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The Guardian | Ekpuk and the art of native contents

Illustration, one of the basic pedestals on which strong creative skill in art is mounted, exists in the trajectory of U.S.-based Victor Ekpuk.

Over the years, he has shown a mastery of illustration both for newspapers and books, creating minimal contents for mainstream art exhibitions. However, in the last few years, Ekpuk has installed large public space art and shows across three continents. More interesting is the artist’s sculptural executions.

In just four years, he has had an intimidating resume of works of monumental depth. Currently based in Washington D.C, Ekpuk worked as an illustrator at Daily Times Newspapers, Lagos from 1990 to 1998.

His art, which is simple in form and content — most times, using the nsibidi of Ekpe people of Cross River and Akwa Ibom states, Nigeria — started metamorphosing into embossed texture recently.

From the paper or canvas surface, his work displayed signs of two-dimensional reality when he had two artist-in-residence programmes in Lagos between 2014 and 2016. These changes were like the artist’s experimental launch into new period of his art.

Late 2018, Ekpuk’s most recent international public space sculpture was installed in Bahrain. Unveiled to mark Bahrain-based bank, ABC’s new headquarter in the country, it’s a permanent outdoor art of 5.4m-height known as The Face. The sculpture adds to the celebration of the bank’s 40-year journey.

In typical Ekpuk’s signature of simple illustrative style, ‘The Face’, from a pictorial view, stands almost without basement, in stainless steel of red, against the bank’s high-rise building.

The Face’s installation in Bahrain lately does not suggest that Ekpuk’s art is new to the Middle East. His works were exhibited at the Contemporary section of Art Dubai in 2018 by the London, UK-based Tafeta Gallery. Perhaps the Art Dubai window provided the link to the Bahrain sculpture. “I’m not aware that my sculpture at Art Dubai in 2018 is linked to the Bahrain project,” the artist told The Guardian. “I was informed by the President, CEO of Bank ABC that he first saw my work at a solo show, Marks & Objects, at Aicon Gallery, in 2019.”

The bank’s president, he recalled, “requested if I found tender a proposal for outdoor sculpture at their world headquarters in Bahrain.”

In a region where most of its cities are not so disposed to figurative imageries as public space art, perhaps, for religious reasons, minimalism or abstract work of artist like Ekpuk becomes instant attraction. For example, despite being one of the top destinations of the 21st century, Dubai’s public space ‘art’ exists largely in the sculpture-like architectures that dot the city’s skyline. The city lacks figurative sculptures.
“In my experience of that part of the Middle East I’ve been to, abstract representational art are seen in their public spaces.” The Kingdom of Bahrain, Ekpuk noted, “has a vibrant art scene with artists making all kinds of artworks.”

Apart from adding aesthetic depth to the city’s landscape, The Face, Ekpuk boasted, stands out among many sculptures in Bahrain. “There are many outdoor sculptures in The Kingdom of Bahrain, mine just happens to be the largest.”

A sculpture that takes quite a chunk of space in its main body of 14ft x 17.3ft dimensions, The Face, unlike most public space art of such sizes, sits on 1.5 inches marble basement that appears almost lost to the ground.

Ekpuk explained that the sculpture “is inspired by portraits of Bahrainis in traditional attire, wrapping themselves with their identity and pride.”

Ahead of his Bahrain project, Ekpuk’s works in mural and sculptures, specifically for public spaces, including museums, were known in the U.S and U.K.

His works include, Meditations in Memories, at The Wilfredo Lam Art centre, Havana Biennale, Cuba.

He recalled that the inspiration behind the work dates back to four centuries ago. “I was to create a sacred space of memory to honour my ancestors from the Cross River region of Nigeria who were forced into slavery on that island about 400 years ago, but whose memory/identity as Ibibio, Efik and Ejagham peoples has been enshrined in the Abakua society. It was an emotional reunion for me and the Cubans.”

Also, two years ago, in Washington DC., Ekpuk created a fabric sculpture for the Smithsonian Institution of Art and Industry Building. Titled, Eye See Yoh, it was part of The People Art and Culture Festival held yearly in the American capital.

Earlier, at North Carolina Museum of Art, Ekpuk’s 2017 Divine Mural, rendered in chalk, was on display, spreading 30×18 ft, including a Yoruba divination board of Ifa.

The artist’s passion for African contents gave him a space at a group exhibition of 100 artists, from home and the diaspora. Titled Get Up, Stand Up Now — Generations of Black Creative Pioneers, it was shown at London’s Somerset House, UK, last year.

