One cannot describe Victor Ekpuk’s art; one must see it. On view at the Princeton University Art Museum through October 8, Victor Ekpuk: Language and Lineage pushes against the boundaries of the Western art world via 30 paintings, drawings, and sculptures incorporating Nsibidi, a system of symbols and proto-writing created by the Ekpe secret society in the southeastern part of Nigeria.
Born in 1964 in Eket, Nigeria, Ekpuk started his career as a graphic designer at the University of Ife, taking classes in textile design, sculpture, and ceramics and went on to specialize in painting. He had learned Nsibidi from his grandfather, who was part of the Ekpe society, and in college, he discovered that the writing system could be a form of abstraction — a way to reduce ideas to their essence.
Between 1990 and 1998, during the dictatorship of General Ibrahim Babangida, Ekpuk worked as an illustrator for the Daily Times, a government-run newspaper in Nigeria. To combat the increasing restrictions placed on the press, he and the rest of the newspaper staff adapted different techniques — including subdued caricatures, subtle satire, metaphors, and Nsibidi — to continue to express their ideas. To this day, Ekpuk’s experience living under the Babangida regime shapes his art practice, which he describes as a way of illustrating the United States’s return to a time when Black people were fighting for civil rights and against police brutality. Since moving to Washington, DC 24 years ago, Ekpuk has analyzed the state of America in unique and innovative artworks exhibited all over the world. In 2021, he presented “State of the Union, Things Have Fallen Apart, Can the Center Still Hold?” at the Phillips Collection, a work inspired by US presidents’ State of the Union addresses each year and William Butler Yeats’s apocalyptic poem The Second Coming (1919).
Ekpuk continues this dialogue at Princeton. “What is America becoming?” the artist said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “What is this land that prides itself on its democracy evolving into?” These are the questions he hopes visitors will ask themselves.
Curatorial Assistant Annabelle Priestley divided the exhibition into four galleries, with the first one, titled Masks, illustrating Ekpuk’s fascination with portraits and the human psyche. “I look at the head not just as a physical head, but as a spiritual or psychic space that is our seat of consciousness,” the artist said. “Mask” (2022), a gold, hand-painted steel sculpture, depicts one half of a face with Nsibidi script covering a portion of the eye; in “Mask Series 1” (2018), black and red Nsibidi symbols in the background enhance the abstracted subject matter.
“In Deep Water” (2012), the centerpiece of the second gallery, is an eight-foot-high canvas dominated by a black and white abstract shape filled with Nsibidi symbols that sits in a pool of colorfully illustrated water. The work was inspired by his trip to a local high school for youth from marginalized communities, an experience he described as the opposite of the welcoming educational environment he had growing up in Nigeria.
“It is emblematic of how I see, in general, the life and survival of people of African descent in America, because most of these kids were Black kids from poor homes in DC,” Ekpuk told Hyperallergic. “It really is about that struggle of whether you sink or swim; in this school, they were trying to swim. People were encouraging them to swim, and some of them succeeded, but it’s still emblematic of a larger issue of a continuous struggle of Africans in the diaspora in America.”
A third gallery titled Guardians of Cultural Values honors essential community figures and symbols of Pan-African traditions. In “Matriarch 2” (2022), which portrays the abstracted form of a woman and dark and light blue Nsibidi symbols in the upper left corner, Ekpuk purposely left most of the background empty; the unfilled portion of the work symbolizes the unfinished story of cultures and assimilation.
Ekpuk’s illustrations for the Daily Times inspire the last gallery, Socio-Political Drawings. In “Prisoner of Conscience” (2002), a black object in the shape of a house with a tiny window floats on a background of meticulously rendered Nsibidi symbols. The piece is inspired by Ekbuk’s 1994 Daily Times drawing representing the conditions of incarceration in Nigerian jails.
“Still I Rise” (2020), titled after Maya Angelou’s eponymous poem, portrays a Black man kneeling in a powerful reflection on the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In protest of Brown’s murder, activists adopted the phrase “hands up, don’t shoot.” The figure in the drawing raises one hand in a symbol of Black power, while the other takes the gesture of a fist placed across his chest.
“My activist voice is still there within my work,” Ekpuk said. “Sometimes it comes from having lived through human rights abuses in Nigeria. And in the United States, I’m looking at how the language of politics has changed … It looks like the things that one would have thought America would be moving away from, it seems to be returning to.”