Songs of Ancient Moons

Symbols of traditional culture have complex and varied interpretations.  Victor Ekpuk continually dips into the past in order to explore the present, marking time with the cycles of new and ancient moons.  The colorful and cursive images of this artist’s steadfast exploration of traditional art forms creates a space in which to reflect on many aspects of history, culture, and identity.

Characterized by intense linear patterning combined with simple, yet powerful, compositions, Ekpuk’s work stems from a rich history of Nigerian modern art.  His approach to painting is grounded in several artistic movements associated with the concept of “natural synthesis,” the strategy and philosophy of blending the best of European art traditions with African art traditions.

After Independence from British colonial rule (1960), artists worked in styles that consciously diverged from European derived patterns of representation.  The negotiation of ethnic and national identities was crucial in the years surrounding the Biafran Civil War (1967-70) and was made evident in the visual arts.  Today, issues of identity maintain a currency within Nigerian society and within the art world.  Sorting through the cultural diversity of Nigeria, whose languages alone span 250 different dialects, artists frequently use their ethnic heritage as sources of inspiration.  While many artists have worked in this way, Ekpuk’s style appears to have been influenced by the highly regarded artist, Obiora Udechukwu, who began working with a graphic writing system, known as nsibidi (pronounced N-SIB-EE-DEE), in paintings, drawings, and prints as early as the 1970’s.

Building upon these traditions, Ekpuk continues to rely heavily on nsibidi, a uniquely African form of writing that may be upwards of a thousand years old.  It is an integral feature of many tradition-based art forms (sculpture, textiles, body decoration, etc.), which continue to be produced today.  These symbols can be used to record information, conceal knowledge, describe philosophy and folklore, signify ones identity or status, and as decoration.  Nsibidi provides an intellectual tradition that has maintained its relevance in society over many centuries because of its ability to adapt to new social and cultural situations.

Of the many academically trained artists who use nsibidi within contemporary art forms, Victor Ekpuk has taken the most freedom with re-inventing sign systems with personal meanings and forms.  He frequently uses one of the most often-repeated nsibidi signs, which is made up of two interconnecting semicircles, representing the union of man and woman. In Man, His Wife, and His Son at the Mirror (2000), this sign alludes to his reoccurring themes of love, family, and marriage.  However, these seemingly universal human experiences are only the surface to more complex messages.

While completing a BFA in Fine Art at Obafemi Awolowo University at Ife (Nigeria), Ekpuk was exposed to the concept of Onaism, a variation of “natural synthesis” that relied more heavily on the Yoruba traditions that surround the university.  Coming from the opposite side of the country, Ekpuk quickly found value in bringing together traditions from diverse regions.  He further refined his style during the years in which he worked as an illustrator and cartoonist for the Daily Times (Lagos, Nigeria).  His work has taken on the language of illustration and story telling that includes unexpected and submerged meanings.  These were, of course, relevant strategies in the newspaper business in the Nigeria, especially during the years of the military regime.  More recently, his work has become less overtly political and more reflexive of the Diasporic experience of living abroad.

Within the Manuscript Series, Victor Ekpuk’s Qur’anic boards evoke many varied forms of African literacy: Arabic (imported into Africa along with Islam), nsibidi (an indigenous African script from eastern Nigeria), hieroglyphics (the ancient writing system of Egypt), English (one of the national languages of Nigeria stemming from British colonialism), not to mention “visual literacy” (the language of contemporary art).  Combined together they become a highly powerful personalized system of inscription, which communicates the rich history of African writing systems and the contemporary vision of a 21st century artist.

Consistent with Ekpuk’s witty use of titles, Manuscript Series does not contain manuscripts but calls attention to their absence within his work.  Qur’anic boards are not manuscripts.  They are used in teaching Arabic writing along with the sacred practice of copying and memorizing passages of the Qur’an, the holy text of Islam.  The Qur’an itself exists as a manuscript, which is often beautifully rendered through calligraphy and design, and directly represents the word of God (Allah).  However, Ekpuk’s boards are not statements about Islam per se.  His images resonate between a whimsical reflection and honed critique of life’s journeys, through its joys and its disappointments.

