In the ongoing debate of what is African art and how we should characterize it – Victor Ekpuk demonstrates for me a clear answer. By embracing the historical and bringing it into the current space, Ekpuk delivers abstraction that is inherently African and contemporary at the same time – de-linking the two would lose all meaning. Ekpuk’s brilliant use of traditional Nsibidi pictograms and symbols in his creative process allows for his work to create its own form of language – no longer just nsibidi but something entirely new. Nsibidi pictograms have historically informed various languages around Nigeria, with symbols having very specific meanings – often expressing cultural truths, secret stories, love affairs, etc. And for Ekpuk, his abstractions of this language convey similar themes – around issues of politics, gender, culture, and identity.
In his talk at the Aicon gallery this week, Ekpuk shared some of his personal stories around the evolution of his work and its genesis in the late 1980’s during university in Ife, Nigeria. At the time of his exploration of using historical writing symbols for his own unique form of artistic expression, there was a movement that wanted to demonstrate to the Western world that abstraction and modernism was not something exclusive to the Western cannon – but instead had been around for thousands of years in the African cannon, just not included in the global conversation around modern and contemporary art. Ekpuk’s work has been in part artistic journey, and in part protest to the narrative that abstract art is only a Western invention.
Ekpuk’s use of bright blue is reminiscent of the historical use of Nsibidi, imbued with mysticism, but also highly appealing and relevant for the current polemic. This show in particular highlights not just some of his recent work – in particular, a special 3-wall installation canvas made just for the show – but also some of his incredible paper drawings from the over a decade ago. In a sense, the show is a mid-career retrospective, highlighting his incredible artistic journey over 30 years.
Downstairs from Ekpuk’s show is an absolute brilliant show from Mohammad Omer Khalil, a Sudanese-American artist based in New York who has been inspired by another form of writing: calligraphy. Khalil has been enamored with this form of writing as it affords him a bridge from writing to artistic expression – in a similar vein to Ekpuk, but with a fundamentally different output.
In Khalil’s show, we are presented with yet another retrospective, with paintings from Khalil’s earlier career in the 1960’s to his enigmatic collages from the past decade. Unlike his well-known prints and etchings, which are heavily influenced by calligraphy and an intense blackness, his paintings are absolutely an explosion of light and color. While his earlier pieces are clearly modern abstractions, his work in the past two decades are a combination of many pieces and parts that independently tell stories but as a unit are complete and something else.
His 2003 piece “You Don’t Have to Be I,” is a stunning collage that pieces together many ideas into a coherent statement. For instance, his use of a small child’s face from an old Levy’s Real Jewish Rye bread advertisement he gathered suggests a moment in time where a brand was attempting to reach a broader audience – in this case black citizens – as a reflection on the need to do this in the first place and their unconventional way to achieve this. Khalil found the entire campaign – developed famously by Judy Protas at DDB in the 1960’s – earth shattering, in that it broke stereotypes of how brands should articulate cultural divides and attempt to reach across them. Much of these works incorporate slices from that campaign, exploring the counterintuitive nature of a brand/entity that expresses strong ethnic allegiance while at the same time trying to be inclusive beyond a specific group.
Both shows run through June 22nd at Aicon Gallery New York.