Again, his theme about African ancient signs, symbols and writing stood his art out, among the 100 artists, in another mural titled, Shrine to Wisdom.

Ekpuk, in his Artist Statement, said the mural “is an Afro-futuristic temple that engulfs the visitor in a womb of knowledge, connecting us with our past, present and future.”

When he showed Auto-Graphics, a solo exhibition at Krannert Art museum in 2014, curator, Allyson Purpura noted how the artist’s composition is not “tentative or ambivalent,” but drawn with what she described as lacking ‘erasure’.

The show was sponsored in part by Krannert Art Museum and partially supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council.

Curatorial note from Purpura: “Like nsibidi, which communicates through both visual mark and gesture, Ekpuk’s immersive drawings seem to be choreographed with the full force of his body. This will become readily evident to visitors when, upon entering the museum, they are greeted by one of his ephemeral works drawn directly onto the gallery wall — an ample surface on which to explore the infinite potential of the hand-drawn line.”

In 2013, he had three months fellowship programme at Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF), with a modest open studio inside sculptor, Olu Amoda’s Wotaside Studio, Maryland, Lagos. Revisiting his first major return to Nigeria for the OYASAF programme, sculpture, apparently, wasn’t so visible then in his work. “I did not do sculpture during OYASAF, I only did drawings on paper, which were mainly inspired by what I was experiencing in Lagos during that stay.” He, however, did not leave Nigeria after the residency without dropping something for history to reflect over. “I might add that some of the drawings found expressions on covers of reissued Chinua Achebe novels that Penguin books commissioned. Such include No Longer at Ease and Collected Poem’.”

He was back in Nigeria two years after, for four months, again, as an artist-in-residence at the Arthouse-The Space, in Lagos. The residency generated open studio and a solo show titled, Homecoming, in Lagos.

Perhaps, for the first time, the artist showed sculpture-like pieces from his drawing forms and styles. He described the works as “metal drawing.”

The texture of the drawing, then, was not exactly something that emerged during his residency in Lagos. The infusion of metal into his work, he disclosed, started at artists-in- residency, in France where he was “the only painter.”

He disclosed how the idea of realising the drawings as three-dimensional objects has been in his head for a long time. With the opportunity at Arthouse residency, “I brought those ideas to physical existential.”

He argued, “even the two-dimensional paintings were sculpted into shapes,” adding, “the metal sculptures were both paintings and drawings, pulled out from the walls to free standing objects.”

It’s quite of interest that within a short period, Ekpuk’s experiment in sculpture took bold steps into the public space of two continents.

“The three dimensional works in outdoor spaces started in 2019 with a 20ft metal sculpture, Hopes and Dream Under Glory, commissioned by the city of Washington DC in US.”

It could take almost forever, perhaps, decades, for some sculptors to get the kind of monumental works that Ekpuk was commissioned to produce, all in just few years after his art moved from flat surface to three-dimensional genre.

As Ekpuk signatures are doting public spaces in monumental dimensions abroad, what’s his effort in getting the Nigerian public space have his work as well? “When Nigeria calls, I’ll be happy to answer.”

This year, Ekpuk has had one of his works acquired by The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The artist said, “the acquired painting, titled, Union of Saint and Venus, which is a part of an ongoing body of work, Slave Narratives, explores the history of the trans-Atlantic and trans-Saharan slave trades.”

This year, there should be something to share in his immediate plans as regards exhibition(s), commissioned jobs etc.

“The end of 2019 has been blessedly tightly scheduled with lots of travels for projects, both within the U.S. and outside. I think I miss my studio, so beginning from 2020, I would love to settle in a bit and converse with my canvases.”

Ekpuk obtained his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, Nigeria in 1989. He developed a minimalist approach of reducing form to constituent lines while working as a cartoonist for Daily Times, a leading Nigerian newspaper, in the 1990s. His works have been exhibited in acclaimed international venues including the Krannert Art Museum (Illinois), the Fowler Museum (California), the Museum of Art and Design (New York), the Newark Museum (New Jersey), the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC), the New Museum of Contemporary Art (New York), the Dakar Biennale (Senegal) and the Johannesburg Biennial (South Africa).

Most recently, Ekpuk was featured in exhibitions at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College and the 12th Havana Biennale in Cuba early this year. Arthouse Contemporary sponsored Ekpuk’s inclusion in the show.