One of the best ways to see the Washington, D.C.-based Nigerian-American artist Victor Ekpuk's large chalk mural at the North Carolina Museum of Art is to turn your back on it and look around the rest of the gallery it's in.
Ekpuk's work covers a thirty-by-eighteen-foot wall in one of NCMA's new African art galleries, which have been expanded in the museum's East Building to include works from across the continent spanning sixteen centuries. Opening to the public by the end of June, the galleries will almost double the number of African works on display, including never-before-seen textiles and works on paper in light-controlled areas.
El Anatsui's "Lines that Link Humanity," a quilt-like sculpture of aluminum and copper wire, hangs on a wall adjacent to Ekpuk's work. Valises opposite the mural contain objects including a Yoruba divination board and ornately carved totems. Approaching this commission with no preconceived composition, Ekpuk sat in the space for a day considering the neighboring works before he pulled out his iPad to begin sketching.
"It's more about the aura of the objects that were pulling me as I got closer to some of them," Ekpuk says. "Some of them I'm familiar with. Some of them not so much. The power and aura of the objects themselves created an atmosphere where I felt a sense of divinity."
Rendered in white chalk on a black wall, Ekpuk's composition forms an abstracted figure wrapping long arms around the perimeter. Hundreds of signs and symbols are densely packed within the arms, which are themselves filled with little circles. The large figure has a placid, stylized face at the top, and its distended arms terminate in huge hands that gather the chaos of the symbols together.
Video courtesy of NCMA
The mural has a presence and an intricate density comparable to that of Anatsui's sculpture. Ekpuk counts Anatsui as an elder, and they've shown together in a 1994 group exhibit in Lagos. Ekpuk was one of five up-and-coming Nigerian artists paired with a trio of established African artists.
The Yoruba divination board, however, inspired the mural's form. Ekpuk talks about how a diviner shakes objects in the tray-like board in order to answer questions or make predictions by interpreting their proximities. Instead of objects, Ekpuk fills his mural with symbols that draw upon nsibidi, a Nigerian system of ideograms. But the symbols are so crowded and intertwined that any attempted reading will be foiled. It's hard to focus on one sign to see what it might refer to or depict. Instead, one's vision darts around and takes in the overall density.
"I know it teases your brain to think that you could read it," Ekpuk laughs, "but it's not writing that tells you A or B or C. I never try to analyze them or say that they are any one particular thing. I open it up so that people can just see what they see in it." Echoing this semiotic openness, Ekpuk deflects talk of any overt political message in the work. But neither is it apolitical.
"I walked into the space and, initially, I thought, Let's not just do another social-political thing. At the same time, I've found that art is always politics. Sometimes I don't think about politics, but once I start making art, this feeling starts coming out in the work. After I made this, I thought, Oh, I'm actually responding to this siege that I feel right now in the political climate in America.'"
Ekpuk describes the composition as a divine embrace, but the arms could be read as a crowded space of containment, like a refugee camp or border wall. The empty zeros might exude the banal homogeneity of power.
Ekpuk won't say it's a wrong reading, just that he sees something different. He's inclined to cede the artist's intention by making a willfully undetermined work. He's leaning toward leaving the mural untitled so that a visitor can react to what it is rather than what it means. [Editor's note: Ekpuk ultimately decided to title the work "Divinity."]
"It forces you to abandon what you know and have an opportunity to be aware of something else," he says. "Not everything has to be explained. If you want to bring what you know, then you're just going to hit the wall. Perhaps it's sort of a comfort work, rather than an angry work. It's a reminder that, whether we believe in it or not, there is a divine source of our strength. It's beyond us."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Symbol Crash"