Arts | Politics | Economy | Education & Sciences19 Nov 2017
Victor Ekpuk: I am trying to create contemporary sacred objects
Arts, 13 Mar. 2008
Victor Ekpuk with a work from The Slave Narrative series

The last three months of 2007, Nigerian artist Victor Ekpuk worked in the studio of the Thami Mnyele Foundation in Amsterdam. At the end of his residency, Pauline Burmann (Chair of the foundation) and Willem Kerkhoven (Africaserver Magazine) talked to him, about Nigeria, his background and education, the old nsibidi graphic system that inspires much of his paintings and drawings and the work he has done at the studio.
Dutch people have little knowledge of Nigeria, the country where you were brought up. It is a large country with a big, lively art life.
I grew up drinking Peak, evaporated milk, and I only just recently realized that it is made in Holland, somewhere in Friesland. Nigerians are probably the largest consumers of Dutch wax cloth, called "African print" or Hollandaise in Nigeria. Shell Royal Dutch Oil Company has been extracting oil from the Niger delta in Nigeria for close to 50 years; it is biggest oil company in Nigeria. Dutch businesses have been doing very well in Nigeria for decades, but I guess commercial relationships don't translate into intercultural exchange, that may explain why people here know little about Nigeria and how important it is to the Dutch economy. Nigeria is very large, with many different cultures and very vibrant peoples who are very proud of their culture. There are many artists from Nigeria working in the country and out in the international art world.

You are an Ibibio. Is it important to you?
Yes, it's my ethnicity, I speak the language, I grew up in the culture, and I believe my work to some extent is also a way to bring an important aspect of Ibibio culture to the fore. For an exhibition I did in a library in the United States I made a small map with the Ibibio area and other areas in southeastern Nigeria that have the nsibidi tradition. Though these peoples do not speak the same language, they all have an Ekpe society, which uses nsibidi, as a uniting sacred core.
Nsibidi is an ancient form of communication; it could be close to a thousand years old. It uses body language, placement of objects and a graphic system. Before the colonial people came, it was a way for people to communicate, they also used it to keep records, and as coded mystical secrets .

The graphics are like hieroglyphs, you can see faces, other things.
Every sign has a meaning and sometimes they are interpreted based on the context in which they are used. So you can't read it in the way you read the Roman alphabet. A stroke does not represent a sound, its meaning is the concept, in the way it is used. It was mainly taught to the elite in the society, the nsibidi societies were not open to everybody. As a sign could also have a ritual meaning, opening up to the public could lead to abuse. You might call nsibidi an open secret, people know what it is but they may not necessarily know what it means.

You used to work as a cartoonist.
Yes, I worked for eight years as a cartoonist, in the Daily Times in Nigeria. Apart from the cartoons, mainly caricatures of politicians, I also used to illustrate editorial stories, that way I could bring my fine art and a more cerebral aspect into it. Since then I have only done cartoons and illustrations for commissioned work.

In Nigeria, you can study history of art, and fine arts...
I studied fine arts at the University of Ile-Ife. Since Nigerian independence from colonial rule in the sixties, there has been much emphasis on students learning their own histories and cultures. I remember my graphic design class in the university, we were encouraged to include traditional African forms in our product designs, whether it was for perfumes or for food, and to have African names for them. Sometimes when I show my work here, people make references to European masters and I say: "Well, it's not necessarily that way" because the first time I saw the works of Miro, for instance, it reminded of style that I am familiar with in my cultural background. If you look at this book, you see these uli women’s mural painting, this tradition far predates the so called "modern movement", this art form has been modern before modern.
It is sort of funny that sometimes when African artists show their work and it is very abstract, people don't think about art in Africa in terms of abstract as if abstract art is something that started out in Europe. In the United States, when I give lectures in colleges as I sometimes do, the students are sometimes so surprised my works are not like they were taught. Because they rely so much on the books that proclaim the superiority of western culture, and here I am saying totally the opposite and I'm showing evidence to counter those assertions. And I believe interactions like that should be encouraged, so people begin to think outside of the box and begin to expand their knowledge of other cultures. Kids should be taught that cultures and artists can never be islands onto themselves. We are always affecting others or being affected by others.

