The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has acquired a painting by Nigerian painter, Victor Ekpuk.
The painting entitled ‘Union of Saint and Venus’ is part of an ongoing body of work, ‘Slave Narratives’ that explores the history of the trans-Atlantic and Trans-Saharan slave trades.
Ekpuk’s interest and subsequent research into race and slavery were sparked by the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas that he first encountered as an artist-in-residence at the Thami Mnyele Foundation in Amsterdam.
Sinterklaas is a legendary figure based on Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children and his black helper, Zwarte Piet or Black Pete.
Ekpuk disclosed that, “The annual celebration of the casual subjugation of a symbolic black person in perpetual slavery to the Archbishop instigated my research” and consequently, the “Slave Narratives” series which he stared in 2007.
In 2013, the Walthers Museum put together a ground-breaking exhibition, “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe”, which explored the wealth of European art to reveal the hidden presence of Africans and their descendants in Renaissance society and the many roles they played.
As portrayed in the drawings, paintings, sculptures, and printed books of the period, the portraits at the core of the show provided a window into the profound impact of colour, race, class and stereotypes brought to Europe by this diversity.
‘Union of Saint and Venus’ is a response to a portrait of Alessandro de Medici, aka il Moro (“the Moor”), Duke of Florence, one of the subjects on exhibition. Reported to have been born out of a union between Pope Clement VII and an African slave woman, Simonetta da Collevecchio, Alessandro’s nickname was a consequence of his dark complexion.
Ekpuk describes the painting as a metaphor for the unsettling, complex interaction between Europeans and Africans, especially concerning Christianity.
These interactions have often involved violence, exploitation, and rape of black bodies. The narratives are conveyed in layered symbols; the Pope’s golden crozier (phallic staff), violating the body of Sarah Baartman, so-called (Hottentot Venus); the richly decorated Pope’s Miter, embedded with precious stones extracted from conquered lands and people; blood-stained slave sale posters; and the text from Dum Diversas – the Papal bull by Pope Nicholas V issued on 18 June 1454, authorising Alfonso V of Portugal to reduce any “Saracens (Muslims) and pagans and any other unbelievers” to perpetual slavery.
In 2018, Ekpuk was awarded a Smithsonian Research Fellowship to enable his research in the archives of The Museum of African Art and Museum of African America History and Culture.
As a Smithsonian Institution fellow, Ekpuk is no stranger to the establishment. He has his works in the collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art as well as the Smithsonian National Museum of African American Culture & History. His works also feature in the collections of Brooks Museum, The World Bank, Newark Museum, Hood Museum, Krannert Art Museum, United States Art in Embassies Art Collection, amongst others.
In December 2019, Bahrain ABC unveiled his sculpture, ‘The Face’ as a tribute to Bahrain’s rich heritage, multi-cultural fabric, and hospitable business environment.
The sculpture made of painted stainless steel is a visual centrepiece on the façade of the bank’s recently renovated twin-tower headquarters building in the kingdom.
At last year’s Lagos Book and Art Festival, the book ‘Victor Ekpuk: Connecting Lines Across Space and Time’ edited and produced by the eminent historian, Professor Toyin Falola was unveiled at Freedom Park, Lagos.
His works have featured in several international and national exhibitions.