Victor Ekpuk (E)


Victor Ekpuk originally comes from south eastern Nigeria, he was educated in western Nigeria (Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife) and, for a number of years now, has lived and worked away from his homeland (first in the USA and now in the Netherlands). It is therefore no surprise that traces of different cultures can be seen in his work. On the one hand his work is founded on a long, African tradition; on the other hand he is receptive to the history of western culture and to new developments.
What I find particularly attractive about his work is that, in spite of these influences, he has developed an entirely personal graphic language.
Ekpuk is fascinated by language, in particular nsibidi, a graphic language that goes back around a thousand years and that originated in his native region. It is a collection of symbols in which I can sometimes see an indication of their meaning, but which generally leave me baffled. Because the language is cryptic, the artist is able to add symbols or to alter existing symbols. He even inserts images that are a faithful representation of current reality, but which, because they are assimilated into the whole, become an inconspicuous component of this ancient language. A story is thereby created that I know I can read, the emotional import of which I can probably digest, which I shall perhaps, in the end, understand a small part of, but which will chiefly enable me to read it as a series of intriguing ideograms, a quantity of miraculous symbols. Language thus becomes simultaneously decoration and content. By manipulating language in this way the artist creates enormous freedom for himself. After all, he knows he is the only true reader. At the same time the language also gives me a great deal of freedom as viewer, since I can give full rein to my imagination.
From this language, which is in fact an ingenious play of lines and threads, Ekpuk has developed a style of drawing based on these lines. He extends them out and at the same time he brings them back to their most elemental form, to little more than contours. They thus provide him with a direct and effective means to express himself. In this context it is significant to know that for many years Ekpuk worked as an illustrator and cartoonist for a Nigerian newspaper. This experience certainly taught him how to employ lines effectively to achieve the best results using restricted means.
Ekpuk usually draws on a fairly small sheet of paper. He then makes a large inkjet print of this, which he again fills in with some lines, symbols and colours. As a consequence of the printing procedure, the colours in his drawings, the black in particular, are especially intense and tactile. As if they are lying on top of the paper.
When the artist begins with a drawing, the idea is scarcely defined in his head. Most of it takes form while working. One “word” leads to another; one image stimulates the creation of another. Coincidence and surprise are allowed to run their course. They are given all the room they need.
Inspiration for the content of Victor Ekpuk’s work comes from events, from what he sees, reads or experiences. On one occasion this leads to a political work, for example a cell surrounded by all sorts of symbols in which depictions of weapons and aggressive human figures are hiding. On another occasion it is the portrayal of two women kissing each other on the street. A searching investigation of the themes would no doubt enable the time and place to be traced. The kissing women have Dutch origins; the cell refers to an African dictator. The many animals and animal shapes must arouse recollections of his homeland.
There are drawings in which I have the feeling that the artist has hidden all kinds of puns or jokes. They positively exude pleasure. It could also be that they reveal the fact that Victor Ekpuk, even though he paints as well, truly loves the medium of drawing.

Amsterdam, July 2006.

Translation: Jane Hall