By Tajudeen Sowole
DRAWING, painting and sculpture by U.S-based artist, Victor Ekpuk, radiate an aura of simplicity on walls and floor as guests trickle into the expansive space at Renault Showroom, Victoria Island, Lagos on a wet Saturday evening.
It's Ekpuk's solo exhibition titled, Coming Home, organised courtesy of Arthouse - The Space, from the artist's residency project facilitated by a sister organisation Arthouse Foundation.
For an artist whose signature has been missing from the Lagos art landscape for over a decade — almost to the point of a stranger or outsider — in the new face of contemporary Nigerian art, the volume of visitors on this wet evening is indeed impressive. In fact, at every second, two or more guests stray into one's view while engaging with a piece on the walls.
Prior to Coming Home, the impact of drops of appearances that Ekpuk's work enjoyed at few of Arthouse Contemporary's bi-annual art auctions in Lagos was not exactly clear. But the response of connoisseurs and other art enthusiasts alike, as they swarm over the pieces just as the red tags emerge in some few spots within few hours suggest that the artist truly is back 'home.'
More importantly, if the Arthouse family is stimulating the re-emergence of Ekpuk as a window to showcase its desire to shift the paradigm in artist representation, so far so good, it seems. From Ekpuk's signature that almost got lost in the mist of Diaspora adventure, revered name, Arthouse appears to have distilled a template in how to rescue masterly strokes.
Before Ekpuk left Nigeria for the US in late 1990s, his work, among other outlets, were mostly viewed through the medium of illustration in newspapers. In 2014, courtesy of Research Fellowship grant from Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF), which produced Open Studio, at Maryland, in Lagos, Ekpuk gradually started his comeback.
Two years after, another Open Studio, Artist Talk, Roundtable Discussion and now a solo exhibition, Coming Home, Ekpuk's walls keep leveraging on his strength to implore lines in narratives, lazed with native signs and symbols. Facing the only entrance on this evening of the exhibition's opening is an acrylic on wood titled, Big Fat Hen, After Wynton Marsalis, which epitomises the illustrative identity of Ekpuk.
Populated with nsibidi,(motives indigenous to south eastern Nigeria), the competing lines that are in search of breathing spaces, perhaps, strengthen the texture of the native contents.
Central to the artist's thematic inspiration is what he tags Head series. All of a sudden, people whose heads have become a natural extension of tools in moving things from one palce to another attract Ekpuk's palette. People's head as a tool in moving loads had always been unhidden among Nigerians. Revisiting the culture in Coming Home appears refreshing, isn't it?
"When I returned to Nigeria, I tried to see things from a stranger's perspective," he says during my studio-visit, shortly before the end of his residency late last year. He discloses that his work would dwell more on "how Lagos inspires me." The residency, he adds, offers a window to expand his horizon on the Lagos inspiration beyond "the expenditure I have been doing in the U.S."
And with about eight wall pieces, Ekpuk explores as much as possible, diverse perspectives to the culture of moving things with heads. Also, the head as a metaphor in spiritual context attracts an extension of his curiousity. But this time, lines, placed in distinct non-competing space with native motives add depth of aesthetics in, at least two of the series.
In flaunting his illustrative skills, particularly, as a minimalist, works such as By The Grace of God, acrylic on wood and the Icon series, metal, fit the identity. Between the power of lines in creating forms and simplified-art, Ekpuk draws no difference, so suggest his adventure into metal in four floor pieces Iconic series.
Again, like most metal sculptures seen on the Lagos art scene in recent years, Ekpuk's Icon series also strip the medium of its natural metal textures. With raiment of acrylic, he highlights head, eyelids and limbs.
In 2013, when he started his gradual return, the changing face of commuting in Lagos, which added tricycle (keke), to the disappearing molue and emerging BRT buses, attracted his palette. One of the works produced then, Dis Is Lagos (acrylic on paper), a depiction of new yellow taxi of Lagos, the tricycle is also mounted for Coming Home.
As Arthouse is clearly demonstrating its commitment to professionalise artist-promoter relationship, Ekpuk's journey through residency excites his handlers, "As the first artist in the newly created Arthouse Foundation residency programme, it has been a pleasure to work closely with the artist as he developed this new project in Lagos, " Founder/CEO, Arthouse Contemporary, Kavita Chellaram, writes in the catalogue of the exhibition.
"Arthouse Foundation provides a platform for artists to expand their practice and experiment with new art forms and ideas. By establishing a network that supports cross-cultural exchange between Nigerian and international artists, the Arthouse Foundation embraces contemporary art as an educational model to engage communities, promote social dialogue and advance the critical discourse of artistic practices."
Chellaram describes Ekpuk's work as reflecting indigenous African philosophies, particularly of the nsibidi and uli art. She also notes the artist's "re-imagines graphic symbols from diverse cultures to form a personal style of mark making that results in the interplay of art and writing."
It has indeed, been quite a consistent build-up for Ekpuk towards the exhibition: four months residency, Open Studio, Artist Talk at the Kia Showroom, Victoria Island; interactive workshop with emerging artists; and Roundtable Discussion at the Goethe Institute, all accumulated into the success of Coming Home.