When she contacted artist Victor Ekpuk in 2015 about creating a “site-specific” chalk drawing for the North Carolina Museum of Art, African art gallery curator Elizabeth Perrill didn’t know what the finished product would look like. Neither did Ekpuk, until he arrived at the museum earlier this month.
He entered a gallery still in progress as the museum has spent the past six months readying a larger space for its African art collection. The Nigerian-born Ekpuk’s chalk drawing on a 30-by-18-foot section of wall will be a temporary centerpiece for the gallery, which opens to the public on June 30.
Before he started the drawing, which incorporates Nigerian ideograms, or symbols representing ideas, Ekpuk examined the items that will surround his piece: a terra cotta figure formed circa 600, a beaded mask from the Ha people of Tanzania, contemporary photos of life on the continent.
“For me, this whole atmosphere creates a sense of divinity,” said Ekpuk, who now lives in the District of Columbia. “Some of these objects are very old. Some of them are sacred objects of very strong social and religious context.”
In his drawing, titled “Divinity,” a large figure appears to be holding the symbols, which take up most of the wall.
“This work is a way for people to stop and realize that we’re all embraced by this divinity,” Ekpuk said. “Right now, we live in a very tense moment in this country, and it seems people are forgetting our common humanity.”
The museum’s Facebook Live video of Ekpuk working on “Divinity” received almost 2,000 views, said museum spokeswoman Karlie Marlowe.
“He’s bringing [the gallery] literally up to now and bringing in the idea of memory and of the African diaspora that comes right here to North Carolina,” said Perrill, the gallery’s curator, who also teaches art history at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.
“We have this breadth of geography and breadth of history that’s really exciting,” Perrill said. “You could fit the continental United States three times inside of Africa.”
More hands-on opportunities
The old African gallery closed in December. NCMA moved the collection from its West Building, where an average of 65 pieces could be on display, to a gallery in its East Building three times that size. Visitors will see about 125 pieces in the new 6,500-square-foot gallery. The museum will display more contemporary and modern art in the African gallery’s old space.
The East Building has fewer windows than the African art gallery’s previous home. This allows museum staff to control the amount of light on sensitive textile pieces, like a red, black and tan “man’s prestige hat” from Cameroon. The piece had been in storage since 2002.
“Everybody is familiar to a certain point with African art and are interested in tribal objects like textiles and beadwork,” said museum director Lawrence Wheeler. “But I think what they will get out of it (the expanded collection) will be the great diversity of creativity of African cultures and the mastery of technique.”
A $500,000 endowment from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust made the gallery’s move possible, Wheeler said.
“This grant allowed us to do extensive audience research that we’ve never been able to do to find out why do people come to the museum and how they like to experience art,” said Michelle Harrell, the museum’s director of teaching and learning.
Research showed visitors enjoyed hands-on activities, so when the African art gallery opens, visitors of all ages can create art of their own at an interactive station. They’ll learn about Kuba cloths, geometrically patterned textiles from central Africa, and make their own renditions with yarn and plastic embroidery looms.
The gallery has a wall dedicated to items on loan from North Carolina collections. Pieces from Greensboro’s Bennett College, a historically black women’s school, will be on view for about a year.
The museum’s conservation team spent the six months that most of the African pieces were off view cleaning and repairing them. Conservation assistant Stacey Kirby recreated raffia costumes to display beneath some of the masks in the center of the gallery.
“We decided to do that to give the pieces a bit of a context,” she said. “The raffia is often connected to these pieces. ... But over the years of them being sold, it doesn’t last.”
Museum staff members are noticing many pieces in the new gallery for the first time, even though the pieces have been in the collection for years, Perrill said.
“[They] have come up to me and said, ‘I didn’t know that was in the collection!’ ” she said. “The most gratifying thing is being able to see individual objects get the attention they deserve.”
Ekpuk’s chalk drawing will only get attention for a year – he stipulated that it must be erased in June 2018. Erasing the “ephemeral drawings,” as he calls them, is their completion.
“We’re not one thing all of the time, no matter what we do or claim to be,” Ekpuk said. “I may have completed one aspect of (the drawing), but it is not done until it is erased.”
Evie Fordham: @eviefordham 919-829-4654
N.C. Museum of Art
Where: 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday. Closed Mondays.
Admission: There is no charge to visit the museum’s permanent collection in the East Building, where the African Art gallery is located. Admisson is charged for some special exhibitions and workshops.
Info: 919-839-6262 or ncartmuseum.org
▪ There will be a panel discussion on Contemporary Diaspora Art at 7 p.m. on July 20 with Nigerian artist Victor Ekpuk and other artists of African descent, moderated by Richard J. Powell, the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke. Tickets are free, but required.
▪ While the new African art gallery opens on Friday, June 30, the museum has scheduled a large opening celebration for Sept. 23. “Threads of Africa: A Celebration of Art, Nature, and People” will be a daylong celebration with music and dance performances, drum-making workshops, collaborative community art activities, food and African cultural activities and a free concert by West African artist Angélique Kidjo in the museum park that evening. Kidjo’s concert is free, but tickets are required; they’ll be available Aug. 1.
▪ “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair” which runs Oct. 28 to Jan. 21.