Victor Ekpuk’s studio is on a quiet street in Washington, DC and part of a group of studios ensconced in an old school building. The building has been spared the ravages of real estate developers who greedily chop up the insides of beautiful old buildings like this one into the appropriate number of profit-maximizing units. The marble staircase remains, its treads worn from use. The ceilings remain high and the windows tall.
Victor’s studio is up those stairs and is a sunny space he shares with another artist — a large shelving unit functioning as a wall between his space and hers. It was serendipity that led him here four years ago when the studio in his Alexandria, Virgnia home grew too small for him to work comfortably. At the time, Jefferson Pinder was moving out of the space and Victor very quickly agreed to move in. Victor points out that the main attraction of the space (other than the beautiful building and the fantastic light) was the large white wall dominating one side which was perfect for the large-scale drawings that he was working on.
His intense focus on drawing for the past several years led to a string of solo shows in the DC area and in Europe, along with acquisitions of his work for permanent collections at the World Bank and the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African Art.
As an African-born and African-trained artist now living in the United States, Ekpuk’s work in drawing bears distinctive elements that are drawn from his Nigerian roots and what he describes as the “African aesthetic.” The most obvious of those elements is the use of nsibidi characters as an element of his drawings. The pictographic characters form an essential part of his larger scale works. His numbered series of Composition drawings are a perfect example of this. The nsibidi characters transform the white spaces in between the bold minimal lines and color blocks in the series from serene silence into something almost alive, something that almost resonates with sound.
“Nsibidi is an ancient form of writing that uses symbols to represent concepts,” explains Victor. “It is practiced in Nigeria and West Africa and it is still in use today actually. So when I started looking for form to express my conceptual ideas I started doing research into traditional African art and aesthetics and that really attracted me. It’s also from the part of the country that I’m from. My forefathers were doing this so that made it kind of personal to me.”
Victor’s work thematically draws from all of his experiences, both as an African and as an American. “I like to go through the whole spectrum of human condition, social, political. There was a time when I was living in Nigeria when my work was very political because I was living under a very politically tense atmosphere, we had a dictatorship for a very long time,” He says. “So having lived here for some time, a lot of my American experience is coming into my work as well, social commentaries. And sometimes if the politics get too heavy I just like to explore the aesthetics of form. I like doing that as well.”
Recently, Victor stepped away from drawing and moved back to painting, a medium that he utilized before he took up the intense focus on drawing. As we talk, he sits in front of a giant plywood stylized outline of a head that is being layered in blue acrylic paint, the nsibidi characters scrawled into the layers of paint.
It’s the fastness of acrylic that appeals to Ekpuk. “I like using acrylics. In the earlier paintings I was doing I needed it to dry fast so that I could rub them off and look aged. Acrylic worked well for that,” he says. Victor’s painting and his drawing share a rhythm. Epkuk’s work is done with painstaking care, and the thought and effort is evident in each piece, yet both paintings and drawings alike possess a simplicity and immediacy that suggest their having sprung into being. In some instances, Victor’s work does so literally, such as the“drawing performance” at Artisphere in Arlington, VA on October 9, 2011, where he created a piece entitled “Meditations on Memory”.