Victor Ehikhamenor pulls an Andy Warhol with Johnnie Walker — Toni Kan
The first time an artist and a liquor company collaborated on a bottle was in 1985.
Absolut was a Swedish brand trying to gain a foothold in the United States liquor market which was dominated by Russian made vodka.
It was a battle to wean Americans off Russian liquor, the Cold War be damned. Then a chance meeting between super star artist, Andy Warhol and Michel Roux, the man who ran the Absolut operations stateside changed all that.
Warhol proposed a collaboration in which he would produce a Warholian Absolut bottle. Roux accepted and that marked, in many ways, a turning point for Absolut which is after many years of dominance, currently the No. 5 top selling vodka in the United States of America.
The year was 1985 and since then the example set by Warhol and Absolut has been replicated over the following decades with liquor makers collaborating with artists and artistes as diverse as Keith Haring (Aboslut); Jeff Koons (Dom Pérignon’s $20,000 champagne); KAWS (Hennessy); Erica Badu (Hennessey); Annie Leibovitz (Macallan), Lady Gaga (Dom Pérignon); Snoop Dog (19 crimes); RZA (Hennessy) and many more.
Collaboration between Victor Ehikhamenor, visual artist, photographer, writer and designer, and Johnnie Walker has just been announced and the collaboration between the two brands plies the same trajectory as Andy Warhol’s albeit with a more salutary goal.
Mr Ehikhamenor’s collaboration with Johnnie Walker is part of the liquor maker’s “Keep Walking City Collection” which it says aims to introduce the brand to the next generation of whisky drinkers. This will be achieved by a glo-calised campaign, which pulls them closer to a globally recognised brand at a local level.
Realised in black and white, the bottle design is made from Graviky Labs’ AIR-INK technology which produces ink from air pollution by recycling carbon emissions thus linking a commercial objective with an environmentally friendly cause.
In keeping with the brand’s city-centric Keep on Walking campaign, Victor Ehikhamenor has produced a mural on Brook Street, behind Freedom Park in what has become one of the most striking and interactive examples of street art in the Lagos metropolis. Passersby drawn by the iconic Johnnie Walker image often stop mid-stride to strike a pose before they Keep Walking!
The use of street art as companion piece to the bottle is working on the thesis that Gen Zs and millennials identify more with their cities than with their countries.
Commenting on the mural, Victor Ehikhamenor says making the street art reminded him of his childhood in his rustic Uwessan village in Edo State where he watched his grandfather’s wives and other village women leave aesthetic designs on the mud walls of their huts.
That childhood memory informed his “Door” series which was part of his 2011 solo exhibition at CCA Yaba which proceeded under the theme – “Entrances & Exits: In Search of Not Forgetting.”
The choice of Victor Ehikhamenor, as Sub-saharan Africa’s representative from a diverse collection of artists drawn from Europe, Asia, Latin America and more is spot on especially in terms of meeting Johnnie Walker’s objective of introducing the whisky brand to a younger demographic because he has in the past decade become the most popular and recognisable Nigerian artist among Millennials and Gen Zs as well as more discerning art collectors.
His works have been shown at museums, festivals and art galleries across the world from Art Basel Hong Kong to Art X, The Gagosian to Tyburn Gallery, Rele Gallery to Jennings Gallery, the 5th Meditationa Biennale to the 12th Dak’art Biennale and Biennale Jogja XIII.
This year, he made a splash at The Gagosian’s “Rites of Passage” group exhibition where his installation “Do this in Memory of Us” left visitors in awe with its assemblage of thousands of rosary beads stitched to canvas and lace to create a tapestry that is at once haunting and tear-inducing.
In February he attended the Art Basel in Hong Kong where his works were sold out and he is currently showing at the South London Gallery in the Lagos Peckham, Repeat (Pilgrimage to the lakes) group exhibition where his work, “Cathedral of the Mind”, which explores the duality of Catholicism and animism remains the stand out piece of the exhibition.
A darling of private, institutional and corporate art collectors, Victor Ehikhamenor remains a keen apostle of making his art accessible to the mass and in no sphere has this been more evident as in the literary world where Mr Ehikhamenor has produced scores of book cover designs for artistes such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila, Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani, Chinelo Okparanta, Buchi Emecheta, Mike Nwosu as well as The Caine Prize and many more. With over 30 book cover designs to his credit, Victor Ehikhamenor may well hold the world record for book cover designs.
Victor Ehikhamenor has also channelled his visual artistry in other directions, most notably at 234Next where he designed the pages of the newspaper in a collaboration with fashion designer, Ituen Basi.
A keen advocate of return and restoration of looted artefacts from the Bini kingdom and other sites of pillage in the global south, his 2022 work, “Still Standing” described in The Guardian as a “12-foot high work composed of rosary beads (chaplets), lace and miniature bronze pieces on canvas, depicts the imposing image of Oba Ovonramwen, the Oba of Benin, who was on the throne of his fathers when British forces carried out the so-called punitive expedition… memorialises and commemorates Oba Ovonramwen and all those who lost their lives in the attack.”
It was placed beside the plaque of Admiral Sir Harry Holdsworth Rawson in the crypt of St. Paul in London in a clear expression of the empire roaring back.
As the collaboration between Victor Ehikhamenor and Johnnie Walker is formally launched on Sunday, August 13, 2023 what many would not realise is that this is a relationship that began in 2019 when Johnnie Walker supported the artists’ May 2019 solo exhibition, “Daydream Esoterica” at Rele Gallery, Onikan, Lagos.
Four years later, that fledgling romance has blossomed into a groundbreaking collaboration.