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Hairstyles, Tattoos, Body Markings, and Women’s Pride

Victor Ekpuk, Asian Uboikpa (Hip Sista) Series #.11, 2015 . acrylic on canvas 60' x 48'. Image courtesy of Morton Fine Art

Victor Ekpuk, Asian Uboikpa (Hip Sista) Series #.11, 2015, one of the paintings investigating the importance of hairstyles, tattoos and body markings of women in Diaspora. Image courtesy of Morton Fine Art

REVIEW| ART

Victor Ekpuk’s new drawings and paintings investigate hairstyles and body markings as forms of self-expression and pride among women

BY KAZAD

Victor Ekpuk, Asian Uboikpa (Hip Sista) #10, 2014, acrylic on canvas 60′ x 48′. Image courtesy of Morton Fine Art

WASHINGTON DC.- Several years ago, Victor Ekpuk began exploring the art of hairstyles and body markings among young women of southeastern Nigeria. His objective was not just aesthetics but also the need to reveal the importance of hairstyles and body markings as forms of self-expression and pride among African women. The result of that exploration is a collection of paintings Ekpuk titled Mbobo or Maiden Series.

The paintings and drawings that emerged from Ekpuk’s investigation of the art of hairstyles and body markings among young women of southeastern Nigeria are very instructive. They illuminate how effective hairstyles and body markings are efficient means of accentuating pride and self-actualization among African women. The Mbobo(maiden) Series go from series 1 to 10. The oil on canvas paintings emphasis the importance of hair to black/African women and why it is often described as the crown of her glory.

While many of the paintings and drawings from the Mbobo (maiden) Series address the importance of women’s hairstyles among African women, they also bring to focus the creativity of the hairstylists who create the amazing hair designs. Many of the hairstylists and designers learned their crafts through apprenticeship, from relatives, and friends. Although many of the hairstyles continue to conform to traditions, others have evolved to accommodate modern ideas.

Historically, hairstyles and body markings were integral to African societies. Hairstyles, body markings, and tattoos are not just a source of pride and self-expression but also the signifier of status and aesthetics. In some Nigerian societies, hairstyles and body markings indicate the position and status of women. Among the Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa, for instance, hairstyles, body markings, and tattoos are effective means of establishing the authorities of a woman.

Since that first exploration about 2008, Ekpuk has continued to explore the theme of hairstyle designs in his works, expanding his oeuvres to include body markings, tattoos, and body scarifications. Presently at the Morton Fine Art in Washington DC is an exhibition that illustrates Ekpuk’s expansion of the art of hairstyle design from the Nigerian context to the Diaspora.

Titled Asian Uboikpa (Hip Sistas) in Flux: The Visual-Lingual Braid, the exhibition uses the exploration of hairstyles and body markings in southeastern Nigeria as the pedestal for investigating the culture of hairstyles and body markings in the Diaspora. Asian Uboikpa, an Ibibio expression, references proud young women, and virgins, while Hip Sista is an African American term used to describe highly fashionable women.

Examining Hairstyles and Body Markings

In his recent paintings examining hairstyles and body markings, Ekpuk continues to expand his use of Nsibidi, the West African ideographic, to create a visual language that has situated him at the center of contemporary African art discourse in the West. Unlike in the past when his use of and interpretation of Nsibidi was limited to Nigeria and Africa, in his recent paintings, the West African ideographic system bridges the contemporary mode and cultural heritage.

The motifs inherent in Ekpuk’s recent paintings emulate designs of African fabrics design, jewelry, piercing, tattoos and scarification in such a way that dispenses with a singular cultural identity. There is a hybridization of forms and ideas from multiple sources and cultures. For a Nigerian artist who has traveled the globe presenting his works in museums and galleries, the confluence of ideas is not unusual.

The focus of many of the paintings and drawings on exhibition in Asian Uboikpa (Hip Sistas) in Flux: The Visual-Lingual Braid is content over form. There is a deliberate attempt to elevate substance over form in many of the paintings that are characterized by backgrounds with heavy motifs.

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On the background of each painting, Ekpuk superimposes the outline of a women’s head and torso. In Asian Uboikpa (Hip Sista) #4, Ekpuk superimposes the blue outline of a woman’s head and torso on a red motif background. On the woman’s head is a hairstyle which, on one hand, looks like dreadlocks, and on the other is mimetic of traditional Nigerian hairstyles. In Asian Uboikpa (Hip Sista)#8, 2014, an acrylic on canvas, has the red outline of a woman’s head and torso superimposed over a blue background saturated with motifs. The motifs which reflect different cultures indicate the importance of hairstyles, body markings, and tattoos among women across the globe.

Asian Uboikpa (Hip Sista) #10, 2014, an acrylic on canvas is one of the most symbolic pieces of the show. Imposed on a red background with black motifs is the outline of a woman’s head and torso. On the woman’s head is a dreadlock, a hairstyle that is African, American and European in the same breath. The confluence of ideas and styles inherent in the motifs and hairstyle shows the universal importance of hairstyles, design, body markings and tattoos as forms of self-expression and pride among women across the world.        

With his investigation of hairstyle and body markings, Ekpuk is following in the path of great African artists who have explored the relevance of hairstyles and body markings as forms of self-expression and pride in Nigeria and Diaspora. J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere is one of such artists

Ojeikere is one of the foremost examples of Nigerian artists who spent a lifetime focusing on the aesthetics and importance of hairstyles and body markings among Nigerian women. An exceptional photographer, Ojeikere traversed Nigeria capturing women’s hairstyles and body markings.

Throughout his life, bringing attention to and documenting hairstyles was Ojeikere’s passion. Practicing his photography at the period of Nigeria’s independence from the British colonialists, Ojeikere was concerned that modernization and Western culture would totally erode Nigerian traditions and culture including hairstyles. It was in order to preserve the dying culture that he traveled across Nigeria, attending birthdays, weddings and other ceremonies to capture the unique hairstyles. The result of his life’s work can be found in galleries, museums and private collections across the globe.

The new collection of paintings by Victor Ekpuk points to his devotion to expanding his aesthetic oeuvres and further exploration of Nsibidi as a visual language. Ekpuk’s new paintings confirm his devotion to gender issues with a focus on hairstyles, body markings, and tattoos as an integral part of self-expression among women not only in the southeastern Nigeria but also Diaspora.

Victor Ekpuk, Asian Uboikpa (Hip Sista) Series #.4, 2015, acrylic on canvas 60′ x 40′. Image courtesy of Morton Fine Art

Asian Uboikpa (Hip Sistas) in Flux: The Visual-Lingual Braid at the Morton Fine Art, 1781 Florida Ave. NW Washington DC 20009

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