Wilfred Ukpong: BC1: Covenants & 16 Prayers for Our Future World (Part One)
Nigerian-born multidisciplinary artist, filmmaker and social practice researcher, Wilfred Ukpong lives and works between Oxford, Paris, Johannesburg and Port Harcourt. He earned his MFA with distinction from Ecole Supérieure d’Art Lorient, France, before embarking on Ph.D. practice-led research at the Social Sculpture Research Unit of Oxford Brookes University, which is currently led by Professor Shelley Sacks, a South African UK based artist and activist.
Ukpong’s expanded art practice encompasses sculpture, painting, installation, performance, photography, architecture, film, music/sound composition and community interventions that engender social and cultural activism, economic development, and environmental consciousness in rural and urban contexts. In 2010, he took a seven-year hiatus from exhibiting to concentrate on academic research, as well as develop his current ten-part socially engaged international art and film project, entitled ‘Blazing Century’. In this interview with Omenka, he discusses this project, as well as his forthcoming exhibition, BC1: Covenants & 16 Prayers for Our Future World.
You studied engineering while at university but made a decision to switch to art. What prompted this change and when did you first decide to become an artist?
Probably in my early teens. I have always had a deep artistic inclination that spans through various art media. Growing up in the 80s, I was a big fan of the American hip-hop scene; the visual graffiti was significantly an integral part of the movement, and thus a fascinating impulsion for me. My father, albeit, a manager at the time at ExxonMobil, had an interest in photography and video as leisure pursuits and was quite keen for his children to learn music in their free time. The presence of a keyboard, a synthesizer, photograph and video cameras at home was creatively stimulating. Fortunately, Victor Ekpuk, my cousin and a renowned Nigerian visual artist now based in Washington DC, also played a significant role in my budding career. Then an art student in Ife, Ekpuk would spend holidays with us, proudly displaying his impressive mastery of drawing and painting. So at home, there was always an air of exciting materials and resources that offered a fresh creative environment for me to develop.
Nevertheless, my father was engrossed in his three sons becoming engineers, and ultimately his dream came partly true as two of my brothers who studied chemical engineering went on to work for ExxonMobil and Shell. I was a pure science student and eventually gained admission to the university to study mechanical engineering. A series of strange encounters completely changed the course of my career. I travelled to Lagos to visit Ekpuk, and during my stay in his flat/studio, I came across an art history book Flash of the Spirit by a Yale professor Robert Farris Thompson. This landmark book on African and Black Atlantic aesthetics and philosophy became my best-read companion, indeed, the holy grill if you will that propelled me to desert my engineering studies and tread the highly spirited frenzied artistic path. My parents and Ekpuk were furious, but finally, he advised me to consider a course in fine arts. After approaching a senior lecturer who was Ekpuk’s friend at the fine art department in the Obafemi Awolowo University Ife, I was encouraged to explore the possibility of studying art abroad because he feared that the rare artistic vibrancy which he discerned in me, might be in jeopardy. Perhaps he uttered this partly because he was wary of the Nigerian educational system, himself relocating to the United States, and partly because he felt I needed a more liberal creative academic environment to grow.
Confused and wondering how best to proceed after my parents dismissed the idea of studying art abroad, my foray into African art, philosophy, as well as contemporary art through personal research and practice, became a fixation over the following years. I was partly self-taught with the support of two private tutors while living in Ife. During an invitation to an art lecture at the United States Information Service (USIS) in Lagos, I was introduced to an American Ph.D. student at Yale, David Doris, who was conducting a one-year research programme in Nigeria. Doris and I immediately bonded when I realised he was Thompson’s student and sort of protégé. He admitted that just before his trip to Nigeria he had read an essay I wrote on Nsibidi emblems, which he thought was insightful and brilliant. Coincidentally we were both heading to Ife the next day. We became the closest of friends, and he saw my forté and encouraged me to develop a unique style through experimenting with my influence in African and contemporary art, as well as the Fluxus movement, which I had an idée fixe at the time. He also recommended building a portfolio of works to present to art galleries in Lagos. With a share of good fortune and merit, Quintessence accepted my dossier immediately and hosted my debut exhibition titled Emblems of Prowess on the Lagos art scene. Doris contributed the introductory essay in the catalogue, and fortunately, the exhibition met with great success and was critical acclaim. From that point on, roughly eighteen years ago, I felt the validity of being designated, an artist.
Please elaborate on your relationship with site installations, performance art and photography, as well as the roles they play in your process.
Due to my extensive background in the visual arts and culture, my work tends to foreground a multi-dimensional universe, which embodies the expanded conceptions of art where the site of the encounter exhibits fundamental interrelationships between sculpture, site installation, photography, the moving image, and sound. Together, they are sets of discrete, yet interrelated forms developed during performances and filming. Some objects and props used in these performances and the film’s mise-en-scène, end up as relics of those events now expressed in an open space. The relationship between the secondary materials and the original events or between secondary events and original materials becomes complementary, while the moving image or the photographic documentation of these events envelope the whole structure of the work. This process reflects on my background and interest in transdisciplinary and cross-cultural interactions.
Given that your style continues to evolve, how are you able to develop new concepts and remain relevant within your industry?
