Victor Ekpuk doesn’t use speech balloons. Thought bubbles? He’s got no time for those, either. He has his own particular way of enmeshing his viewer in a dense thicket of symbols. He may be the rare fine artist with the spirit of an incendiary cartoonist, but he doesn’t resort to strip comic tricks. His drawings, sculptures and acrylic paintings contain language, and ideas, too volatile to be contained by an oval.
That language is Nsibidi, an ancient idiographic script created by the Ekoi people of Southern Nigeria. Ekpuk’s version of Nsibidi is highly personal and heavily modified, but its roots are deep in African soil. Ekpuk — who was born in Eket, Nigeria — approaches these characters with a curious mixture of runic reverence and shape-shifting playfulness. In “Language and Lineage,” an electrifying show that will hang at the Bainbridge House in Princeton until Oct. 8, Nsibidi-inspired characters are everywhere: looming behind the heads of his subjects, swarming above the crowns of would-be kings, stuffing canvases corner to corner with the relentlessness and clarity of the figures in Keith Haring’s paintings. Ekpuk views written language as an intervention in the mechanics of power — a humble but potent tool of protest available to every man and woman, no matter how poor or marginalized.
So much you might expect from a former political cartoonist. Before his work hung in galleries, Ekpuk was a newspaperman for the Nigerian Daily Times. Ekpuk’s visual commentary was well drawn but hardly unconventional; it pulled from the tradition of caricature and distortion that has been the bread and butter for editorial illustrators since the days of Puck. His personal work would turn toward abstraction, but he never abandoned the cartoonist’s faith in legibility, symbolism and the expressive power of the drawn black line.
He also never misplaced the cartoonist’s sense of moral outrage. Some of the work in “Language and Lineage” is strange and arresting, but all of it is comprehensible. It’s tough to miss the significance of a black head in profile, decorated with Nsibidi-like targets, suns and arrows, sinking into a rectangle of silent water, or the prisoner crouched in a dark, tilted cell, face bent toward a tiny window, as a hailstorm of symbols falls on the roof.
The uncommon coherence of “Language and Lineage” disguises Ekpuk’s aesthetic restlessness. The intersection between human beings and symbol systems gives the exhibition its common thread, but he follows his fascination down many paths at once. That means acrylics on canvas, ink on cotton paper, watercolors, mixed-media amalgams of paint and fabric, and hefty steel sculptures as big as a stop sign. (There is even an Ekpuk handbag, decorated with Nsibidi-like characters, hanging in the Bainbridge House lobby.) It is Ekpuk’s ideograms — and his fearsome motivation — that make this show as tight as a well-wrought paragraph.
Ekpuk’s approach to his modified visual language is subtly varied, too. Some of the subjects of his portraits exist in a world saturated by Nsibidi; others are themselves composed of Nsibisi-like characters. Others are in transition from one state to another, or captured in a netherworld between signification and its absence. In “Mask,” a sculpture painted gold, a human figure peeks out from behind a face-shaped shield of symbols.
The “Ibibio Girl,” another sculpture, wears a headdress of jagged crowns, inverted flowers, arrows and other figures. Her neck is bent from the weight of the ideas, but her eye is bright.
“Code Talker 7,” a drawing in ink on paper, shows the rough outline of a man with a curved shape in pineal position in the center of his forehead. A circle of Nsibidi characters radiates from the mark and blows free of his scalp, as if taken into the world by the wind of thought.
A darker nimbus settles on the character at the center of the ink and gouache “Untitled 2020”: a rough black hole that presses against the edges of the piece and eats a shallow arc in the cranium of a man made completely of Nsibidi.
In Ekpuk’s work, it is often the people who are full of symbolism and tradition who are in the deepest trouble. The language is represented as a burden, or a bewilderment, or barely tamed chaos. It is, nevertheless, exciting and beautiful to behold. Ekpuk’s version of Nsibidi is a sign system designed for getting lost in; it can be read from top to bottom, or against convention, or according to the visual trajectories that invariably develop when complex symbols are placed side by side. It is a testament to the artist’s command of his ideograms that the denser they are, the more fascinating his art becomes.
“Prisoner of Conscience,” a mesmerizing watercolor on cotton rag paper, contains thousands of them, each angling for position under a sun in partial eclipse. Many are images of people, crammed shoulder to shoulder or pressed together so tightly that the contours of their illustrations become the walls of a labyrinth.
“Scape Goat,” a similar work on an adjacent wall, depicts a pair of stick figures toting a captured beast on a plank. Ekpuk surrounds the hunters with sawteeth and spirals, human faces with quizzical expressions and hairs stood on end and, at regular intervals, a running, bow-toting human figure pursuing an animal.
It isn’t an alphabet. It isn’t even Nsibidi as Ekpuk’s ancestors might recognize it.
But it is, undeniably, a language. And in that language, Victor Ekpuk makes himself clear.
The Princeton University Art Museum presents “Victor Ekpuk: Language and Lineage” at Bainbridge House in Princeton through Oct. 8. visit artmuseum.princeton.edu.
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