Ekpuk uses dense areas of signs, which he refers to as “scribblings,” to create the illusion of text.  However, it is unreadable with the exception of just a few recognizable signs, whose meanings are clues to the subject of each artwork.  Nonetheless, the “scriblings” refer to the power of the written word, even if it cannot be translated. Along these same lines, Ekpuk paints directly on the Qur’anic board, one of the most widely recognized symbols of literacy in Africa.

Like much of Ekpuk’s work, the Manuscript Series offers a space in which to think about the relationship between African and Western traditions.  For example, the absence and presence of the book (or manuscript) reflects one of the sharpest distinctions between African and Western modes of writing.  African scripts are more likely to appear within art and ritual in ephemeral forms that are not designed for permanence.  The ritual efficacy of the written word is often more important than its readability.  While the West regards the production of manuscripts and books (i.e. literature) as a superior form of writing, African writing is almost never produced in this way.  The inability of Western cultures to recognize African writing systems has led to longstanding stereotypes of Africa as a continent without writing.  Beyond the facade of supposedly high illiteracy rates in Africa exist numerous African systems of writing.  Ekpuk’s continual inscription of African writing systems in his work is a celebration of these African intellectual traditions.

In light of Ekpuk’s insights, to see his paintings as a reminiscence of a timeless African past is to ignore the relevance of his contemporary voice.  In fact, it is not insignificant that his Mbobo Series (The Maiden Series) appropriates the visual conventions of early European modernist painters, who frequently represented female figures in relation to African masks and sculptures.

Similarly, the Mbobo Series explores the female figure, represented in the prime of her life in a highly stylized fashion, with mask-like qualities and distinctive hairstyles.  However, the meanings of Ekpuk’s paintings are quite different from those of the European modernists, such as Pablo Picasso, who understood very little about African culture.  They found meaning in African abstraction, which they misinterpreted as signs of primitive, unbridled sexuality.  With this in mind, Ekpuk reinvents European painting traditions from an African perspective.

The hairstyles of young women have become a cultural symbol, representing the richness of Nigerian culture, beauty, and fashion.  In coming of age ceremonies in Eastern Nigeria, girls emerge from a brief period of ritual seclusion to perform songs and dances with their bodies freshly adorned and hair elaborately plaited, signaling their new status as women.  P.J. Ojeikere, an accomplished Nigerian photographer, has spent a significant part of his career photographing women’s hairstyles capturing their formal elegance through an enormous range of variety.  Similar to Ojeikere’s study of hairstyles, Ekpuk’s Mbobo Series offers elegant portraits of women that speak to a generalized sense of beauty and culture, but also to the notion of individualism.

Songs of Ancient Moons refers to the passage of time and the ways in which we come to understand our own histories.  It also alludes to the tradition whereby Nigerian parents would tell stories to their children by the light of the moon during quiet evenings that mark the pace of village life.  These stories provide children with a sense of the past, which they will need to explore their futures.  Victor Ekpuk embraces this same spirit as he gathers the past and the present in delightful visual tales.

-Amanda Carlson, Ph.D.

University of Hartford

From Victor Ekpuk’s exhibition catalogue, Songs of Ancient Moons, Florida, USA, 2004

Amanda Carlson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Hartford (Connecticut).  Her research in Nigerian art has focused on both traditional and contemporary forms.  She is a native of Broward County, Florida and is currently working on book entitled, Africa in Florida.


A Song To A Son, © Victor Ekpuk

The King’s Horseman, © Victor Ekpuk


Obiora UdechukwuObiora_Udechukwu.html
Chika Okeke-AguluChika_Okeke.html
Allyson PurpuraAllyson_Purpura.html
Mark AuslanderAuslander.html
Amanda Carlson
Francine FarrStoryline_1.html

© 2007 Victor Ekpuk, All rights reserved