Steve Ekpenisi: Excerpts from the Iron Bender’s Diary
Embracing metal and discarded objects as his primary media, Steve Ekpenisi is one of the most exciting sculptors working in Nigeria today. Born in 1978, Ekpenisi’s journey began when he was five, creating art from household items much to his parent’s disapproval. Despite the absence of an external artistic influence, he was resourceful and determined. These early successes inspired him to study at Federal Polytechnic Auchi where he earned a National Diploma in painting and general arts (2003) and completed a Higher National Diploma in sculpture (2008). Steve Ekpenisi recently held his first solo exhibition Diary of the Iron Bender, at Lagos-based Signature Beyond Art Gallery. Adapting the title of the exhibition, this interview provides not only insight into Steve Ekpenisi’s underlying philosophy, working techniques and process, but also an account of an artist’s struggles as the coronavirus pandemic wears on.
On the evening of March 14, Diary of the Iron Bender opened to a warm reception from the Lagos art community. Aptly titled, it implies a memoir of Ekpenisi’s process; the rigorous routine of sourcing material, conflating events and scenes, as well as rolling, hammering, twisting, soldering and welding metal— methods that at once define his practice and allude to Africa’s age-old traditions of art and craft-making.
The exhibition featured 15 works, mostly sculpted in metal, with the few others subtly incorporating such found material as automobile parts and household paraphernalia. Steve Ekpenisi speaks on his sourcing and selecting, “Selection of materials actually depends on what my subject is or will be. There are markets that deal solely on what people refer to as waste but to me it means wealth. The dominant materials I employ are discarded metal sheets and rods of different sizes ranging from 8mm in thickness. I slice and cut these into smaller strands then weave them to make sculptures. Recently, I’ve introduced discarded plastics into my practice, which bring enthusiasm and enhance the environment where the sculpture will be placed.”
Strongly figurative, the works can be loosely classified into human and animal forms. Interestingly, the works are united by two distinct elements; first, an unconventional personal style that ignores the use of an armature—a framework around which the sculpture is formed—in favour of a methodical and slow process of fabrication, with smaller pieces sliced from a larger metal sheet, beaten into flat bars, which when intertwined, form a whole. Second is the clearly visible structure of networks and voids that embellish each individual work.
The majority of the sculptures are inspired by socio-economic realities, contemporary politics and indigenous traditions from which they draw their title. A fine example is Anun Nhu (Never eat a lone animal), represented by an animal called a kudu bull. Inspired by the cultural traditions of his native Abavo in Delta State, Nigeria, the work’s underlying philosophy emphasises the importance of sharing, peaceful co-existence and communal living. Ekpenisi is quick to assert that his art serves to inform and unite people, “I am using my art to enlighten and to bring to the notion of the world, the cultural heritage of my people, which has promoted peace, unity and love.”
Of particular interest are the figures vaguely reminiscent of the work of celebrated modernist, Ben Enwonwu MBE, as well as Olusola Kukoyi, the similarities arising posture and the exaggeration of several facets of the human anatomy. Significantly, the strength of his figures lies in the clever juxtaposing of their elegantly distorted proportions and stance, which imbue their fluid forms with rhythm and balance that defies the law of gravity. According to Ekpenisi “Two artists have inspired me greatly, Ben Enwonwu and Olusola Kukoyi. Posture is one of the things I learnt from them. They don’t just produce straight standing figures or designs; their figures look motional even though they are static. So in creating my sculptures, I always have the sense of contrapposto and dynamic movement in mind before execution. I differ from them in my concern for the environment and use of metal to produce sculptures characterised by voids.”
This sense of rhythm is amplified in the seeming incompleteness of each piece that tends to leave the viewer to form the finished image in his mind, ultimately lending to its power. This treatment is also common in his portrait heads and busts of not only humans but also animals—the latter expression typically uncommon amongst artists. The artist speaks about the voids in his sculptures “ Humanity is working towards perfection, that’s why there is always something missing in everything. Let us consider for instance automobile companies like Mercedes Benz. Their 2008 model does not have the same feature with the 2004 model of the same car. However, but both models function perfectly. The voids in my sculptures are a metaphor for the imperfection in humanity, which allows my audience to participate, interact and become part of the sculptures as they try to figure out what is happening in the void areas.”
Sadly, the exhibition did not run its full course, as the Lagos State Government announced a lockdown period on March 30, aimed at controlling the spread of the virus. Ekpenisi admits this action had its negative effect on sales of his works. “The outbreak of Coronavirus in Nigeria has been a big blow to every business in the country especially in Lagos being the epicentre. This actually affected my exhibition in terms of sales.”
However, by his assessment, his solo exhibition was hugely successful “To me, success is not centred only on financial gains. My solo exhibition was a great success. My audience is much larger than it used to be both nationally and internationally.”
Asked about the continuing impact of the pandemic on his practice, Ekpenisi responds “Before President Buhari announced the first two-week lockdown in Lagos and Ogun states, as well as the FCT, Lagos had been on a one-week partial lockdown. During this period, I was 80% unproductive because my studio is about 8.6 km away from home. I couldn’t go out to work let alone source for materials. However, as a versatile visual artist, I focused on drawing during the period.”
Recently, the Federal Nigerian Government announced plans to support the creative sector by mitigating the impact of the virus. With a well-heeled committee in place, constituted by the country’s Minister of Information and Culture Alhaji Lai Mohammed, gifted artists like Steve Ekpenisi can mark a new chapter in their trajectory by returning fully to work and contributing to a stable and prosperous post-COVID Nigeria.
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