Artist Victor Ekpuk takes inspiration from a secretive writing language of his native Nigeria to communicate universal themes. Though Victor understands only some of this sacred language called Nsibidi, he draws his own graphic black and white script as a narrative background to his art. He freely uses everything from sand to paint to black marker — along with a judicious pop of color — to express contemporary human experience. At one point an artist-in-residence in Amsterdam and now a U.S. citizen, Victor knows no boundaries in his world or his art.
Tell me a bit about Nsibidi. What is it, how much of it do you understand, and how does this inspire the script-like symbols you use in your art?
Nsibidi is an ancient form of sacred communication among the male secret societies of the Ibibio, Efik, Ejagham and Igbo peoples of southeastern Nigeria. It uses mime, speech, and placement of objects and graphic symbols that represent concepts. Being secret codes of communication, their meanings were revealed only to initiates. Some aspects of these signs are secularized and used for public notices and record keeping. The graphic aspect of Nsibidi thus becomes one of Africa’s indigenous writing systems.
Not being a member of any of the societies that use nsibidi, I only understand as much as I am allowed to, which is not a lot. However, I was born into a culture where nsibidi is an open secret. As a child I have often watched nsibidi being performed among members of Ekpe and Ekpo secret societies. During ceremonial rites of passage, some nsibidi signs were painted as decorations on the bodies of maidens. I also learned to steer clear of sacred and restricted spaces that were marked with nsibidi objects. I could compare this to the yellow police tape at crime scenes or restricted areas in the western societies.
Though my limited knowledge of nsibidi signs today is from memory of observations and documented anthropological archives, what I understand has immensely inspired the direction my work has taken for the past two decades that I have been a professional visual artist. My contact with nsibidi has inspired me to use the essence of this ancient art form to express my contemporary experience.
I know your degree is in fine arts and painting, but were you always artistic growing up? Were there any particular influences or mentors that inspired your path as an artist?
As far back as I can remember, I could draw good resemblances of objects and people before I learned how to write. I would say that my mother was the first nurturer of my artistic gift. At a very young age, she encouraged me to enter competitions. So strong was my love for art that I could not think of anything else I’d rather study in college, and my parents did not dissuade me from this path. I am grateful to them for that.
Art school in Nigeria was where I encountered the many cultural and artistic styles and philosophies that have influenced my work. I was introduced to forms in Yoruba art, Igbo art of body and mural drawing called Uli, and nsibidi scripts from Ibibio people. Among the artists who were able to contextualize these classical art forms into contemporary expression were Agbo Folarin and Obiora Udechukwu. While these artists were not directly mentoring me, their work presented a perspective through which I realized my path as an artist.
You talk about using Nsibidi signs and your own script symbols as a narrative background to your compositions. Are you using these script symbols as a means of depicting human discussion and interpretation of these larger themes or experiences?
The narrative background that I use in my works is not necessarily nsibidi, per se; it is my invented pseudo-writings that are generally not meant to be read literally but rather to be appreciated holistically. Within this narrative, however, are some recognizable symbols that are woven into the subtext of the narrative. You are right that I intend to engage viewers to bring their own interpretation and experiences to the works.
Do colors carry certain meanings or vibrations for you? For example, does blue represent something particular in works like Eternal Dreamer or Omniscience?
Certain colors do carry resonance with me. I always seem to gravitate to ultramarine blue. I can’t say this is always a conscious effort but few other colors quite convey the essence of my work. Ultramarine blue seems to convey very primordial psychic energy, so it is used in works like Eternal Dreamer and Omniscience to express the human condition at the spiritual level of consciousness.
On a mundane level, I like that ultramarine blue and primary red are visually arresting, especially against black backgrounds.
Is there a reason you draw your script symbols in either black or white? Is that simply to allow larger color shapes to stand out from that narrative, or is there an element of contrast or opposition in human interaction that you intend to convey?
In my recent projects, I have decided to go back to drawing as the basis of my work. I am exploring drawing as an independent genre that is not a support for painting. The best way to do that is to express it as directly as possible in simple black or white lines on negative spaces.
When lines alone are what I have to use, the quality and integrity of the lines, as well as design, become paramount to the composition. Color in this case is used when needed to support the drawing.
Perhaps the finished works create an element of debate or opposition in human interactions as you have stated. Viewers may be drawn to the works because of their aesthetic affinity to them, or their resonance with the theme. I do not set out to deliberately control how people perceive my work.
