THREE MONTHS AGO, popular US-based Nigerian artist Victor Ekpuk arrived in Lagos for a four-month residency program at the Arthouse Contemporary Ltd. He has been seen at different art exhibitions and events since his arrival in August. As part of his residency program, he held an artist’s talk and a one-day drawing workshop to connect with followers of his work and the art-inclined populace in Lagos. In between these activities, he also opened his first exhibition in London titled Portraits at the Sulger Buel Lovell Gallery.
Victor Ekpuk is known for integrating traditional elements of Nsibidi writing and symbols into African and global contemporary art discourses. He is also known for impressive large scale drawing performances at museums and big cultural centers.
Last week, on one of those very hot mornings with long traffic experiences in Lagos, Bukola Oyebode and Tony Ola of The Sole Adventurer visited his residency studio to interview him about his art career and coming exhibition. The calmness of the artist and the orderliness in his studio were the direct opposite of the hustling and bustling in Lagos just outside his door.
TSA: How did you come to using elements of Nsibidi symbols to represent forms in your work?
Victor Ekpuk: I think the idea started when I was in College at Ife. Basically, the curriculum in school then was to experiment with traditional forms, look for forms or ideas within cultures to use and express ourselves. That is the kind of academic instructions that I had. Some of our class assignments also bordered on that; the proximity between Ife and Yoruba culture. If you look at some of my earlier works, I’ve done some other forms of traditional art. The drawing class of Agbo Folarin who used to teach me drawing was also very interesting. Then at some point in my search for my own vocabulary, I came across the works of Obiora Udechukwu, a book of commissioned poems for Christopher Okigbo. I was really drawn to his economy of lines. So I started experimenting with that form a little bit, even though he didn’t teach me, he was in Nsukka and I was in Ife. I think his work was like a light bulb for me in what approach my work should be. I also saw him use Nsibidi symbols in his works. This triggered the recognition that I am actually from this part of the world, the country where this is practised. I have experienced it in the practice of play among the Ekpo and Ekpe. That got me interested in finding out more about it and I started doing my own research with books and I went back to ask questions from the communities, which is my community.
TSA: So you went as far as going to the community where the language…
Victor Ekpuk: Yes. It is my community; it’s where I grew up. Sometimes I am more interested in doing research on what I’m looking for. It gives me more materials than to just pick up one thing because it is fancy. I was particularly interested because I grew up playing children’s masquerade and we talked about Nsibidi. If you’re not a member of the Ekpo society, you cannot stay outside when the Ekpo is coming. To prove that you’re a member, they’ll throw Nsibidi on the ground for you and you have to decode it, if you can’t you’re in trouble.
TSA: This gives much insight into your connection with these signs. Are there any hidden messages in the symbols that you use now?
Victor Ekpuk: It depends on what work I’m doing. I started out using Nsibidi signs as a subject or to inform the subject matter of what I was doing. I would actually put Nsibidi signs in the work and you could recognize it in those works to inform the subject matter. Through the years, I think I find myself using less and less of that, particularly because what I got out of it is not so much the symbols and the signs. It is the concept of using the signs and symbol to express ideas and how they have been able to abstract those ideas into forms or put them in a very abstract pattern to mean something that I enjoy. That basically informs how I approach my work eventually. For example, if you look at my work now, I don’t think you will see any Nsibidi in it. What my work does is that it teases people to think that I’m writing, that they could read it. So what I ask people to do is to feel it, rather than read it literally.
TSA: If we understand well, you have created a design out of Nsibidi symbols and what you use now are those designs, your own signs. They have become your message and they remain as abstract as the signs themselves?
Victor Ekpuk: Yes, it is not so much like I can sit down and say this means that or I can read this from A-Z. In fact, I try to include my name within the art. So sometimes, that becomes the recognizable symbol you can decode.
TSA: So these symbols you have created as your own style and vocabulary, are you saying anything in particular with them?
Victor Ekpuk: Yes and No. They form the background in which my work settles in. They form the words, so to speak if you want to see them as words but not that you could read them literally. What I am saying with the work eventually is in the entire form of the work. I create the abstract of a thing I see around me and that is where the subject matter is.
TSA: What subject matters do you cover?
Victor Ekpuk: It depends on the work. Every piece has what inspires it. Some pieces are just me playing with forms and lines. It does not necessarily have to say anything. My artistic focus varies from series to series or whatever form interests me. Like if you look behind you, I saw that woman’s hair at an event. I see it is an interesting form. I bring it into my studio and I abstract it into signs to create another form. And this varies (referring to another work). When I came back to Nigeria, I saw a lot of people carry things on their heads. Apparently, I grew with lots of people carrying things on their head and when I came back, after not having lived here for a while, this thing of people carrying things on their head still continues. But the idea is not to represent hawkers as such but to stylize those visual cues in abstract forms. If you’re talking about making statements, I’m also making statements about stuff on people’s head. It still goes back to the human condition, we carry stuff on our head, whether ‘it is a wig’ or the psychological state of a person. So that sort of thing is the general human milieu, it is not so much about the hawker but depicting the general human condition. That in itself is a huge statement. It’s a psychoanalysis of the human condition.
TSA: Looking at the works in the studio here, they are in sculptural shapes on boards unlike the canvas drawings, is this a recent development?
