The Oasis Reporters
December 27, 2023
Victor Ekpuk is an internationally renowned Nigerian artist known for his artwork inspired by ancient African writing and graphic writing systems. INTERwoven TEXTures is his first solo exhibition at the important Efiɛ gallery in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. There he has also unveiled his public art installation commissioned as part of the inaugural Dubai Calligraphy Biennale. It makes him the first African artist to display a public sculpture in the country.
Ekpuk’s work challenges popular representations of Africa as a continent without writing. (And consequently lacking in history, civilisation, innovation and achievement.) As a critical heritage professor, I have studied and taught Ekpuk’s work to students for years. So I was delighted to view the exhibition and interview the artist in Dubai as part of my ongoing research into his work.
Exploring “traditional” graphic writing forms along with his own style of abstraction, Ekpuk creates a new text. One that reflects both historical and contemporary Africa, yet also reaches beyond the continent. His latest exhibition represents a powerful intervention. In his own words:
I want my works to be starting points for dialogue, new discoveries into the differences and commonalities among cultures.
African writing and graphic writing traditions
African writing and graphic writing systems date back to antiquity. They existed in Egypt, Kush, Meroë, the Carthaginian Empire and the former Greek and Roman colonies, as well as in Islamic Sahara, Sahel and the savanna. The famous libraries of Alexandria and Timbuktu underscore the centrality of writing and literacy. Operating at all levels of society, writing and graphic writing contain sacred powers, symbolic associations and esoteric attributes offering healing and protection – as specialised knowledge, even if only understood by a learned few or initiated persons.
In Africa, writing and graphic writing systems transcribe, transmit and archive knowledge into visual representation. They include pictographs (non-abstract), ideograms (abstract) and alphabetic scripts (based on phonetic inscription).
Nsibidi (pronounced nn-see-bee-dee) is an indigenous ideographic script that Ekpuk draws inspiration from. It comprises one thousand signs, including nouns, verbs and complete thoughts. It originated in the 5th century among the Ejagham people in south-eastern Nigeria and south-western Cameroon. It spread to neighbouring ethnic groups, including the Igbo, Efik, Ibibio, Efut and Banyang, where it flourished from the 1600s to 1800s. In the 1700s, nsibidi spread to Cuba through the transatlantic slave trade, where it was maintained by enslaved Africans.
Nsibidi is associated with the Ekpe society, a male ritual association in Nigeria. But it also plays a role in daily social life, philosophy, cosmologies and communication. Today, nsibidi, and the designs inspired by (or that emulate) the script are inscribed into the ground. They are also applied to other “coded” objects (like cloth and carvings), scarifications and tattoos.
The artist and his practice
I could draw before I could write. I was always scratching outside in the soil.
His knowledge of nsibidi dates back to his childhood, through his grandfather. But it wasn’t until he was an art student at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ife that he became fascinated with nsibidi, though he is not a member of the association. This led to his adaptation, modification and (re)invention of nsibidi into his own signature “script”, which he humorously describes as his “scribblings”.
Ekpuk’s career began as a political cartoonist and illustrator in Nigeria in the 1980s. Over the past 40 years, he has created an extensive body of drawings, paintings, collages, digital prints, sculpture, large-scale murals, ephemeral performative art and room-size installations. Globally inspired, his work deals with the histories and contemporary concerns of Africans and people of African descent in the diaspora. But it is also concerned with the broader human condition. It is both universal and specific and engages diverse audiences.
Ekpuk’s artwork is characterised by intricate, large-scale compositions that merge African writing, knowledge and aesthetics with his own artistic expression.
His visual grammar consists of signs, symbols and lines that initially appear simple but actually represent complex ideas. They are multidirectional scripts (right-to-left, left-to-right, top-to-bottom, centre outwards) created in “no specific direction … no specific line of motion”. Only a few inscriptions are translatable according to nsibidi traditions. His strikingly bold and vibrantly coloured scripts are minimal yet intricate, separate but connected, past and present.
Ekpuk’s works are housed in major international art collections. He keeps some works, especially his early ones, because they document his personal history. His private collection is for his family, particularly his son, who he feels should inherit some of the work. He chuckles:
Sometimes I even buy them back – if the prices are affordable!
Ekpuk’s new solo, curated by Awam Amkpa, consists of paintings on canvas, paintings on wood and free-standing metal sculptures.
Coinciding with the exhibition, the artist unveiled Passage to Promise, a striking interactive architectural public sculpture that encourages viewers to walk through its human shaped doorway. He also recently presented his work at the Dubai Museum of the Future where he discussed his embracing of writing traditions, ancestral knowledge and aesthetics in the Manuscript Series.
In this artwork, Ekpuk’s brilliance fuses nsibidi, Arabic, hieroglyphics and art onto Qur’anic boards (employed for teaching Arabic, copying and memorising the Qur’an). This imbues his artwork with extraordinary artistic and symbolic power. (He used newly purchased wooden boards out of respect for these objects’ sacred nature.)
Ekpuk’s work inscribes multiple, complex layers of knowledge and meaning, challenging us to rethink not only how but what we see. The work takes on a life of its own through viewers’ eyes, experiences, feelings and imagination. It’s befitting that Ekpuk applies terms like “mining” and “excavation” to his work.
Why he matters
Ekpuk’s artistic innovation draws on his politics, philosophies, research and imagination – alongside his knowledge of a vast visual and material repertoire of ancient writing and graphic writing systems as well as objects from throughout the African continent. Importantly, he appropriates and transforms nsibidi into new forms, demonstrating its dynamism and significance today.
Ekpuk’s presence in the United Arab Emirates marks a transformative historical, cultural and artistic moment. Well received by audiences, he firmly inserts African art into the region. He invites us to (re)examine simplistic definitions of calligraphy, the boundaries between architecture, sculpture and script, the distinctions between writing, graphic writing and art – and to eagerly await his next creations.