subjects go through some sort of intense frustration during the shoot, so I get them when they’re very vulnerable, and sometimes I tend to capture divine expressions of calm from my muses.
Grace: What are your methods for doing that? How do you work with the subjects to get them to that point?
Arinze: For example, I have a series of works called The Machine Man. During the process of taking these photographs, before I draw, I take condemned oil, which is kind of harmless, and I splash it over the faces. It’s frustrating to have oil all over your face, but what’s even more frustrating is to have it in your eyes, to have it enter your mouth. When I do this, I do it repeatedly, and at some point after taking hundreds of shots, I am able to capture a moment of genuine frustration, and in that second, the artwork is born.
Grace: You’re just good at bringing people to vulnerable, emotional states! Do the works change from the original photograph?
Arinze: Yeah, most of my drawings involve subjects isolated in a white space. Sometimes I tweak the drawings to have more contrast or less. I have the ability to alter skin complexion. I can make my subjects darker or fairer, modify or even add several characteristics to the drawing, just like my Bullets and Denim series.
Grace: I wanted to ask about that series because it obviously strays from the original photograph, since you’re adding an unusual visual element to people’s faces, to their skin. Can you talk about that shift in visibility from your other pieces to those?
Arinze: I don’t go out most of the time, so I’m always thinking in my studio about new ways to present my works and my messages. In Bullets—I actually thought about this during quarantine—I was stitching my torn jeans and was fascinated by how the thread goes into the fabric of the jeans. I thought to myself, “What if I can have this on skin?” I just tried it out, and it was amazing. I was like, “yeah, I need to incorporate this into my new series that I was going to talk about police brutality.” Then a thought came to me, and I put the gunshots on the head.
Even as we try to stitch the patches of our reality, I want people to see that, that we’ve had it to the head. Enough is enough. It’s a visual representation of enough is enough because from here onwards is death. We’ve had it to the extreme. —Arinze Stanley
What people don’t recognize about Bullets and Denim is that the artwork shows emotion on all parts, but if you have a gunshot to your head, you should be dead, right? Well, these people in the photo are not dead. That encapsulates the concept of endurance in general. Even as we try to stitch the patches of our reality, I want people to see that, that we’ve had it to the head. Enough is enough. It’s a visual representation of enough is enough because from here onwards is death. We’ve had it to the extreme. I tried to capture that.
Grace: That series is striking and powerful, and it feels slightly surreal because, like you said, if you saw someone with a gunshot to the head, they would be dead. Can you also talk about the seams of the denim?
Arinze: Where I’m from, we usually don’t just throw stuff away when it’s torn. We try to mend it… sew it. Like jeans, when they’re torn, we try to patch it up. Each of those patches in the artwork represents how many times we have been beaten and patched back up, that back-and-forth emotional discomfort and that you are going to have to go through a healing process again. And then we repeat. That’s why you see that the stitches kind of lay over each other.
It’s frustrating. We have to heal. I could be on this call right now, and next thing you know, the electricity could be gone. We don’t have constant electricity. There’s a culture that Nigerians have adopted over the years, since independence. Whenever the lights go off, everybody expresses their frustration, but you know what they do next? They turn on their petrol generators. We actually buy our own fuel to provide power for ourselves and life continues.
Funny enough, after hours of darkness and the electricity is back on, people scream “UP NEPA!!!” You hear everyone in the neighborhood thanking God that the light is back.
This is so funny. This is so funny because this is our right. We deserve actual accountability, and we deserve to have this because we have the natural resources here in Nigeria. We have been programmed in a way that we’ve been beaten—and some of us have beaten over—and people can’t even seem to understand what it feels like to be normal anymore. That explains the layers of denim that has become a fabric of our reality.
Grace: You mentioned the backgrounds of your works and keeping them white so that they’re decontextualized, but can you talk about the size of the works? I know you said you’re working on the largest piece you’ve ever done. Do you feel like you do okay under pressure, or does it weigh on you?
Arinze: Currently, I’m working on an 8-foot-tall artwork for a museum.
There is pressure creating so much work. Right now, I have three works in my home studio. I have a mini studio in my office, and there’s one work there. I’m working on four pieces at the same time. Meeting up with deadlines for exhibitions can be a pain in the ass especially when you’re trying to get perfection in your work.
What I do to handle that pressure is I don’t try to force myself to work on one piece anymore. I try to decentralize my focus and focus on different drawings at the same time. When I feel like drawing on this one, I will, but when I don’t feel like it, I’ll go to one I feel like working on.
Grace: You make it sound so easy.
Arinze: This is my lifestyle now! I only realized this a few years ago that I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life. I’m having fun. I feel so happy just doing what I love doing. I don’t even have to leave the house. This is the biggest gift.
Grace: How has COVID affected your work?
Arinze: On an emotional level, because of the negative energy that’s all around, people dying everywhere, it just feels like the boogeyman is in town, and how are you going to keep focus making works? It became worse with George Floyd. 2020 was not a good year. But COVID, particularly, sheesh… Everything has truly changed, but I feel we learn how to handle our emotions toward COVID. Basically, I feel COVID didn’t affect me in any way because this is what I love doing. I’m not going to say that I don’t feel very terrible about what’s happening, but it’s not going to stop me from making what I love.
In fact, I think I created my most works in 2020, which is ridiculous because I had a solo exhibition with Corey Helford Gallery. I had to make 16 works. Incredible! I think I made 15, though, but that was like setting my goal and nailing it on the head.
When you talk about it to sales, on the other hand, COVID was in the way a lot of the time, especially during the sales of my prints. Many people don’t know what to buy or if they should buy. It’s not just COVID. There’s a stigma of being a Nigerian, “the Nigerian prince syndrome. ” Everybody is afraid of doing business with Nigerians. There isn’t PayPal here in Nigeria so the payment ways are really difficult. Someone wants to pay for a print, but the person isn’t sure in dealing with someone because of the Nigerian stigma. It affected me personally, and I’m sure it affected a lot of people as well.
Grace: What have you got coming up this year?
Arinze: I’m planning a group show with a couple of Nigerians in Israel for a gallery named Zemack Contemporary Gallery. I’m also hoping to have a duo show in a gallery in Portland. Also, I’ll be participating in a group show with Corey Helford Gallery. I’m going to be showing at the Los Angeles Art Fair with Arcadia Gallery. I’ve got to make a lot of works! And then, I’m having my next solo exhibition in 2022 with Zemack Contemporary, and also, I’m having a solo exhibition in New York with Acadia Gallery in 2023. It’s a packed couple of years for me.