Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim and Victor Ekpuk
Historically, automatism as an artistic strategic is closely tied to Surrealism. It is a method for circumventing the strictures and conventions of rational thought and accessing the unruly depths of the unconscious, and for introducing immediacy, spontaneity and chance into the creative process. Though they hail from distinct geographies and cultures, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim and Victor Ekpuk share an interest in abstraction and automatism, using these strategies to transform vernacular signs and symbols drawn from their specific contexts into coded artistic lexicons that remain personal while also communicating universally.
Ibrahim was born and lives in Khorfakkan, a sleepy town on the eastern coast of the United Arab Emirates. Nestled between the rocky Hajar Mountains and the Gulf of Oman, this unique setting has significantly influenced Ibrahim’s work. Prehistoric tombs located in the surrounding mountains inspired his early experiments, including ephemeral installations in this craggy landscape created using humble materials found onsite or nearby: rocks arranged into piles or circles, trees wrapped in scraps of discarded cloth, stones encased in skeins of copper wire. Taking cues from petroglyphs in the area, his paintings often feature esoteric symbols that Ibrahim describes as “primordial,” locating both their genesis and their reception in the metaphysical “space between the eyelid and eyeball.” These symbols function as an elementary medium of communication and expression, one that is pre-linguistic and unconscious and, hence, open-ended and universal. Following the conceptual gambits of his friend Hassan Sharif, Ibrahim’s automatism manifests as repetition, as endless permutations and iterations of a limited set of marks or signs, a meditative approach that pushes process beyond intention and opens the marks up to multiple meanings.
Ekpuk draws his inspiration from nsibidi, a centuries-old ideogramic writing system still in use in the Cross River region spanning southeastern Nigeria and northwestern Cameroon, where the artist is from. His approach is more intuitive and improvisational. He does not simply repeat this preexisting set of culturally specific signs. Instead, he has so thoroughly internalized this restrained graphic idiom that it has become automatic, a real-time interface through which he transcribes and mediates his ideas, surroundings, experiences and memories. Abstracting pictorial signs down to an economy of lines, to their bare essence, Ekpuk has perfected an expressive language that hovers between the pictographic and the calligraphic. As the art historian and curator Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi notes, after years of experimentation nsibidi has come to function as a “channel of memory” for Ekpuk, a visual stream of consciousness through which he simultaneously evokes the traditions of his African past and captures the ever-shifting landscapes and circumstances of his cosmopolitan present.
One of Ibrahim’s favorite motifs is the vertical line. Though a universal mark, he attributes his interest in it to a vernacular notational system for tracking deliveries used by water suppliers in his hometown. Lines reappear across his many preferred mediums, varying in number, length, thickness, interval and orientation. Arranged in neat rows, they resemble tally marks, suggesting a systematic record of time, possibly of their own making. But when they overwhelm the walls of a room—as Ibrahim did in an important 1995 installation—they begin to feel imposing and claustrophobic, transforming the space into a cell.
Less regimented compositions, which include both verticals and horizontals, recall cities and skyscrapers, possibly reflections on the social and environmental costs of unregulated urban development in the United Arab Emirates. Across these works, the simplicity of the unit reveals Ibrahim’s interest in repetition and seriality as tools for investigating difference. Paradoxically, repetition introduces the potential for spontaneity, improvisation and experimentation, especially through variations in materials, textures and colors.
Unlike Ibrahim, whose works often feature individual signs or marks as discreet entities, Ekpuk weaves them into dense semiotic fields. At a quick glance, his line appears continuous, flowing through drawn spirals, scribbles and signs both representational and abstract, both familiar and cryptic. The roughly circular red form that repeats across a series of ink on paper works from 2018 is filled with an intricate mesh of scripts and symbols. Drawing on nsibidi and similar traditional African aesthetic systems, Ekpuk began by using this meandering line to tell stories and to “indigenize” surfaces and shapes, among them, notably, stylized heads and the map of Nigeria.
Over the last two decades he has adapted this abstract graphic sensibility to incorporate images and motifs from his imagination and that reflect his cosmopolitan existence. Refined through decades of practice, Ekpuk now uses this skill performatively, producing ephemeral site-specific mural drawings that often incorporate references to his present location and circumstances. In Amsterdam Central (2009), his first such work, a trio of wavy blue lines and two red cricles connected by a horizontal line evoke that city’s famous canals and love of bicycles.
The ciphers that reappear in many of Ibrahim’s works are simple abstract symbols composed of a few lines, curves and basic shapes. Like an undecipherable ancient script, they remain tantalizingly pitched between word and image, exuding the uncanny coincidence of the ancient and the extraterrestrial that characterize phenomenon like the Nazca lines and crop circles. In Untitled 6-7 (2019), these symbols proliferate wildly like insects, busily crowding the frame to create a dizzying allover composition. Though their relative scale might suggest an alphabet, their chaotic arrangement betrays the organization needed for them to be read as language.
Ibrahim occasionally isolates a specific sign, enlarging it to fill the frame like a totem or icon. Untitled 3 (2020) features his favorite one, which consists of a central oval with two three or four pronged spears attached to it pointing up and down. The scale and focus both sharpen the sign’s pictorial quality—other recent works, like Dried Flower 1 (2020), feature simplified forms that suggest the head of a horned or antlered animal or a branched plant or tree—and enhance its magical aura.
