By Gameli Hamelo
When Victor Ekpuk’s new body of work opened in late September at Efiɛ Gallery in Dubai, it marked the Nigerian American artist’s first solo show in the Middle East in his 30 years of practice.
Speaking to Artsy, Ekpuk suggested that the growing interest in his work from the region could be due to the “nature of the abstraction of my work that has to do with writing and touches on calligraphy,” adding that he believes the work “resonates with the aesthetics of the Middle East.”
Indeed, when he was commissioned to work on a 17-foot steel sculpture in front of the international headquarters of the Arab Bank Corporation in the Kingdom of Bahrain in 2019, he was told that his work was “different but familiar” by Dr. Khaled Kawan, the bank’s CEO.
Over the decades, Ekpuk has gained recognition for reimagining Nsibidi, an ancient and secret visual communication system used by communities in southeastern Nigeria and southwestern Cameroon that experts date back to the 5th century.
Through paintings, drawings, and sculptures, Ekpuk explores issues of historical narratives and the contemporary African diaspora, which has earned him global recognition and admiration. His work has been exhibited at spaces including the Dakar Biennial (Senegal), Institut du Monde Arabe (France), Somerset House (London), Havana Biennial (Cuba), and the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, both in the United States. His work has also been exhibited and collected by institutions including the World Bank, the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History & Culture, the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African Art, and the Philips Collection.
Ekpuk’s new body of work at the Efiɛ Gallery, which runs through November 21st, is titled “INTERwoven TEXTures,” a nod to his unique style of blending ideas of writing systems and traditions built on the foundation of Nsibidi symbols. The show opened as part of the inaugural Dubai Calligraphy Biennale, which brings together more than 200 artists across 20 venues throughout the city.
The exhibition “is a celebration of storytelling and the richness of cultural intersections,” said Ekpuk, adding that the works invite the world “to explore the multifaceted layers of meaning that merge when diverse narratives and textures intertwine.”
Ekpuk returns to the use of wood, a prominent feature in his work in the 1990s and 2000s when he lived in Lagos. It is a revival of an idea he started during a previous residency in the city, where he worked on a body of work he called “Heads,” which investigated the human head as a piece of consciousness, creating stylized heads out of wood. He viewed the residency as a good way to experiment and decided to revisit the unfinished concept for this exhibition.
There are also new metal sculptures and previously unseen works on canvas. Ekpuk’s signature abstraction inspired by Nsibidi symbols is painted throughout these works. He also draws from the tapestries of Middle Eastern heritage, African graphic systems, and the global fabric of contemporary art.
“The theme in my current works is investigating an African belief [in] the human condition as predisposed by the condition of the metaphysical ‘head.’ I am exploring the literal and metaphorical heads in these works,” Ekpuk told Artsy. “Heads carrying fashion and cultural identity (fashionable women in African high society with their wigs, weaves, and elaborate head ties). Heads carrying ideas, heads where [their] fortune has already been encoded.”
Coinciding with the exhibition, Ekpuk will also unveil a commissioned interactive aluminum installation “Passage to Promise,” measuring three meters high and three meters wide and covered in Nsibidi-inspired symbols in the Dubai Design District for the Biennale, becoming the first African artist to display a public sculpture in the city. On October 14th, he will be part of a panel discussion about calligraphy across different cultures globally at the Museum of the Future in Dubai. His work is also currently on view at the Princeton Art Museum in the United States.
Through it all, Ekpuk wants to be remembered as someone who “contributed something worthy to culture.”