Symbol and Surface

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Article Published: Apr. 4, 2013 | Modified: Apr. 7, 2013
Symbol and Surface

A procession of members of the Ekpe secret society marches with a masquerader at a burial ceremony in Arochukwu, Nigeria in 1988. Members of the society are wearing an indigo-dyed ukara cloth.
Photo courtesy of Eli Bentor



Catherine J. Smith Gallery at Appalachian State University and the Department of Art present the African Art Symposium: Symbol and Surface.

This one-day symposium is held in conjunction with the opening of dual exhibits at the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts (TCVA) in downtown Boone. The event will take place on Saturday, April 6, from 1 to 5:30 p.m. in the TCVA Lecture Hall. The event is free and open to the public.

The symposium will feature four speakers who will expand on the themes of the exhibits.

One exhibition features the work of the contemporary Nigerian artist Victor Ekpuk; the second explores an indigo-dyed cloth, ukara, which is used by members of a secret society, called Ekpe, in the Cross River area of Southeastern Nigeria. Ukara cloth and the works of Ekpuk often include symbols, called nsibidi. Use of nsibidi is thus the link between the two shows.

The symposium is presented as part of the scholarly research of Dr. Eli Bentor, professor of African art history at ASU, and is sponsored and organized by the Catherine J. Smith Gallery and the Department of Art with support from the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts.



Program & Speakers

1 p.m. – Jordan A. Fenton, “Beyond the Ukara Threshold: Approaching the Ekpe/Mgbe Nsibidi Matrix”

Jordan A. Fenton is an assistant professor of art history at Kendall College of Art and Design at Ferris State University in Grand Rapids, Mich. He earned a doctorate in art history from the University of Florida in 2012. Fenton’s 15 months of fieldwork and research investigation into masquerade culture and nsibidi in Calabar, Nigeria, was funded by the Fulbright-Hays DDRA program, two Foreign Language Area Studies grants and the Smithsonian Institution. He is currently working towards his first book, tentatively titled “Performing City: Masquerade, Space, and Power in Calabar, Nigeria.”


2 p.m. – Dr. Eli Bentor, “History of Ukara”

Dr. Eli Bentor is a professor of art history at Appalachian State University. He received his MA and Ph.D. in African art history from Indiana University. Bentor’s research of masquerade festivals in Southeastern Nigeria focuses on the way that history is reflected and negotiated at the Aro Ikeji festival. He has been published on various aspects of Nigerian art history in African Art, The Journal of Religion in Africa and elsewhere. In 2008–09, he was a Senior Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution and received the Cristián Samper Outstanding Fellow Award from the Smithsonian Institution.


3 to 3:30 p.m. – Intermission with refreshments, Mayer Gallery


3:30 p.m. – Victor Ekpuk, “Drawing Memories”

Victor Ekpuk is an established Nigerian artist based in Washington, D.C., whose art responds to his cultural background, the realities of his homeland and his experiences as a global artist. Ekpuk’s art emerges from an exploration of nsibidi “traditional” graphics and writing systems in Nigeria and evolves to embrace a wider spectrum of meaning, rooted in African and global contemporary art discourses. Guided by the aesthetic philosophy of nsibidi, where sign systems are used to convey ideas, Ekpuk reimagines graphic symbols from diverse cultures to form a personal style of mark-making that results in the interplay of art and writing.


4:30 p.m. – Dr. Elizabeth Perrill: “The Manipulation of Memory: Selling ‘Traditional’ Zulu Symbolism”

Dr. Elizabeth Perrill has held numerous prestigious awards in support of her research on Zulu ceramics in South Africa, including a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship, a Social Science Research Council Fellowship and an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship. Her recent book, “Zulu Pottery,” was launched at the Cape Town Book Fair in 2012. She is currently working on a manuscript for a second book, entitled “Zulu Surface and Form: The Aesthetics of a South African Ceramic Economy.” In 2008, she both received her Ph.D. in African Art History at Indiana University and joined the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro as an assistant professor.


The Catherine J. Smith Gallery is closed for renovations through August 2013. Exhibitions and programs take place this year at the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts and on the ASU campus, unless otherwise noted. Admission is free for all events and programs. The gallery office is temporarily located in Wey Hall, room 210A, on campus. For more information, call (828) 262-7338, or visit http://www.art.appstate.edu/cjs.

The Turchin Center for the Visual Arts is located at 423 W. King St. in downtown Boone. For more information, call (828) 262-3017, or visit http://www.tcva.org.

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