Ekpuk has a similar interest in the iconic. In Mickey on Broadway (2014)—first produced as a mural and subsequently recreated as a multi-panel painting—he topped traditional African ideograms of bodies with brightly colored Mickey Mouse-shaped plates, combining two distinct pictographic systems. Playing the sacredness of the folk form against a profane icon of American consumerism, this hybrid representation is a wry self-portrait, encapsulating the complex multiplicities of the artist’s diasporic subjectivity.
Like Ibrahim, in recent works (like Composition in Blue 1-2 (both 2019)) Ekpuk has isolated a single motif, overlaying it in thick impasto on top of a buzzy patterned ground. While earlier the central icon seemed decidedly nonrepresentational, in some of his latest works, like the Portrait series (2020), subtle pictographic references to the head/face have reemerged, harking back to the stylized female heads seen in his Mbobo (Maiden) series (2000-2006) and Asian Uboikpa (Hip Sista) series (2014). And in Royals and Goddesses 1 (2020), the largely abstract field of thick red strokes recall the striations found on the famous Ife bronze heads.
For both artists, their personal lexicon of marks and signs, though graphic in origin, are not to be limited to two dimensions. Crafted out of his signature papier-mâché, Ibrahim has reproduced many of his motifs as freestanding sculptures. His symbols become decidedly creaturely, stylized abstract representations of various organic and machinic life forms. His lines become architectonic: irregular grids recall rustic window grills and vertical open frame constructions resemble skeletal towers.
But, maybe most interesting, is Ibrahim’s black and white Line on Object series (2015-17), which straddles the traditional mediums of painting and sculpture. In some, a solitary line widens into a rectangle that fills the frame, resulting in textured monochromes reminiscent of Piero Manzoni’s achromes. In others, the line becomes three dimensional, as black rods dangle like wind chimes or pierce through the edges of a box frame. And in his Hanging Object series (2020), bundles of cards carefully filled with black tally marks hang off of neutral and brightly colored horizontal armatures, like protective talismans.
Ekpuk’s recent freestanding sculptures—which range in size from table-top works (like Woman Dancing in the Mirror (2019), The Philosopher (2018) and The Politician (2018)) to the human-scale of The Prophet (2018) and the monumentality of The Face (2019), his public commission in Bahrain—are the end-product of a career spent refining his graphic sensibility so as to be able to distill any form down to its very linear essence. Reveling in the uncertain terrain between the calligraphic and pictographic, these abstracted personages cleverly synthesize language and body, alphabet and mask, letter and face, their judicious curves encapsulating the psychological and bodily complexities of the human.
Across both these artists’ practices, vernacular signs function not only as carriers of culturally specific meaning but as expansive and endlessly generative formal gestures. Through strategies of automatism—Ibrahim through endless repetition, Ekpuk through practiced improvisation—they are able to migrate far beyond their origins, joyfully filling every surface and occupying every space they might encounter.
Victor Ekpuk’s art builds upon the tension between art and writing, exemplified by his use of gestures that create the illusion of text. Born in 1964, Ekpuk trained at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, in southwestern Nigeria, where he was first exposed to drawing. He considers drawing a fundamental aspect of his art practice, which also includes painting, printmaking, collage, sculpture, installation, and public art projects. His artworks are in permanent collections of The Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African Art, The World Bank, Newark Museum, Hood Museum, Krannert Art Museum, United States Art in Embassies Art Collection, and Fidelity Investment Art Collection.
Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim came of age as an artist in the UAE in an era in which the visual arts were not yet valued culturally or taught in university degree programs. In 1986 when he met the late artist Hassan Sharif and became a founding member of the Emirates Fine Art Society, Ibrahim was pulled out of a secluded practice and carved out unshakable friendships and collaborations that have formed the foundation for the creative community that defines the UAE today. IHis works are in significant international collections, including Sharjah Art Foundation (UAE), Sharjah Art Museum (UAE); Art Jameel (UAE); Barjeel Art Foundation (UAE); Arab Museum of Modern Art (Qatar); Kunstcentrum Sittard (Netherlands), the British Museum (UK) and The Centre George Pompidou (France).
Murtaza Vali is a critic, curator and art historian based in Brooklyn and Sharjah. His ongoing research interests include materialist art histories, ex-centric minimalisms, ghosts and other figures of liminal subjectivities and repressed histories, and the weight of color. A recipient of a 2011 Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for Short-Form Writing, he regularly contributes to art periodicals and publications for non-profit institutions and commercial galleries. He is also an Adjunct Curator at the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai, where he curated the widely acclaimed inaugural group exhibition Crude, which explored the relationship between oil and modernity across West Asia. Vali is currently curating a series of exhibitions about “intimate infrastructures” at Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi and is part of the Artistic Team for the 2nd FRONT Triennial in Cleveland in 2022. A Visiting Instructor at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, he is also a Lead Tutor of Campus Art Dubai and a Lead Mentor for the Hayy:Learning Curatorial Fellowship.