VICTOR EKPUK in The Memphis Daily News

14 Mar

African Art Begins Transition at Brooks Museum

By Bill Dries

For many visitors to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the museum’s African art collection has been a modest display of traditional African art symbolized by a grouping of large masks on a plain wall.

Victor Ekpuk is creating a 58-foot-long mural at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art over the next two weeks as the centerpiece of a newly configured African arts exhibit area. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

That began to change this week with the creation of a 58-foot-long mural by Nigerian-American artist Victor Ekpuk on the once-unadorned wall.

When Ekpuk completes the mural in about two weeks, the rest of the African art area will be on its way to a much different look as well.

“We’re trying to help people understand that art in Africa – while there is this long tradition of it, there are also many contemporary artists who are part of the international art scene,” said Marina Pacini, the Brooks’ chief curator. “They are making work that may reference traditional African art but that has a contemporary life of its own that is not necessarily part of its trajectory.”

Ekpuk worked on the intricate blend of African art imagery and Memphis themes with a pair of headphones on Wednesday morning. As he worked, he was listening to the music of Ali Farka Toure, the late Malian singer and musician known for his work at the intersection of traditional Malian music and North American blues.

Ekpuk is expecting more company Saturday as those coming to the museum’s Chalkfest also will be coming inside the museum to get a look at the work in progress. Ekpuk, too, works in chalk and pastels.

His work is called “Drawing Memory” and is part of a series of works he’s done in different places.

“The whole idea of memory – my notion of memory – is that it’s a very ephemeral condition, a human condition,” said Ekpuk, who uses chalk with the idea that it will all be wiped away at some point. “It continues to change and to be affected by circumstances.”

The mural for the Brooks is somewhere between ephemeral and permanent, with about a five-year life.

“It’s not completely ephemeral,” Ekpuk said with a chuckle against a backdrop of symbols and words on a white surface – some mysterious, some familiar, depending on who is taking in the still-forming piece.

And there is Ekpuk’s perspective.

“I was born in Nigeria; I’m an American citizen,” he said. “My memories of where I was born and where I am now is all in flux. It’s affected by circumstances. I decided to make this work to portray the essence of Memphis as I see it being here and through historical context.”

So amidst the imagery you will see the words “I Am a Man,” but “I Am” is separated from the rest of the slogan from the 1968 sanitation workers strike. And “I Am” is a phrase that appears in Ekpuk’s earlier works with specific glyphs. Dots on the Memphis mural might be cotton, and multicolored waves at the bottom might symbolize a river. There could be the body of a guitar in the center.

Ekpuk doesn’t interpret anything in talking about his work. And he cautions against picking out phrases or symbols. In his works, drawing becomes writing and writing becomes drawing. He refers to his drawing as an “independent genre” as opposed to a support for painting. Ekpuk is also a painter.

“My work is generally inspired by African aesthetics,” he said. “That means that I study some of the objects that will be here and the whole aesthetic of what you will be seeing in the African gallery. I study the form … and I reimagine them my own way in my drawings.”

Those items will not necessarily be the same ones museum patrons have seen in the past.

The museum is working with Christa Clarke, the senior curator of Arts of Africa at the Newark Museum in New Jersey.

“They have a vast collection of superb African objects,” Pacini said of the Newark Museum. “She’s going to assemble a small exhibition for us from their collection using a few objects from our collection.”

Some of Ekpuk’s works are in the Newark Museum as well as the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and The World Bank.

His Memphis mural will stand as the centerpiece for an effort that has an ambitious goal in limited space and limited items. While Ekpuk is thinking about the items to come as he creates the mural, the items the museum is considering for the space are being selected with his style and imagery in mind.

“How do you in a small space like this convey African art?” Pacini asked. “You can’t. It’s a large continent with many countries and many different styles. He’s going to produce something that asks some meaningful questions about bigger pictures that apply across the continent to give people ways to think about African art.”

Click this link to view available artwork by VICTOR EKPUK:

https://mortonfineart.com/Artists/Victor-EKPUK/1/thumbs-caption

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