Drawing is perhaps “the most direct and unencumbered expression of one individual” (Nasby 1987).

In the exhibition Drawing from Within, Nigerian-born artist Victor Ekpuk demonstrates with exquisite dexterity the sensitivity and narrative power of this medium. His crisp compositions are, in a sense, densely minimalist, an effect Ekpuk achieves by “reducing shapes and forms to their essence, creating the impression of being like script” (interview with the artist 2003). This idea that script and drawing are interchangeable, that one can resemble or become the other, sets the conceptual tone for looking at these works, as Ekpuk draws much of his inspiration from the visual resiliency of signs. 

Adept in a range of techniques and materials including painting, mixed media, pen and ink, print-making and now the digital arts, the identifying feature in all of Ekpuk’s work is his invocation of nsibidi—an ancient system of graphic communication indigenous to the Efik, Ejagham and Ibibio peoples of southern Nigeria. Aesthetically compelling and encoded with meaning, nsibidi “script” is traditionally applied to the surfaces of houses and walls, and painted on bodies, textiles and masks performed in masquerades. Despite its recognition in the community at large, nsibidi remains, in Ekpuk’s words, “an open secret”, as knowledge of its esoteric meanings is restricted to initiated members of powerful secret societies. Ekpuk was never initiated into these societies, a condition which strikes him now as fortunate—being an “outsider” has allowed him to draw liberally on nsibidi motifs, to explore their visual elegance without restriction, and to build into and extend them with his own invented script. Indeed, the power of any secret stems not from the secret itself, but from the fact that others believe that you know what they do not. Ekpuk’s work inverts the secret’s relation of knowledge to power. Rather than use script to restrict knowledge, Ekpuk’s drawings engage the viewer in dialogue that opens it up for interpretation; power, then, is a product of this engagement, though all its effects cannot be named.

Ekpuk’s close attention to graphic design betrays his formal training as an artist as well as a natural talent for drawing that sprang to life even before he could read or write. Most of his drawings involve a ground of obsessively detailed, densely patterned micro-stories, a visual stream of consciousness that resembles script, but resists being read like one (see for instance “Market Day”, “Kiss and Tell”, or “Prisoner of Conscience”). This narrative, almost topographic style of drawing was inspired by his encounter years ago with the work of Obiora Udechukwu, a prominent Nigerian artist who used nsibidi signs in his work. “I knew I wanted to tell a story and wanted the different aspects of the story to be told in one composition”, Ekpuk recalls. “Udechukwu’s work helped me to see the power of the economic use of lines, and that like nsibidi, I could use symbols in my compositions to represent concepts” (interview 2003).

Drawing from Within distinguishes Ekpuk as master draughtsman and story-teller. With keen technical precision, he combines recognizable figures with abstract, invented or occult symbols, giving us cues that a story lays within and between the lines. Ekpuk’s drawings engage a range of themes, conditions, or sensibilities that are deeply meaningful to him, such as the proverbs, folklore, and the aesthetic legacies of his ancestors; his fascination with the everyday bustle and gossip of the streets and marketplace; family life and fatherhood; an almost reverential respect for women; and the deeply human experiences of joy, pain and hope. His drawings also comment on the physical and psychic violence of political repression, abuses of power and the absence of accountability which has characterized the political history not only of his native Nigeria but of much of the contemporary world.

Both lyrical and poignant, Ekpuk’s drawings probe these subjects without burdening them. This is one of the qualities I find so striking about his work. Its clean and careful execution invites close looking, while its economy of line and judicious use of color seem to both compress the subject and expand our field of vision, leaving ample room for interpretation. In “Children of the Full Moon 2”, for instance, Ekpuk encircles a torn swatch of “script”, white on black, with a thick, blue, hand-drawn line. A cluster of small red dots are embedded in the script, a kind of vanishing point that throws the maze of images surrounding it into rich relief. The title is elusive—Children of the Full Moon—I do not understand this work literally. But visually, the piece pulses with life, the children emerge, as do their footpaths, their obstacles, their light. Like many of his works, this piece of entangled signification becomes a microcosm of one’s own imagination. Interestingly, his “Prisoner of Conscience” works in almost the opposite way. The fetal position of the detainee behind bars, the beam of light that is cast through the window, and the visual imagery that embeds the ground are all deeply accessible, and knowable, rendering this work one of the artist’s more literal creations.

On a final note, Ekpuk’s use of digital technology—and the size of the prints—do not compromise the intimacy and intensity that comes with drawing by hand. If anything, it is enhanced. Indeed, Ekpuk’s well-balanced compositions, their densely contoured and carefully deployed image-texts, and his ongoing engagement in social commentary come together to prove the great narrative potential of the visual, and the caprice of the sign.

Allyson Purpura, Phd.

George Washington University, Program in Museum Studies,

Washington, DC, USA.

16 August, 2006


Marion Jackson and Judith M. Nasby, 987, Contemporary Inuit Drawings. Guelph, Ontario: Macdonald Stewart Art Centre.

Christine Mullen Kreamer and Allyson Purpura, 2003, Interview with Victor Ekpuk. Washington, DC. In press.

Hal Foster, Rosiland Krauss, Yve-Alain Boi, Benjamin Buchloh, 2004, Art Since 1900 : modernism, antimodernism, postmodernism. NY: Thames and Hudson.

Simon Ottenberg, ed. 2002, The Nsukka Artists and Nigerian Contemporary Art. Washington DC: Smithsonian National Museum of African Art with University of Washington Press.


Reflections on Drawing from Within:

The Art of Victor Ekpuk

Children of The Full Moon 2, © Victor Ekpuk, 2006


Obiora UdechukwuObiora_Udechukwu.html
Chika Okeke-AguluChika_Okeke.html
Allyson Purpura
Mark AuslanderAuslander.html
Amanda CarlsonAmanda_Carlson.html
Francine FarrStoryline_1.html

© 2007 Victor Ekpuk, All rights reserved