“Police brutality is a pandemic in the world right now.” This striking statement comes from Nigerian-born artist Arinze Stanley, who strives to practice political activism through art, with a particular focus on the injustice faced by the Black community due to oppressive systems, both in Nigeria and abroad. Stanley uses graphite and charcoal in an awe-inspiring hyperrealistic style, which forms emotional connections with the viewer, in an effort to trigger empathy and initiate change. In his Paranormal Portraits exhibition at the Corey Helford Gallery (running until November 7th), Stanley navigates the surreal experience of being Black in the 21st Century.
From an extremely young age, you expressed a keen interest in drawing and art and taught yourself to master these abilities. How did you approach educating yourself in such an intricate skill, unaided?
I didn’t consider it as educating myself, but it was more like something I enjoyed doing, and I did it with a couple of my friends. It was fun, and it became my hobby.
Having taught yourself these artistic abilities from a simple childhood love of pencils and paper, did you find it challenging entering the industry when you began to pursue art as an occupation?
It happened organically, I think. At first, I didn’t start with the mindset that it was going to be my occupation, and I still don’t think it’s my occupation. I feel like drawing fulfils my purpose in life. When I started as a full-time artist in 2012, I didn’t face so many challenges entering the art industry as a lot of people welcomed my works because of the message behind the pieces and not only because of my technical ability.
Growing up in Nigeria, how do you think ideas like home and national identity weave themselves into your artworks? Do you believe that our childhood surroundings are always consciously or unconsciously reflected in our creative expressions?
Yes, my works are a reflection of my reality. Consciously or unconsciously, I feel like my work has evolved into something more like a story of my personal experiences and a reflection of how I perceive my surroundings. You get to see that in the expressions that show in my art.
In particular, your most recent exhibition at Corey Helford Gallery, Paranormal Portraits, reflects the uneasiness that can be felt by Black people in modern society. Does the inspiration for this exhibition stem predominantly from your personal feelings about race, or would you say that it is more expansive than yourself as an individual, and instead more of a blanket, artistic narrative of the Black experience?
A lot of my work speaks to the Black experience in modern-day society and how the system has failed Black people, both in Africa and abroad.
You have previously said that the expressions portrayed in your new work aim to navigate viewers into the “psychedelic and uncertain experience of being Black in the 21st century.” Can you expand on how your personal experience of navigating the world as a Black man has been psychedelic or unknown? How does Paranormal Portraits reflect this surreal element through expressions and subject choice?
My current exhibition is intended to navigate and expose to my viewers the sad reality of oppression that exists in the modern day – both here, in Nigeria, and overseas, Black lives have experienced some of the most gruesome aspects of inequality, stigmatization, and exploitation.
Your works tend to have an undertone of political activism, and they tend to speak for groups who are often underrepresented or unheard of in society. Why do you believe it is necessary to utilize art as a mechanism for social and political change?
I know that art is a tool for change because I am a living testimony of oppression and injustice, and my art has been the only escape for me. Art has been my voice and I believe that I was blessed with that, and it speaks louder than my words.
Your portraits aim to establish a captivating emotional connection between viewer and subject, and the hyperrealistic style enhances the humanity that tightens this connection. Do you believe that this bond between viewer and subject is intrinsic to politically charged art to deepen the viewer’s understanding of certain minority group’s plight?
I believe art can trigger some sort of emotional connection to a subject matter and create some kind of empathy in people's minds. The purpose of my art is to question the conscience of man. It’s one thing to read and understand a problem, and it’s another thing to feel and understand the feeling. This is why I spend hundreds of hours trying to capture those emotions in full detail.
Your materials are usually kept to the bare minimum of graphite and charcoal, which are utilized alongside your hyperrealism mastery for a grey-toned, photo-realistic effect. Have you always opted for this realistic approach to art, and why do you prefer predominantly using these materials in your work?
I started drawing with graphite and charcoal on paper ever since I was a child. I always had a personal connection with paper growing up. I had access to a lot of paper from my dad’s paper company, and I fell in love with drawing with the graphite pencils I used in primary school. I enjoy the sound of pencils striking on paper, and I think it’s mesmerizing, and this was something I did for a very long time. It became a part of me, and it's no surprise that this has reflected in the way my art looks.
As mentioned, your art is often geared towards political activism. Recently, you have completed drawings that expose the harsh realities of police brutality, particularly within Nigeria, where you grew up. Is this an issue that you believe is not spoken about or addressed enough in society? Do you think art like your own is a gateway to open essential conversations on this subject and to erase the stigma often associated with it?
Exactly! This is what I intend to achieve with the new series of works am creating, Bullets and Denim. I have been brutally assaulted both by the military and the police in Nigeria and never got justice. Whenever I see others go through this, it brings back a lot of memories. I think it’s essential that the world focuses on fixing this issue because, believe it or not, police brutality is a pandemic in the world right now.
Would you like to see more creatives in the industry who utilize their art to activate political and societal change to initiate conversations and expose people to art as political rather than creative expression?
Yes, I think every creative has been allowed to change the world in their way. I would love to see artists take charge of their special abilities to bring change to the world.
Following the last question, are there any other politically active artists you would recommend to people looking to educate themselves through artwork?
Yes, I have a couple of artist friends in Nigeria who use their crafts to speak to social change such as Oscar Ukonu, Ken Nwadiogbu, and many more.