Conversation: Victor Ekpuk: Language and Lineage
The Nigerian American artist Victor Ekpuk is internationally known for his multimedia artworks inspired by Nsibidi, an ancient nonspoken system of communication from the Cross River basin of Nigeria and Cameroon. Victor Ekpuk: Language and Lineage tracks Ekpuk’s artistic engagement with Nsibidi along his journey from Nigeria to Washington, DC. The following text is excerpted from an interview with the artist conducted by Curatorial Assistant Annabelle Priestley, who curated the exhibition.
AP: What drove you to use Nsibidi in your artistic practice?
VE: I realized that this system of knowledge [Nsibidi] was part of my cultural heritage. As a kid, I experienced it when I played with other kids during masquerade ceremonies, trying to guess the meaning of Nsibidi signs drawn on the ground or performed. Elders would joke that if we could decode them, we were members of the Ekpo or Ekpe Society; otherwise, we were in trouble for not keeping our distance from the masquerade as nonmembers.
Members test their knowledge and status by challenging one another. While in college at the University of Ife, I became familiar with Yorùbá forms that artists used to decorate textiles and calabashes. Following the tutelage of my professors, I began to explore African aesthetic cultures to create my own forms of expression. I realized I could use these graphic signs to enrich my practice.
AP: Could you tell us about how you use color in your art?
VE: Using a limited number of colors is a deliberate choice. I can paint with a full spectrum, but for me the challenge and fun in painting are in exploring drawing while painting.
I am interested in the dominance of lines in my compositions; for the most part, colors are support for my drawing, not the other way around. In reducing my palette to two or three colors, or in some cases only one, I have taken the aesthetic concept of Nsibidi to heart—always looking for the essential in my compositions to challenge myself to say more with less. I also seek to draw out the spiritual essence of my work. Ultramarine blue does that for me—it’s my favorite color. But I am still searching for the perfect blue.
AP: Can you tell us why heads are a recurring motif in your works of art?
VE: I am fascinated by the head as an anatomical part that carries a face by which we can be identified. Heads also perform a physiological function as the seat of consciousness, enabling humans to become aware of life itself and to retain memory. African spiritual philosophy maintains that our individual life on earth is predetermined by the condition of the metaphysical “head.” Over the years, I’ve looked for nondescriptive ways to portray the head. Whether titled “portraits,” “masks,” or “heads,” these artworks are all portraits examining the human condition. I usually stylize the head, reaching a degree of abstraction only to retain the essence of the form.
AP: Nsibidi is the privilege of the Ekpe Society, a secret society comprising male elder leaders of the community. Would you say that Nsibidi has a gendered origin?
VE: This is what men say. The reality is more nuanced. Ekpe society is not exclusively male. It is the male who carries the mask and performs with it. But the Ekpe Society also recognizes that the female spirit is needed to make it whole. The lore around the Ekpe spirit is that the power was discovered by a woman while she was fetching water in a stream, but men eventually took it from her because she could not keep the secret. Ekpe is very closely associated with a water deity (ndem), whose shrine is overseen by a female priest. So there is a place for women in this spiritual group. For instance, my godmother was an Ekpe chief. She was the first women in my hometown of Uyo to own a hotel. She had a sewing school and a bakery and taught life skills to many young women. For her contributions to the community and to the advancement of women, she was conferred one of the highest titles as an Ekpe chief.
AP: The political overtones of your work become evident in your drawings, especially those inspired by your first job, as a cartoonist for the Daily Times Nigeria (DTN). How did you transition from fine arts to illustration, and how did this experience impact your practice?
VE: My bachelor’s degree was in fine arts specializing in painting, and I had never done illustration. As an employee at the Daily Times, I was torn between adjusting to the popular cartooning style at the time and how I wanted to do it. I eventually settled my internal conflict and decided to bring my home studio into journalism, introducing what I would call fine art elements into my illustrations. Both techniques informed each other.
A lot of my artwork at the time had political content.
My work at the newspaper fed my political awareness, but I could not avoid it anyway. I was living under a repressive junta. Sometimes, on my way to work, I would have witnessed enough oppression and abuse of power in the life around me to give me content [without having to read the news]. I offer political commentary in some of my paintings, but in drawing there is more immediacy of expression. I manipulate lines to express emotion.
AP: You moved permanently to the United States in the late 1990s and dedicated yourself to fine arts. Nevertheless, you return to drawing from time to time in order to comment on sociopolitical issues in Nigeria and in the US. Prisoner of Conscience (2002), for example, is inspired by a drawing published in the DTN in 1994 to illustrate incarceration conditions for people in Nigeria. What prompted you to rework this image in 2002?
VE: [While reworking this image,] I reflected on Nigeria’s ongoing struggle for fair political elections and civil freedoms as well as the corruption that continues to undermine the economic development and the huge intellectual potential of the citizenry. The year before I created the original drawing published in the DTN in 1994, we had free and fair elections in Nigeria for the first time, but the junta annulled them and sent the winner to jail. (A similar institutional coup occurred in February 2023.)
Around the same time, in 1990, Nelson Mandela, who spent decades behind bars for fighting to end apartheid in South Africa, was released from jail. Mandela, known as a prisoner of conscience, inspired the title for my drawing.
All these things came to play in the work that was redrawn and realized in 2002. In the drawing, if you look closely, there is a window through which light comes into the dark prison, while in the background, there are scenes of brutality. But above the prison, there’s a representation of a solar eclipse—a dark shadow blocking the light of the sun. This symbolizes the temporality of the situation.
Art@Bainbridge is made possible through the generous support of the Virginia and Bagley Wright, Class of 1946, Program Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art; the Kathleen C. Sherrerd Program Fund for American Art; Joshua R. Slocum, Class of 1998, and Sara Slocum; Rachelle Belfer Malkin, Class of 1986, and Anthony E. Malkin; Barbara and Gerald Essig; Gene Locks, Class of 1959, and Sueyun Locks; and Ivy Beth Lewis.
Additional support for Victor Ekpuk: Language and Lineage is provided by the Africa World Initiative; the Program in African Studies; the Graduate School—Access, Diversity, and Inclusion; the Department of African American Studies; the Princeton African Humanities Colloquium; the Department of Music; and the Program in Linguistics.