I’m struck by the contemporary feel of Night Watch and Medicine Bird. Is it just the relative simplicity of these works that seems modern, or are you influenced at all by modernist art forms and shapes?
I often get comments about how contemporary or modern my work looks. Perhaps this surprise is borne out of an expectation that art created by an African is supposed to look anything but contemporary or modern. For me, it is like saying that a Fang mask looks like a Picasso or a Fang looks like Modigliani, or that Japanese wood block prints look like Vincent van Gogh’s paintings. Shouldn’t the description be the other way around, considering that the former predate the latter?
It may be that in the West, the modern art is the prism through which most art styles that engage abstraction is judged. It is important to note that the artistic culture in Africa that informed and inspired the Modern movements in Europe are not extinct. African art forms continue to inspire ideas for universal artistic creations, be it contemporary design or contemporary visual art. There are artists who were born into these cultures who have chosen to continuously explore and be inspired by the rich content of these art forms without necessarily referencing Modernism. My composition Medicine Bird is an interpretation of a metal object among the Yoruba called Opa Osanyin. The animal forms in Night Watch are inspired by terracotta equestrian figurines from the inland Niger region in Mali. In each of these examples, it is important to note the highly stylized and relatively simplified forms. It is this artistic tradition of reducing form to its essence that I reference in my contemporary work.
While I engage the classical African sculptural forms, of particular interest to me are the graphic elements inscribed on those sculptural pieces as well as the linear patterns on murals, household utensils and body decorations. These graphic drawings inform my style.
I like to experiment with different materials. I do not believe that drawing should be done the way it’s expected to be done, with ink or dry media on paper. So I am curious to see what the possibilities are for drawing on ceramics, with digital pixels, and so on. Sometimes the idea dictates the medium; other times, I let the work lead me to which medium best suits it.
Many years ago while exploring the use of ancient writings systems as a means of contemporary visual expression, I developed a painting technique in which I manipulated acrylic paint on canvas to look like scripts carved in stone. When I came across Islamic prayer (Koranic) boards in the market in Northern Nigeria, I was immediately struck not only by the aesthetic beauty of the boards, but by the form and function of the boards as bearers of ancient sacred texts and prayers. It suddenly clicked for me what my next series of work should be. In 1989, I began the manuscript series where the nsibidi sacred writing system from southeastern Nigeria is painted on boards that are originally used to teach or write prayers in Arabic scripts. I wanted to create contemporary sacred objects that conveyed the awe and mystery which nsibidi signs and the Koranic boards inspire.
Not being a Muslim, I was initially timid about executing this idea, especially since I was not going to write Arabic scripts on them. I was concerned about trespassing the invisible line between what I see as art and what others might see as religious provocation. But I eventually took solace in the fact that I was not the only artist using the boards for contemporary works of art, even though I am the only non-Muslim I know doing it.
I understand you did artist-in-residence programs in Amsterdam and in several other places. What led you to become a U.S. citizen, and do you have particular aspirations for helping this part of the world understand and learn more about other African artists?
I think the more contemporary artists from Africa have the platform to show their work in this part of the world, the more their work will be understood. On my part, I often take the pains to explain my work as I have done here, with the hope that the appreciation for my work and by extension the works of other contemporary artists from Africa and non-Western cultures would be understood from a better-informed perspective.
Do you study other art forms — architecture, fashion, music, and so forth — to spur your own creativity? Or do your ideas just come from the little things you experience in daily life?
I am interested in other forms of artistic expressions. At the moment, I am consuming as well as creating other forms of art. I have designed furniture, clothing, and jewelry. I had worked as a graphic artist, a book and editorial illustrator, and a cartoonist in a major newspaper in Nigeria. I like the idea of applying my work to different forms of art like sculpture, textiles, ceramics and commercial art.
I see you’re exploring digital processes and techniques in your art. Where do you see your work going from here?
It was curiosity that led me to the challenge of exploring the possibility of my work in digital process. I am intrigued by the technology and I enjoy its plasticity and versatility. The fact that I enjoy using digital tools does not mean I have abandoned the former processes of making art. It only means I have added another tool set to my bag of tricks.
About where my work is going? I am not sure, but I would prefer it to continue to excite me.
What are some of your favorite things, whether they directly impact your work or just make you happy?
Some of my favorite things: my family, I like being a father to my precocious ten year old son, giving to the needy, taking photographs, listening to good music, exploring the possibilities of modern technology, and drinking strong tea.