Victor Ekpuk’s art is squarely, though not exclusively located between the two powerful nodes of uli and ona.  Both phenomena, in the discourse of Nigeria art represent perhaps the most significant stylistic development in Nigeria since the 1970’s.  The uli aesthetic, as already theorised by artists and critics at Nsukka and elsewhere, relies on the power of the elegant, organic line in formal dialogue with two dimensional pictorial space.  To this has been added in the course of the evolution of uli, the powerful, linear symbolism of nsibidi of the Efik and south eastern Igbo.  On the other hand, ona, (I have argued elsewhere shares a teleologic relationship with uli and may have been catalysed by the successful propagation of the latter more than a decade before) as developed by artist in Ife, is based on Yoruba painting and design.  Its formal co-ordinates draw from the asymmetric, profuse symbolism of Yoruba shrine wall painting, and the symmetric patterning of adire cloth.  In appreciating Ekpuk’s work, an understanding of his relationship with uli and ona phenomena is necessary. 


Victor Ekpuk trained at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, where, in the mid 1980’s, Moyo Okediji and others were fixing the sign post of ona.  Ekpuk is a legatee of this ona theory and praxis. 

But not only that.  He also later derived inspiration from uli especially as was evident in the drawings and paintings of Obiora Udechukwu whose powerful lines are now legendary.  Perhaps also, Udechukwu’s works may have raided Ekpuk’s awareness of the formal potentials of nsibidi that incidentally comes from the Ibibio cultural area to which Ekpuk belongs.  There is then a convergence of these three artistic traditions as a consequence of his drawing from elected cultural specifics and from his originary background.  But that is not all.


In his encounter with Yoruba, uli or nsibidi symbolism and form, Ekpuk’s personal search for codes with which to articulate, indeed decode the multiplex manifestations of contemporary phenomenon, is evident.  It is as though he recognises, even scorns the realistic, mimetic language, which for his project would have been utterly useless.  In this search for appropriate visual codes, he stretches to the ancient hieroglyphs of Egypt, the bearers of the knowledge that built the first human civilisation, its science, art and religion.  He synthesises these known forms and symbols, and in the process invents his own inscriptive system that also becomes, when needed, text and design elements with which he relates ideas, or builds pictures, or both.  But in spite of the implied complexities of form and idea, Ekpuk’s pictures still come through with a powerful simplicity that is profound.  This, it would appear, draws upon his experience as an illustrator. 


In the 1990’s, Victor Ekpuk, with Yomi Ola and Wole Lagunju constituted the troika of illustrators at the Daily Times (Lagos) who raised the art to a new, higher platform.  But of the three, Ekpuk’s illustrations were distinguished by their intense linearity and sensuous organicity.  Single or few confident lines replaced hundreds of others or supplanted shaded masses in a most elegant manner.  Said otherwise, economy of statement predicted clarity of communication.  This mention of the artist’s work as an illustrator is important for it was at this period when he was required to transmit unencumbered ideas through his drawings that Udechukwu’s postulation on formal essence and clarity was brought to bear.  The result of his quoting this aspect of the uli aesthetic, as we can evidence now.  Is his facile ability to achieve a striking formal simplicity even when interrogating such complex aesthetic systems as Yoruba wall painting, nsibidi, Egyptian syllabary, and more. 


In the current pictures by Ekpuk, there is an evident striving at the mastery of technique and process.  And this he does with considerable success.  The triptych, Three Wise Wen recalls his earlier White Lies where a plain, colour field pulsates with a myriad of codes, symbols and forms, some of which are recognisable, even readable, while many tease the searching, insistent reader.  In the triptych, the flat, monotonal surface takes on new meaning, and becomes a site for an encounter between ancient and new, collective and individual mythologies and subjectivities.  The same, though slightly modified, strategies are evident in a majority of pictures in this collection.  Also the trope of a glowing spiral against a rectangular space within the picture space (as in Windsongs) pervades.  In Windsongs, the artist also achieves a strong, minimalist design in which the elements consist only of a spiral and two rectangular flat planes energised by vigorous texturization, and complex, yet subdued hieroglyphs.  Windsongs, like many of Ekpuk’s new works, elicits a profound contemplation that approximates a spiritual revelation.


It is this revelatory, contemplative aspect of Ekpuk’s work that draws it closer to dream encounter and experience.  When we face Three Wise Men for instance, we are soon lost in the maze of hieroglyphs that, in spite of our suspicion that they are saturated, burdened with meaning, stubbornly inaccessible, thereby exposing the finiteness of rational knowledge.  In other words, this encounter explodes in our face, the limits of this thing called humanity along with the assumptions it carries with it.  And it is at this point that wishes, hopes, dreams, take over;  what we do not understand, we superscribe our own construct, when faced with what overwhelms us, we find “ways to escape.”  Which is what dreams (both the day, and the night versions of it) accomplish for the fertile mind.


Chika Okeke

Nsukka

1996

From Victor Ekpuk’s solo exhibition catalogue; Dream at the Goethe institut, Lagos Nigeria, 1996


Chika Okeke-Agulu, MFA, PhD is currently

Assistant Professor

Princeton University                            

 

In Search of the Essential Ekpuk

“Windsongs”, © Victor Ekpuk 1996


statements

Obiora UdechukwuObiora_Udechukwu.html
Chika Okeke-Agulu
Allyson PurpuraAllyson_Purpura.html
Mark AuslanderAuslander.html
Amanda CarlsonAmanda_Carlson.html
Francine FarrStoryline_1.html

© 2007 Victor Ekpuk, All rights reserved