Nigeria has many ethnic groups, many cultures: do they coexist, do they conflict, do they contrast?
Nigerians are like other human beings, we always have reasons to pick on each other and then we also always have reasons to say enough is enough, let's sit together. The ethnic groups do have conflicts, but then they do strive to stay together, so you find intermarriages between the groups and you find a politician who comes in and wants to use the ethnic and religious differences to divide and conquer, these things all happen, the same as you have in Europe.

One of the reasons for the question is that you work with what you call the Islamic manuscript form and the origin is not Islamic.
No, it's not Islamic. The board certainly is not Islamic by origin, but it became Islamic by use. It is not used in Saudi Arabia for instance. It is an ingenious African creation for disseminating the word of God. I buy the plain boards, without any Arabic written on it. I was more interested in the intercultural marriage of form and script, so I thought that for my project this will be a very beautiful object to merge these two indigenous African forms of writing, one that is used to convey another. At the end of the day, it is not about Islam. I was aware there would be people who may say I am profaning Islam by doing that. That is why I choose the themes that I put on them carefully. If you know how the Muslims used them in West Africa, the board eventually becomes a talisman, where the word of God has been written with herbal pigments and then is washed off and drunk… sort of ingesting the word of God. With the manuscript series I was trying to create contemporary sacred objects that still hold the hopes and aspirations of people.

Doing so, you cross an ethnic or cultural line. Is that exceptional in Nigeria, or are you one of many people to cross lines like that?
It is not exceptional. There are intercultural and interreligious marriage unions, if there is love between people Nigerians do that all the time. They do business with each other all the time. In the southwest for instance, with the largest concentration of Muslims in the south, you find people in the same family having different religions, Muslims and Christians living in the same home.

Your way of playing with the traditional and the modern, is that something you see with other Nigerian artists as well?
Yes, I think so. Like I said, a lot of the school curriculum is about that. I also believe in it because at the end of the day if I don’t bring my own into it, what do I have?
In art history, European art has the Renaissance, Classical, and many more classifications, there are periods and schools as well. That option was not given to art from Africa, it is just African art, until recently, there has been no room for it to be modern or contemporary. Some art historians and anthropologists went to Africa and tried to create their own idea of modernity by creating schools and workshops in their own vision of modern art from Africa and they brought "African art" out and sold it to the west with much fanfare. And they tried to get everybody else to believe that only African artists who are not schooled, who do not have any formal education, are authentic African artists. And the other ones, who are schooled and got a formal education, are too tainted by the west.
They end up confusing fellow Westerners, who have believed their "expert" opinions. An image has been formed in their minds of what African art is supposed to look like. They look at works like mine and think "That is so contemporary for African art" or whatever.
I'm happy though that the discourse is changing, because these notions have been challenged and found to be nonsense. There is not just one kind of art from Africa, there are so many kinds of art forms that are from Africa and Africa is not just one small place, it's a huge continent with so many different cultures. Artist from Africa are as imaginative as their counterparts elsewhere, they also deserve the freedom to express themselves as they chose without the prejudice of identity. There is no such thing as The contemporary African art.

Looking at your work, it is very clear meaning is important to you, there is more to it than just a visual experience.
Yes, I believe so. I tend not do art for art's sake, I do not feel bold enough to do that. Most of the times I want to say something, express something. But when the word does not come out right, I leave it alone. And I also try to encourage people, even though my works are writings and they do appear like you could read them, if they can’t read my works, to just appreciate them for what they are, reading is not necessary. That is another aspect of my works, sometimes they are objects of contemplation.
Pauline Burmann, Willem Kerkhoven
Until March 28 Gallery Art Korner in The Hague holds a farewell exhibition to mark the end of Victor Ekpuk's stay in The Netherlands.

From April 28 until May 15 work by Victor will be on display at Wertz Contemporary Art Gallery, Atlanta, Georgia (USA).
See the expositions agenda for more details.

Established in 1992, the Thami Mnyele Foundation runs a unique three month artists-in-residence program in Amsterdam. The main objective of the Foundation is to advance cultural exchange between artists from Africa, the Netherlands and Amsterdam in particular. To this aim, the Foundation engages African artists of all disciplines of contemporary visual art (painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, video, film, audio and multi media) to work for three months in the Thami Mnyele Foundation studio, located in an old school building in the centre of Amsterdam.

Pauline Burmann is Chair of the Thami Mnyele Foundation.

Willem Kerkhoven is contributor for Africaserver Magazine.

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