Victor Ekpuk’s work is diverse and far-reaching, and in more ways than one. Originally born in Nigeria, the artist spent a good few years in America whilst studying before making the move permanent. Over the years he would return to Nigeria occasionally, mostly to see family and take the odd vacation.
Recently, his trips have been work related, with each journey seeing Victor take the position of ‘The Returnee’, taking inspiration from the people and places of Nigeria, ranging from the country’s lavish suburbs to its down and out townships. The result being his debut Nigerian exhibition, Coming Home.
The works in the exhibition are the result of a four-month creativity residency as the inaugural artist in-residence of the Art House Foundation. His style, which is exercised across the mediums of painting, drawing and more recently, sculpture works, is trance-like in its composition, considered in its execution, and electric and wholly expressive in its use of colour.
We spoke to Victor about his Coming Home exhibition, his days spent illustrating newspaper cartoons at Daily Times, and his approach to making art across various mediums.
You were born in Nigeria, but eventually moved to the United States. How did your time in the US and away from home influence your art?
Consider my style the vocabulary that I have been speaking for over twenty-five years. This was inspired by the aesthetic concepts of indigenous African art forms and writing systems. I have reimagined these concepts since my days in art school at the university of Ife, in the 1980s in Nigeria, to form a personal style of mark making that is an interplay of art and writing. I now live and work in a country that is culturally, socially and politically different from my original country. The subject matter of my work may change, as I respond to issues in my immediate environment, but the language of my expression remains the same. When necessary, symbols from my locale are embedded to give context and nuance to the compositions.
Over the years you’ve visited Nigeria on vacation or to see family, but these last two trips were strictly business. Can you tell us about these recent visits?
Prior to these recent trips, my previous trips to Nigeria have been short and family focused. Nevertheless, I had often tried to squeeze in some art interactions, either in the form of talks or workshops for young artists in institutions that had space to fit me into their schedules. My first strictly business trip was in 2013. Over dinner with two friends of mine, Omoba Yemisi Shyllon (art collector) and Olu Amoda (artist), I expressed an interest in returning to Nigeria for an extended period to work and to explore the art scene. Omoba Shyllon offered to host me for three months at his OYASAF Foundation, while Olu Amoda made extra space in his studio for me to work. That trip helped to reacquaint me with the now blossomed art scene in Lagos, a big leap from what it was when I was living and working there in the 1990s. I was particularly thrilled to be back in my old stomping grounds and walked the streets that still held lots of memories for me. Several drawings that I made called “Lagos suites” were inspired by these experiences. I also met with various artists and entrepreneurs in the art industry, some of who were Kavita Chellarams and her daughter Amisha of Arthouse Contemporary Limited who offered to host a solo exhibition of my work in Lagos. The product of that meeting was my returning to Lagos for another art residency to make work for the Coming Home exhibit.
Can you tell us a bit about how Coming Home came together?
During my visit to Lagos in 2013, the duo of Kavita and Amish offered to reintroduce my work to Lagos with a solo exhibition. In addition to the exhibition, I proposed to return to stay in Nigeria to make the works at “home”. I wanted my first solo exhibition in Nigeria in over a decade to be relevant to my experience of the place I call “home”, the place where my career was launched. Even though I no longer inhabit this cultural, social, and geographical space, it still feeds my artistic imagination. On August 2015, I arrived Lagos to begin four months long artist-in-residence program with the newly founded Arthouse Foundation. My studio and living space was situated a spacious apartment in Ikoyi, a wealthy suburb in Lagos. The large well-lit living room was refitted to function as my studio. It was an ideal work environment.
This residency offered me the opportunity to expand on unfinished ideas and explore a genre like sculpture that only existed in my head and in my sketchpads. In Nigeria, technical assistance of craftsmen and metal artists to fabricate sculptures were more accessible and inexpensive than in United States.
In Coming Home you focus largely on the metaphysical ‘head’. How did this area of focus come about and how have you incorporated it into your work?
I am particularly drawn to subject matters of the human condition, these are explained through themes that are both universal and specific: family, gender, politics culture and identity.
According to an African philosophy, the metaphysical head is the seat of consciousness and memory, and our lives on earth are guided by its disposition. My interest in the concept of metaphysical head merely ponders this notion while expressing an interest in consciousness, individual and collective abilities to overcome their circumstances and predestinations. In Coming Home, I am exploring the “head” as a symbol for psychic and physical conditions of daily living in Nigeria. The works in this exhibition explores the “head” both literally and metaphorically.
