NATIVE Exclusive: Victor Ekpuk Is Inspiring A Generation of Multi-Visual Artists

on his work and recent participation at Design Week Lagos

Last Friday, the annual Design Week Lagos played host to Victor Ekpuk. The renowned multi-visual artist led a very interactive and immersive session, intimating the audience on his culture-inspired practices. Walking into the hall, one’s attention was quickly drawn to the pieces of Ekpuk displayed on the projector’s screen, epic and colourful, created with intricate Nsibidi expressions which were fashioned into the coherent theme, depending on how intimately one connects with its language. 


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In a career that spans three decades, Victor Ekpuk has gone from an alumni of Fine Art at the Obafemi Awolowo University into a global art figure. He has held several exhibitions—New York, Paris, Cuba, Senegal, etc.—and has been commissioned to create monumental pieces for prestigious organisations like The World Bank, the Memphis Brooks Museum, Arab Bank Corporation and many others. Ekpuk’s signature technique has also adorned re-issued copies of Chinua Achebe’s great works of fiction, including ‘Things Fall Apart’ and ‘Arrow of God’

In the aftermath of 2020’s global lockdowns, Victor Ekpuk expanded his mediums of expression, using digital art and VR presentations to reimagine his works. That was demonstrative of Ekpuk’s vision to link the past and the future—even though his descendant Ekpo society of Akwa-Ibom are custodians of the Nsibidi, his willingness to explore new terrain ensures that representations of the culture would always be kept alive, even far away from its origin in southern Nigeria. 

Following his presentation at Design Week Lagos, The NATIVE engaged Victor Ekpuk in an exclusive interview. His words which follow below have been edited for clarity. 

NATIVE: What were the roots for you in what you do presently?

VICTOR Ekpuk: I’ve always been an artist even before I could read and write. I’ve always known how to represent things around me; while my mates were playing football, I was busy drawing on the sand outside of my house. It was the only thing I was really good at, so it wasn’t no surprise to anybody that I’ll go to college to study Fine Art. My mother encouraged me to pursue it, when she saw that I had the talent. When I was in Primary 2, I won a division wide competition for Art. 

NATIVE: How did you start off professionally?

That should be when I left the University of Ife in 1989 or something like that. I started working at the Daily Times as a cartoonist and illustrator. If you go back to the newspaper’s archives, you will see my work. I believe that I am an artist, I can do all things. So I don’t set those limits for myself about what this is and what is that—I can draw and I can interpret others. That was another facet of my imagination which I engaged at the time, it was something that I enjoyed doing, it was my opportunity to talk back at the government of Nigeria and I did that everyday. 

NATIVE: When did you have a big break as an artist?

While I was working at the Daily Times, I also had a studio in my house. So I was painting; I’ll go to work at the Daily Times, I’d come back home and paint. I was showing in galleries in Lagos, and I was doing international exhibitions while that was going on. I guess the first time the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture was in 1998 or thereabout. 

NATIVE: What was the nineties art scene like? 

The art scene in the nineties was vibrant, but mostly expatriates were buying our works. But I’m happy to see now that Nigerians are also consuming their own culture and buying works from Nigerian artists. ‘Cos we were mostly selling to only oyibo expatriates; there weren’t a few galleries, but now the whole place is exploding with so much culture. We have Design Week, we have Fashion Week, we have ArtX. Lagos is becoming a really important centre and it’s encouraging a lot of young artists and designers to come out and have their work seen, which is really great. 

NATIVE: Your works are sometimes rooted in Afro-spiritual symbolism. What are your origins in this field and how do you interpret its vision?

From my culture—I investigate my own culture. I’m interested in the history and culture of my people. So I found [Nsibidi] to be a form that really informs my work in a way that it attracts ideas. That was a platform from which my own ideas kicked off. 

I see the yearning for people to go back to their cultural roots and be proud of it because for a long time, Westerners have always come and taken it. So it’s a good thing we’re focusing now, which was the point of my workshop today, to encourage young artists and young designers to look within what they have and be inspired by it. 

NATIVE: What do you consider the importance of Design Week in bringing art communities together, especially having figures like yourself who connect Nigerian art with happenings in the diaspora? 

I think it’s very important, because it is a program for which its time has come. In terms of encouraging young artists or bringing the awareness that there is culture we’re proud of, and bringing the awareness of using designers that are available to encourage them to create and people would begin to consume what is created here. Cos I’m seeing a lot of these designers that are showcasing here have their factories here in Nigeria but some Nigerians don’t know that, they think they always have to import from Turkey. 

I was reviewing some of the questions that were coming in, that there’s a difference between art and design. There’s a disconnect between that and what is really happening. For a long time we didn’t see ourselves as creators. But when you begin to let people know that, let them see the obvious that is right in front of them. That’s what we’re talking about. When you look at a mask, what do you see? Do you see design? Do you see an artist who was very creative to create this beautiful piece, or do you see something else? 

NATIVE: What is your opinion of the young undergraduates that were here today? What do you think they need to advance further in their creative careers? 

I think they need to attend more conferences and things like these, to be inspired. They need to read, pick up more on their reading actually because there’s a lot that is floating on the internet, so much knowledge, depends on what you’re looking and what you’re reading. The internet has liberated a lot of things, you don’t necessarily need to have [physical] books anymore. Okay, so, traditional designs or you want to see Yoruba stools, you’ll see so much. The young woman was asking me, ‘I’ve never seen Nsibidi’. Look at the internet. They need to have dialogues like this, with the other professionals who are doing things. I’m happy that I was here today to at least impart my own knowledge and leave the people do what they’ll like to do with it.


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Featured image credits/NATIVE