Headspaces is a solo exhibition featuring new works on paper by Nigerian-American artist Victor Ekpuk. His works in this exhibition are drawings that explore a familiar themes that continue to interest the artist: the human condition, individual and collective identities as well as universal notions of the essence of self. His artistic style draws a lot from the African aesthetic concepts and philosophies.
While exploring the aesthetics of form through abstraction, Ekpuk engages socio-economic and urgent socio-political issues such as racially motivated police brutality against black men in America, while seamlessly translating his observation of the cultural aesthetic of women in Africa and the African diaspora.
In works from his series “Behind the Mask, There’s a Story” Ekpuk investigates the human psyche in a series of abstracted portraits. He views the outer appearance of the physical face as the mask that hides the inner person. The artist is interested in the unique human stories and experiences behind these outer appearances; he believes that these unseen inner lives inform character.
In Headspaces, Ekpuk also looks at the head both literally and metaphorically as the bearer of intellect and of a person’s fortune in life. While contemplating the latter African philosophy about fate, he is also attracted to the aesthetic of the form of a fashionable head wrap on a well-dressed Lagos socialite at an Owambe (party). Like “Owambe Head”, the shape of “Fruit Seller of Lagos” is a feast for the eye of an artist who seeks out the essence in forms. While appreciating the beauty of both forms, Ekpuk notes that in spite of their socio-economic disparity, both the hawker and the socialite “are carrying loads on their heads. Perhaps fate does not discriminate based on status”.
“Hip Sista,” presented here in both drawing and serigraph versions, continues Ekpuk’s fascination with African women’s art of beauty. In a previous body of work, “Asian Uboikpa (Hip Sista)” series, the artist explored self-expression among women in Africa and their similarities with women of African descent in the diaspora. Just as young Ibibio women Asian Uboikpa (proud maidens) respond to the public gaze by proudly showing off their elaborately coiffeur hairstyles, women of African descent in the diaspora are fondly referred to in American parlance as “hip sistas” for exhibiting similar attitudes. Ekpuk says “observing this phenomenon of genetic memory is particularly intriguing”.
In the current political climate, references to mental states may evoke the stress and disillusionment provoked by oppressive governments, increasing fear of the other, and random acts of terror. Concern over this state of affairs is present in Ekpuk’s work, and most directly expressed in “Siege, Can’t Stand, Can’t Kneel, and Can’t Breathe in this Whirlpool” a work that Ekpuk says speaks to the black male experiences of police brutality in the US in particular. The stance of the distressed figure references popular language of protest; “hands up, don’t shoot”, “Can’t Breathe” and “Take a Knee” that has emerged in response to a rising spate of brutality against people of color in America. – A black male in America is caught in a whirlpool where his body is both object of fear on which bigoted racial politics and laws are legislated as well as an object of protest of it’s daily oppression and humiliation.
Headspaces is an invitation to consider the human condition through expressive figures, Ekpuk’s trademark nsibidi-inspired markings, and colorful abstract forms.