New Hood exhibits will highlight Ekpe art and culture

by Kourtney Kawano | 4/14/15 6:10pm

From intricately woven cloth to painting-like script, African art and culture will converge when “Auto-Graphics: Works by Victor Ekpuk” and “Ukara: Ritual Cloth of the Ekpe Secret Society” open at the Hood Museum of Art this Saturday.

“Auto-Graphics” will feature 18 collages, digital prints and supersized drawings by Ekpuk, a southwestern Nigerian artist known for combining his own masterful style with the visual language of the Ekpe secret society, an all-male group from Nigeria and Cameroon. By using nsibidi, the traditional writing system of the Ekpe people that is based on symbols, Ekpuk is able to add his own invented shapes to make his artwork culturally meaningful and visually appealing.

Created in 2013, Ekpuk’s print “Composition No. 13 (Santa Fe Suite)” includes this mix of nsibidi symbols with clustered dots and curves in graphite with a large and jagged circle imposed over a yellow circle drawn with pastel. The bold contrast between black, white and yellow conveys Ekpuk’s understanding of memory as a personal and collective experience

Ekpuk’s 2008 print “Sanctuary” from his series “Composition” will also be on display. The image includes a pattern of nsibidi symbols and thick graphite borders arranged in a square. Whereas “Composition No. 13” has a yellow circle to contrast the black and white colors with the negative and positive space in the print, Sanctuary has a solid red square in its center to add to the illusion of the concentric pattern.

On April 24, Ekpuk will give a lecture called “Excavating Memories.” The lecture will conclude his drawing performance on the wall of the Hood’s Lathrop Gallery and his week-long artist residency with the museum. On April 25, Allyson Purpura, the curator of African arts at the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will give a special tour about the works in “Auto-Graphics” as the curator of the exhibition.

Curator of African art at the Hood Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi said that he worked with Purpura to bring the exhibition to Dartmouth, and he thinks that the exhibit will be well-received and inspiring to students.

“The audience will learn a great deal about the magic of simple lines and the artist’s ability to engage with drawing as an art form on its own merits,” Nzewi said.

Nzewi will also give a special tour and lunchtime gallery talk on June 13 and 16, respectively, to wrap up the programming events associated with the exhibition.

To parallel the language aspect of the Ekpe society in “Auto-Graphics,” “Ukara” will feature various types of Ekpe cloth, which symbolizes wealth and prestige through the rare and individualized nature of each handmade design.

Nzewi, who also assisted in bringing “Ukara” to the Hood Museum, said the exhibition will feature roughly the same number of pieces as “Auto-Graphics.”

“I believe a lot can be learned from the two complementing exhibitions,” Nzewi said.

Hood interim director Juliette Bianco, a member of the Class of 1994, said that presenting the two exhibitions together speaks directly to the museum’s teaching mission.

“All museum visitors can study how contemporary artists look to rich and complex social and cultural histories to fuel their artistic expression,” she said.

The Ekpe people of the Cross River region in southeastern Nigeria and western Cameroon commissioned the Ezillo people of Ebony State to design each ukara by hand with indigo dye and nsibidi symbols, leading to its high value.

The exhibition, which was curated and organized by Eli Bentor, an art history professor at Appalachian State University at Boone, North Carolina, includes a giant ukara from the early 2000s from the Igbo people of Nigeria for the backdrop of an Ekpe lodge. Some of the nsibidi symbols on the ukara represent the sun, flowers and animals such as turtles, an alligator and a cheetah. Bentor’s collection also includes a smaller ukara from the 1980s with finer nsibidi symbol detailing and the Omu Aro symbol of the Igbo people’s confederacy.

In addition to the exhibition, the Hood will also hold an opening event on May 15 with an introduction and panel discussion with Bentor and a performance by the Ekpe society from Maryland.

To wrap up the programming for the “Ukara” exhibition, English department vice chair and professor Michael Chaney will give a lunchtime gallery talk entitled, “Marks and Mark-Making in Afro-diasporic Art” on May 26 to create a link between these two exhibitions.

Chaney said his gallery talk will focus on the nature of secret writing in art and language as well as the incorporated aspects of nsibidi in the coded writings and works of the 19th-century African-American artist David Drake.

“Auto-Graphics” and “Ukara” will both be on display until Aug. 2.