As I moved among the rich and poor in the Nigerian society, the common thread I observed was that these human beings carrying things on their heads. The familiar sight of street hawkers with loads of wares on their heads took on a deeper meaning for me, this was for me a metaphoric symbol for the human condition. The works in the ‘Head Series’ in this exhibition comprise of abstracted forms of hawkers with wares on their heads, elaborate head gears and hair styles of fashionable high society women all cut out of wood panels.
You’ve also started trying your hand at three dimensional artworks and sculptures. What inspired this venture into new mediums?
I am always eager to experiment with processes and materials. I tend to envision the possibilities of my work in more than one medium. I have long imagined the possibilities of my drawings as more than mere two-dimensional form. In Lagos I decided to put this idea to the test. I must say, the result of my drawings being transformed into three-dimensional objects is very encouraging; I intend to do more work in this genre.
How much of the works in Coming Home speak directly to the people you observed and interacted with on your trips to Nigeria and how much of it is a collection of your memories of your home country?
On arrival in Nigeria, I made it a project to open myself to the influences of my daily experiences and interactions with people in the society. I chose the perspective of a “Returnee”, an outsider looking in, while walking familiar streets and participating in familiar rituals of life in Nigeria. The goal was to let these experiences impact the outcome of the works I would make here. For this reason, I traversed the different socio-economic spaces between champagne filled parties of my neighbours inside their electric fenced homes in Ikoyi, and their chauffeur driven bulletproof cars to the gutters and slums of Orile and Mushin on the mainland where I regularly went to the markets to get materials for my work. The sentiments of these experiences are expressed in these works. As epitomised by the street hawkers, perhaps in Nigeria, there is a connection between the heavy loads on the heads and the fatalistic attitude to absolutely live daily “By the Grace of God”. The overcrowded cityscape of Lagos where I spent several hours in traffic riding in the ubiquitous yellow three-wheels mass transit (Keke) found expression in ‘Dis Is Lagos’. This composition is an affirmative recognition of my beloved city that had changed a lot but still remains the same.
Both your paintings and your drawings are intricately detailed. How long does it usually take you to produce a work and what is your process in this regard?
Depending on the scale, and composition of the piece, it could take between thirty minutes to several days. My process spans spontaneous stream of consciousness to pre-planned compositions or a combination of both. Most of the time, it’s both. The abstracted shapes of heads in Coming Home are a result of several studies and sketches. The “glyphs” on them are all streams of consciousness drawings that I could not repeat exactly. At the Havana Biennial In 2015, I spent six days “Drawing Memory” in a space 42L x16w x 25h feet, the largest scale drawing that I have ever made.
Tell us a bit about your use of colour in your work?
My use of colour has changed over the years; there was a time when I was interested in full spectrum pallet. As my work moved more towards emphasis on lines, I am tending to use colour minimally to accentuate the lines or use colour to draw. I suppose that why it’s rendered flat on my compositions, I have a bias for drawing, the line still reigns supreme in my works even while I am painting. I am also interested in using paint to create surface texture. Depending on the composition, I could use colour symbolically or just for fun.
You used to work as a newspaper cartoonist in your younger days. Has that line of work influenced your current work in any way?
From 1990-1998, I had a painting studio in my apartment while holding a full time employment as editorial cartoonist and illustrator for Daily Times, one of Nigeria’s leading newspapers at the time. When I started out at the newspaper, I had recently graduated out of college with a degree as a painting major. Cartooning was not what I had been trained to do, so I was learning on the job. I also had preconceived notion of what a cartoon should look like, I did not feel that the stylised and abstracted forms I was making in my studio at home fitted that mould. For the first two years of that job, I felt stifled by this conflict, so I made one style for the newspaper and a different one for my studio. Since my editors didn’t care one way or another how I expressed myself, I decided to bring my studio style to the newspaper work. This was liberating and my illustrations blossomed.
In the newspaper, the only media for drawing was black ink with pen on white paper, so I made compositions utilising negative and positive spaces while paying attention to the volume and quality of my lines. Practicing this method every day for eight years improved my drawing skills and instilled a deeper love for expressing with lines. Illustrating news items also heightened my political consciousness; perhaps it made me more cynical about politicians and military despots whom I used to delight in making caricatures of. The majority of my newspaper cartoons and illustrations presently permanent collection of Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African Art in Washington DC.
You identify as a ‘global artist’. How do you balance or merge your artistic presence and identities across Nigeria and the US?
I was taken aback by the description of me as a “global artist” but I guess, as transnational citizens “global” is not out of place. As an artist who had lived in three different countries other his country of birth and carries two international passports, travels around the globe to show his art, perhaps “global” identity is fair. I have never really made a conscious effort to merge my artistic presence and identities. It’s not something that I struggle with. I am welcomed as an American in the US (except if Trump becomes president) and feel at home in Nigeria as a Nigerian.