By Tajudeen Sowole
In its four years of existence, Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF) Research Fellowship, which just recorded its first non-art historian beneficiary, has also reconnected the grantee, Washington, DC, U.S-based Victor Ekpuk with factors that inspired him 15 years ago.
From its inception, the OYASAF fellowship has been awarded to art scholars from around the world who visited Nigeria to research art of the country’s descents. But Ekpuk, who made his first long return to Nigeria, rediscovered the steam that made him one of the known names in illustrative art in the 1990s.
As Ekpuk rounded off his three months fellowship programmme with a moderate Open Studio at sculptor, Olu Amoda’s Wotaside Studio, Maryland, Lagos, he took his audience back to several decades where he got his inspiration as an illustrator. In fact, the trajectory of his art has its roots in the socio-economic theatrics on the streets of Lagos.
From Victor Ekpuk’s Lagos Suites Series
Although some of the street characters have changed, since the artist left the country, the common factors such as the challenges, perhaps excitement of a fast growing city remain.
Ekpuk worked as an illustrator at Daily Times Newspapers, Lagos from 1990 to 1998, when newspaper cartoon and illustration had a semblance of the vibrant 1970s /1980s in Nigeria. Apart from the constantly charged political terrain and the resultant civil unrests under the grips of the military governments, other features that provided quite a pool from which cartoonists and illustrators got inspiration included rickety city molue buses competing with ever reckless yellow mini-buses or danfos, as well as human factors such as street hawkers, bus stops pick pockets. agberos (bus stops touts) or among others.
One and half decades after, the socio-economic landscape has not exactly changed; Lagos State Government-controlled Lagbus and LAMATA BRT buses have taken over the business of public transportation as molue has reduced drastically, just as Ekpuk missed a chunk of the taxi motorcycles known as okada. However, the artist seemed to have a lot more to chew in tricycle or keke, another form of taxi, which Lagos State Government is battling t o restrict to Trunk-C roads.
On a white wall of a section provided by his host, Ekpuk mounted some of his works, rendered in drawings – ink on papers. Populated with keke, the works, the artist explained to his guests, share a common title, Lagos Suites. Lagos, Ekpuk noted, ”is still full of exploration,” for artistic contents.
One of the Lagos Suites series, indeed, shows the typical three or four passengers-tricycle as the artist’s minimalist-like strokes oozes, shooting out the yellow identity of Lagos public transport. He agreed that quite a change has taken place in Lagos, “but it’s still the same environment.” The characters or features, he added “are different now.”
And capturing the change on a wider space outside newspaper confinement comes with quite a lot of ventilation for expression. In the four composite of shade and light depths, populated with signs as well as mid-ground of the central subject keke and blank foreground, Ekpuk’s Lagos Suites-1 exposes the artist’s attachment to the technique or style in illustrative art. The importance of space, in enhancing perception or assimilation of message and contents, particularly in the foreground is conspicuous.
Also, Ekpuk brings into his work, the importance of motifs, signs or symbols in contemporary expression to highlight, for example, the inadequate urban planning of Lagos, compounded with what he described as “uncoordinated buildings and telecommunication companies’ masts.”
Other works at the Ekpuk’s Open Studio included highlights of Lagos’ challenge in public water supply as plastic water containers, represented in blue composite as a supposedly “seller” reflects the common sights in some parts of the state where people go out of their houses in search of water.
Artists often trace inspirations for signs or symbols to quite a diverse encounter. .For Ekpuk, it’s a native factor. Being a native of Ibibio, Akwa Ibom State, South South, Nigeria, he explained that “the signs inspired me more.” He argued that signs in his native Ibibio “predate Roman and European civilization.” He cited the example of a people known as Ekpe, who “still use the old signs understood only by those who are initiated.”
OYASAF disclosed that after this residency, Ekpuk “will return to Washington DC to prepare for upcoming solo Exhibition of his drawings at KRANERT Art Museum in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois,
“He also hopes to return to Nigeria more often for artistic inspirations, collaborations and exhibitions.”
The OYSAF Research Fellowship programme has been awarded to over 10 scholars, some who include William Ian Bourland of the University of Chicago; Janine Sytsma, University of Wisconsin; Carmen De Michele of Ludwigs-Maximilians University of Munich;
OYASAF writes about Ekpuk: “He has had numerous exhibitions and residencies in Africa, Europe, and the United States. His works are in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African Art, the Newark Museum, and the World Bank, among others.
“In a special collaboration with OYASAF and Nigerian artist Olu Amoda, Victor Ekpuk utilizes Amoda’s Waterside studio space to create works that are inspired by the experiences of his residency in Nigeria. According to Ekpuk, “This 60 days is the longest I have spent in Nigeria since I left about 15 years ago. Having the opportunity to spend this much time in Nigeria has afforded me the time to be inspired again by the Nigeria environment, especially Lagos, I feel like I am now on creative high, great to be back home, where it all started”