In Fall 2017, Krannert Art Museum will open World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean, an exhibition of nearly 100 artworks assembled from collections in East Africa, Oman, Europe, and the United States. World on the Horizon will be the first major traveling exhibition dedicated to exploring the arts of the Swahili (east African) coast, and their historically deep, fluid, and enduring connections to eastern and central Africa and the port cities of the western Indian Ocean rim.
Drawing from both historical and contemporary periods, the exhibition will be thematically organized and feature objects recognized not only for their artistic excellence, but also for how they visualize these wide-reaching networks of trade and encounter. Throughout the region, performing and negotiating rights, powers, and identities was highly aestheticized—be it through the oral and literary arts, sartorial style, architectural and interior design and decoration, the embellishment of everyday and devotional objects, expressions of religious piety and expertise, or self-fashioning before the lens in photographic studios.
The exhibition will feature objects and images drawn from all of these contexts, some never before seen in the United States. Given the importance of literary arts in Swahili expressive culture, the exhibition will also include soundscapes of Islamic devotional recitation, secular poetry, and excerpts of popular musical genres. Also featured will be video-based works from several contemporary artists, all of whom draw on their own personal histories to explore the poetics and politics of place, memory, departures, and returns. World on the Horizon will prompt viewers to see beyond our conventional map of the world with its fixed boundaries between continents and nation states, and will encourage instead a view of mobility—of people, ideas, and things—that has long characterized life and art on the Swahili coast and beyond.
In the fresh and provocative work presented in MetaModern, leading and emerging artists refer literally and conceptually to design objects of the mid-twentieth century. These now historical objects have gained the status of icon, emblem, and cultural signifier. It is a testament to their enduring power that mid-century modernist designs now catalyze a generation of artists too young to have experienced modernism firsthand. These artists return to them in a spirit of critique and homage.
The MetaModern exhibition brings together works in a wide range of media by 19 international artists to explore the concept of modernism as a style. Removed from its pristine original context, the modernist aesthetic is examined through the lens of present-day cultural assumptions.
Nigerian-born artist Victor Ekpuk is best known for his improvisational use of nsibidi, an ancient form of ideographic writing associated with Ekpe, a transethnic men’s association active in the border regions of southeastern Nigeria and southwestern Cameroon. As a student of fine arts at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ife in the mid-1980s, Ekpuk worked in a pedagogical environment that urged students to explore the logics of pattern and design in indigenous African art forms. Ekpuk’s fascination with nsibidi during these years—its economy of line and encoded meanings—led to his broader explorations of drawing as writing and to the invention of his own fluid letterforms. As a mature artist, Ekpuk has so internalized the rhythm and contours of his “script” that it flows from his hand like the outpouring of a personal archive.
In recent years, Ekpuk’s approach to mark making has come to flourish through his investigations of scale, motion, and form. Auto-Graphics features selections from several of Ekpuk’s new bodies of work, including collage, digital prints, and his supersized drawings—bold, vibrant, yet restrained compositions in which nsibidi signs are magnified, cropped, and glided beyond the picture plane. Their dense grounds of micro-script and bristling opaque forms contrast with the more figural works on view. Like nsibidi, which communicates through both visual mark and physical gesture, Ekpuk’s immersive drawings seem to be choreographed with the full force of his body.
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Zanzibar Stamp with dhow
via Wikimedia Commons
Chairs (Eames LCW for Hermann Miller, reproduction), steel cables 24 x 58 x 20 inches
© Edgar Orlaineta
Composition No. 13
(Santa Fe Suite), 2013
50 x 30 inches
Graphite and pastel on paper
Collection of the artist
© Victor Ekpuk