In the Lathrop Gallery of Dartmouth's Hood Museum two concurrent exhibitions, “Auto-Graphics: Works by Victor Ekpuk” and “Ukara: Ritual Cloth of the Ekpe Secret Society,” provoked interesting counterpoints, reflecting the vitality of ancient artistic traditions in rural and urban Nigerian settings as well as in global contexts. Both exhibitions provided their own idiosyncratic usage of linguistic signs and ideographic lines but in very different artistic media.
“Auto-Graphics,” which was initially curated by Allyson Purpura at the Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was overseen by Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi at the Hood Museum of Art venue. The exhibition at the Hood, which encompassed twenty works from several different series by Victor Ekpuk, was highlighted by a “drawing performance” in which the artist painted a tripartite mural in the gallery. Production of this work took several days and was augmented by talks and workshops with Ekpuk.
For those visiting the exhibition, Ekpuk's large mural greeted them as they entered the second-floor space. Two small branching galleries displayed a variety of the artist's works from two recent series as well as a few earlier pieces.
While Ekpuk's work features traditional Nigerian art forms and media, the artist is also influenced by European graphic traditions. Given his father's membership in the Ekpe Society that utilizes nsibidi symbols in their famous indigo-dyed cloths, Ekpuk is certainly aware of nsibidi graphic writing. The artist further experimented with traditional art forms and media in the 1980s while attending Obafemi Awolowo University in Ife, Nigeria. The following decade, he became a prominent newspaper cartoonist for Daily Times Nigeria. Now a widely recognized and exhibited artist, Ekpuk draws further inspiration from local histories and traditions at the sites of his many fellowships.
The largest number of exhibited works came from his Composition series (2008–2013), many of which Ekpuk created while he was in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Three large drawings from his Slave Narrative series (2007–2008), begun during a residency in Amsterdam and continued in Washington, DC, where he now resides, were also displayed. These reflected his disturbed response to the Netherland's Black Peter celebrations and to the European slave trade.
In addition to these two series, “Auto-Graphics” included examples of Ekpuk's collage work, early pen-and-ink drawings, and large-scale digital prints that are made from smaller prints. Spanning only about fifteen years of the artist's career, the exhibition provided an impressive overview of Ekpuk's creativity in both content and process. His graphic works reflected not only a deep foundation in the practices of nsibidi symbols and visual dialog, but his full corpus evidenced influences from his stays in Europe and the US. It also demonstrated serious engagement with contemporary issues. To this end, the exhibition also included a video of Ekpuk commenting on the range of his work as well as a number of events involving students and other community members.
At the end of one of the “Auto-Graphics” galleries the viewer entered the “Ukara” exhibition which, as in its initial presentation at Appalachian State University, was coupled with some of Ekpuk's graphic paintings. Based on Eli Bentor's extensive fieldwork and collection, this exhibition, installed by Nzewi, provided a multimedia overview of the production and functions of ukara cloth used by Ekpe Society members in southeastern Nigeria and neighboring parts of Cameroon.
In stark contrast to the white walls that held Victor Ekpuk's works were the vivid blue walls of the “Ukara” exhibit, which set off various examples of cloth. Accompanying field photos and excellent video provided a detailed record of the cloth's production from rough material to finished product and how it is used in various contexts. A nearby map located peoples of the Cross River area who use ukara.
Careful placement of Bentor's video footage and field photographs introduced the viewer to the stages of creating ukara cloth as well as to its uses by individual Ekpe members and in the society's meeting houses, shrines, and funerals. Two mannequins in the center of the room effectively contrasted with the blue walls and large indigo dyed cloths: one depicted an Ekpe chief in full fancy dress with his ukara wrapper while the other figure was an Ebonko masquerader. The latter's bright red and gold dress provided a dramatic visual counterpoint to the indigo blue of the surrounding exhibit.
An accompanying 19-page booklet contains an introduction by Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi and essays by Eli Bentor and Jordan Fenton. Bentor's essay, “A Historical Understanding of Ukara Cloth,” briefly summarizes the origins and continued production of this important tradition. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of ukara cloth creation is that its sole dyers, members of the Ezillo community, have no knowledge of the Ekpe society or its symbols: they simply follow the instructions they receive. Each cloth is individually designed and commissioned, and the secret symbols—figurative, geometric, and abstract images—are meaningless to the Ezillo artists. This is truly a case of “known unknowns.”
Bentor hypothesizes that the relationship of secret societies and trade networks served to bring different cultural groups together in this complex system. Stemming from several indigo dyeing complexes in Nigeria, Aro traders apparently provided the link to Ekpe cultural traditions.
Fenton's essay, “Knowledge in Motion: Reading and Performing Ukara Nsibidi,” details some of the uses of ukara cloth, primarily in terms of its presentation—both graphically and in performance—of the famous nsibidi symbol system. As Fenton's research well documents, each Ekpe member must perform nsibidi-based gestures and dances during initiations and meetings. The booklet in combination with the exhibition's video and photographic displays encourages viewers to realize the continued vitality of this innovative Ekpe tradition. Overall, this excellent exhibition vividly stresses not only that such fraternal societies remain alive and well in southern Nigeria but that they are reinvigorating ancient cultural traditions.
The combination of the “Ukara” and “Auto-Graphics” exhibits presented a variety of fruitful comparisons. Just as Victor Ekpuk experiments with various dynamic graphic forms, Ekpe members develop fluid performative visual forms based on nsibidi signs. The works presented in both exhibitions illustrate the dynamic creativity of contemporary African artists as both urban and rural participants continue to develop their arts by expanding and modifying meanings and materials. Clearly these artists use the “old” to express the “new” in endlessly creative ways. Ekpuk “performs” innovative commentaries on contemporary issues and Ekpe society members use their cloth and symbols to present themselves and their enhanced status in imaginative demonstrations.
Although Dartmouth College does not have an extensive African Studies program, it is clear that the Hood Museum of Art is committed to regular presentations of African art. While the Hood was highlighting this pair of exhibitions, a display of African weapons remained on view on the first floor. This is presentation was ably curated by Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi, the Hood Museum of Art's first curator dedicated to the arts of Africa.