Victor Ekpuk: This residency is basically a form of experimenting with ideas and some of the stuff that I have started but didn’t quite finish. And maybe works that I did one or two before. I came to Nigeria so I can be inspired by the environment and experiment. (Referring to a metal sculpture) That’s just me playing. I gave my drawing to a craftsman to make into lines with metal. The drawing on the wall over there, I was just playing with aesthetics. I needed to fill the wall with something. I play with ideas. Like in the Composition series, I was looking at the abstraction or aesthetics of the symbols, not the meaning, and to me, that was important, not whether this means this or that. That is as valid as making a statement.
TSA: In terms of experimenting, don’t you think you’re still following the same pattern and using the symbols?
Victor Ekpuk: Yes I am. I have not deviated. It is just the surface that is different. It’s not painting on a rectangular canvas; I’m cutting out shapes, which is veering towards a form. More like sculpting the platform.
TSA: What about your exhibition in the UK, for it to be called Portraits, are there people, in particular, you’re trying to represent or are you also focusing on design?
Victor Ekpuk: Yes, the design is how I approach my composition first and foremost. But the general idea of why I’m making the portraits is the same idea of me trying to investigate the human condition. In African philosophy, the head is supposed to be the seat of consciousness. It predisposes what we’ll become going by the concept of Ori and Eleda, and the expression of Ori is the face. The abstracted faces I’m making in that work is me trying to look for a connection to the self. They don’t necessarily represent a particular person. They’re all different expressions. The work started from the series ‘I AM’. Each of these portraits has a different character and colour, dealing with issues of identity. For example, I created the piece God Save the Queen particularly because I will be showing the series in London. It is making a statement on the imperial majesty…
TSA: That word imperial, is that not forward and at this point in our history undiplomatic especially as you were in her country…
I am not trying to be diplomatic; I am trying to be an artist. The crown carries a lot of baggage that has affected our history and it is still affecting our history. My father and grandfathers grew up as kids reciting God Save the Queen. I did this particularly because I was exhibiting in London. And there is another titled Her Majesty.
TSA: Going back a little, you had this “African influenced background” and typical use of colour in your works, some of which you referenced at the artist talk, like Paradise is Here painted in 1993. You seem to have journeyed far from that way of working with colours to more simplified aesthetics. Is this transition as a result of living in a different environment?
Victor Ekpuk: That was a piece I made in 1993, then I was living in Lagos and was maybe just four years out of college. Well given my background as a painter, yes I was fascinated by colours and still fascinated by colours but not using that much colour in my palette or in my work doesn’t mean I have moved away from colours. I’m just challenging myself to use less colour. I started that transition while I was here. If you look at the very first picture I showed at the talk of my work at my first solo exhibition at the Goethe Institute, it was a three-panel painting titled ‘Three Wise Men’. It is red, white, and a colour that looked like black though there were several colours hidden behind it. I started to play with colour in that way. Different tones of the same colour within the work. The one that looked like black, when you get close, you will begin to see a shade of blue, purple and turquoise in it. I enjoy exploring colour and I love to challenge myself in that way. The other ones hanging by it are just simple white and red paintings, nothing else. I wanted to work with positive and negative spaces, kind of like bring the drawing to painting. Instead of painting, I draw, lines still fascinate me. I use pigments to draw. And I started that many years before I left for the US.
TSA: Who were your earliest influences working as an artist? You mentioned Obiora Udechukwu, which other artists or lecturer influenced you?
Victor Ekpuk: There is Agbo Folarin. He is late now. He was a practising artist. The mirror that is being covered at the international airport is his work. He did that. He did other public artworks at that time when Nigerian politicians still had a sense of appreciating art and other public aesthetics. Remember we used to have a festival for arts and culture.
TSA: Right! This is a subject worthy of an interview separately, but how did we go from that point to not caring about our heritage anymore?
Victor Ekpuk: Military rule happened.
TSA: Or the people themselves you mean?
Victor Ekpuk: People don’t just change. There has to be a whole administrative infrastructure that does not pay attention or put in money or emphasis on those things. Then they ruin the economy and art is always the first thing that gets the hit. Actually, even under military rule, we had administrators who were culturally minded and do what they needed to do. Today, that is not the issue anymore. The artists are the ones doing things by themselves to show their culture out there.
TSA: How often do you do live drawing performances, like the site-specific ephemeral work you did in Cuba?
Victor Ekpuk: It depends on the circumstances and exhibition that I’m doing. I also do them on large spaces in museums. The first one I’ve done in a gallery is this exhibition in London because I thought I should bring that aspect of my work into that space.
TSA: Do you engage with the audience in the process?
Victor Ekpuk: I don’t talk when I’m working. It could distract me. When I take a break, I can talk. In Cuba, people were not really there in that room. They came in at the opening of the exhibition. I left that space to do a live performance with the orchestra for the live opening.
TSA: Do you ever think you might get tired of this style or that the people who follow your work would get tired?
Victor Ekpuk: I don’t know. It could be but I’m not at that point yet. I don’t cross the bridge until I get there. I don’t worry myself about that; I just do what I’m doing as I get inspiration to do them. I’m always experimenting. This brings me back to the purpose of this residency. It is about experimenting with my work, transforming them from flat surfaces into 3-dimensional works.
Victor Ekpuk’s residency in Lagos ends in November. He will return to Lagos for Coming Home at Arthouse Contemporary in the early part of 2016.