Evidently, my artistic preferences and aesthetic sensibility have evolved over the years from my early romance with Nsibidi-inspired sculpted paintings to my recent transdisciplinary practice. They tend to encounter a wide range of contextual materials, concepts and approaches. My works have been influenced by living and working out of Oxford, Groningen, Paris, Johannesburg, and the Niger-Delta. My intellectual grounding and interdisciplinary experiments have also opened new working possibilities. These encounters have aligned my work with the defining cultural tendencies and global issues within the Zeitgeist of our time. I believe what makes my practice relevant and significant is that it continuously gravitates towards locating a broader cultural context and issues.
“My practice over the past seven years dealt with the idea of reimagining and reconceptualising an alternative contemporary form of artistic practice between traditional, individual, studio-based practice and extended, connective, social practice prevalent in the West and other parts of the world”. Can you offer deeper insight into this statement, as well as your underlying philosophy?
We are very much aware of the fact that African contemporary art practice over the past fifty years has focused mainly on studio-based fine art. This practice is in part due to the way socio-economic conditions have forced artists into working in isolation, as well as a focus on the formal aesthetic principles that govern art production, perception, and distribution or sales if you will, during exhibitions, art fairs and auctions. Predominant artistic forms in Africa have been highly dependent upon the perpetuation of existing economic conditions and social relations between the affluent, elitist class where art is often fetishized as “commodity objects” within existing conventional and emerging capitalist structures in urban African cities.
However, while art is made to communicate an idea or appear as “art for art’s sake,” some artists on the continent have used their art forms as a medium of social commentary. They position their expressions as a form of political criticism or social statements in figurative or literal forms. Most contemporary art on the continent lack socially engaged art practices with forms of participation and social inclusion, which are now deeply rooted in art practices in Western countries and other continents. These forms focus on social engagement through collaboration, participation and community interventions within existing social systems. In this context, art is a critical agent to facilitate social exchange and transformation. Since the past seven years, and as part of my practice-led doctoral research project, I have been interested in developing a conceptual framework tending to offer an implicit critique that relates to questions about the difference between the worlds of contemporary studio-based art and socially engaged art practice. It does this by formulating a series of context-specific, interdisciplinary, cross-cultural methodologies and approaches through the creation of “mediating objects.
These objects, which vary from sites, installations, performance, sculpted actors, sculptures, props, images and even events such as creative workshops are conceived as viable agencies and instrumentalised forms that develop between the margins of the art’s autonomy and the pressured global imperative of ethical-social responsibility. For me, this new location of art practice catalyses the unfolding complexity of the ongoing evolution of my work in the Niger-Delta, and in response to the underlying ecological, socio-cultural, political and economic demands of our time. I employ my work as a platform for the practical environmental cleanup process, youth empowerment through creative workshops, as well as to support otherwise unattainable educational needs of talented youths. I have also been committed to financing participants’ micro-business start-ups in their community. These initiatives are supported and funded through the proceeds generated from my work through commissions and sales. Beyond the realm of object making, I believe art can be used as a tool for transformation and change. And crucially indeed, these are the days of many artistic commitments for change.
Your recent monumental project ‘Blazing Century-1′ is a series of disruptive interlinked site installations and performance art developed over a period of seven years. What inspired this body of work?
During the final year of my MFA programme in Ecole Supérieure d’Arts Lorient France, I was exploring performance, installation and video art through works of artists such as Marina Abramovic, Chris Burden, Matthew Barney and most importantly Joseph Beuys whose activist role and concept of social sculpture were quite engaging. His work plays a transformative role in building the human capital and shaping of a democratic sustainable and viable future.
At that time, echoes of devastation from my homeland (Niger-Delta) were profoundly unsettling and troubling. In a time where an artist’s obligation and identity became continuously redefined and tested by social conditions and challenges in his or her society, it became imperative for me to explore ways of working in the Niger-Delta. I was conceptualising a project that can mediate the frameworks of social practice and contemporary art, and how such a model could be utilised in the transformation process of the region. I became preoccupied with grant applications while developing the concept that can straddle the realms of aesthetic volition and a sense of ethical-social responsibility.
An opportunity came in 2010 when I was awarded a special grant from the Prince Claus Fund in Amsterdam to develop a collaborative socially engaged art project in the region. The work ‘Blazing Century 1: Drill’ (BC1: Drill) was initiated as a series of creative workshops that would culminate into disruptive interlinked site installations and ephemeral performance actions in important oil producing and fishing locations. The project was successful with the participation of one hundred local youths. At the end of the six-month project, I felt an intense guilt to return to Europe. Indeed, I was genuinely uncertain about the afterlife of this project amidst a series of unfolding sad events that took place in connection to some of the youths who participated in the project, so ending my work in the region at that time felt deeply apprehensive.
However, it became evident to me that the Niger-Delta would become an engrossing critical site for a long academic research and a place where a significant body of work can evolve within the frameworks of contemporary social practice. I was interested in developing initiatives that will bring issues of these marginalised and devastated communities to a global spotlight while exploring alternative ways in which creative possibilities and empowerment structures can be developed and sustained within the region. So in a broader sense, I would say that my first project ‘BC1: Drill’ in collaboration with the Prince Claus Fund, and the existing socio-environmental conditions in the embattled region, were the impetus that paved a seminal ground for this seven year-project to evolve.
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