38.9072° N, 77.0369° W

'I call DC the capital of the world, because you will find almost everybody here.’

Gems in this

Photo>>>Victor Ekpuk


Explore Playbook

Feature by Marley Ng

Since moving from Nigeria’s Akwa Ibom State 20 years ago, artist Victor Ekpuk has flourished in the US capital of DC, drawing inspiration from the city’s dynamic culture.

Victor’s artistry came about before he could read and write, and he quickly connected with African aesthetics as a form of creative expression. He has become known for the cross-cultural ability of his works, which explore complex themes of memory, identity, history and anthropology, and have taken him to the Netherlands, UAE, Switzerland, Cuba, and around the US. In his Washington DC Travel Playbook, Victor shares his favorite places to experience the diversity of DC, delving past the political backdrop to showcase the city’s vibrant creative scene.


On a window or aisle seat

I prefer window. Most of the local flights take a path that goes over the monuments and historical landmarks — it’s beautiful to see the city and the layout from that vantage point. Also, when I'm traveling overseas, I like to experience the color of dawn. It's so beautiful: the blue merges into purple, and then the warm yellow of the sun starts to come out. 

On your Nigerian background

I grew up in southeastern Nigeria, in Akwa Ibom State. I’m ethnically Ibibio. Geographically, sometimes they call us the Niger Delta; we are the oil-rich Niger Delta people. I'm not rich from oil, but that's OK.

On being born an artist

I have always been able to express what I'm seeing around me very faithfully, even before I could read and write. When I was in primary school, I was the school artist. They would bring me from the lower class to draw diagrams in sixth grade, because the teacher couldn't do it. I started to mature as an artist in college, where my focus was brought to African aesthetics and how I could use those to express myself. That's why I came up with this style of work: using indigenous African writing systems.

‘I see memory as an ephemeral condition that continues to be affected by circumstances. Eventually we will all disperse, and something else will occupy the space that we've been in.’

On exploring memory

When I want to touch on a subject that really interests me, I like to work in a series. My last solo exhibition in New York was called I Am My Ancestor’s Essence. I was looking at how we're always re-referencing who we've always been, even in our contemporary selves. Even in fashion, you keep seeing things repeated over and over again. So I was exploring that and looking at memory as that which informs our identities.

On a memorable project in Cuba

My experience at the Havana Biennale in Cuba was one of the most memorable — not just in terms of the work that I did, but in terms of the response that I got. That project went back to my idea of being interested in memory. I called it Meditations and Memory. I also like to delve into anthropology, and wanted to connect with the people that were taken into slavery in Cuba, who were directly from my place. We share the same ancestry. I was looking at how they've been able to retain memory — to this day, I can hear my language when they sing their songs. So I wanted to engage and honor them. I wanted to connect with my ancestors in Cuba and show that we're still here, and the retention of that memory still continues. Their response of recognizing that connection was what I took out of the show. They could immediately connect to it, without me having to explain anything.

First row of Victor Ekpuk in Eket, Nigeria. Second and third rows of Victor’s artworks. All images courtesy of Victor Ekpuk.

On impermanence — in life and art

The work is made with chalk, because I see memory as an ephemeral condition that continues to be affected by circumstances. For the work to be finished, it has to be wiped, because I'm also touching on the fact that as much as we’d love to live forever, we don't. Eventually we will all disperse, and something else will occupy the space that we've been in. That's where we come in: having retentions of this genetic memory that we carry and pass on to another generation. We keep remembering who we've been, even though it's been affected, but not totally wiped out.

On finding home in Washington DC

I've lived here for almost 20 years — I basically followed my wife's job here. As somebody who is interested in history and world cultures, and as an artist, DC provides me with all sorts of resources that help me create and give me ideas. I've really established roots here. I've loved living here for all these years.

On looking past the politics

Politics seems to overcloud the real substance that is in DC: the culture and the people. There's a strong creative community. Also, there is really a strong academic scene going on here that most people don't talk about. DC has up to maybe eight universities within a short distance of each other, so there's a very youthful energy in the city. When they hear DC, most people think of politics and old men — it's much more diverse and dynamic than that.

Last row by Mabeye Deme. All other images courtesy of Victor Ekpuk.

On being polite to strangers

People here say hello, or at least smile, even to strangers. If somebody catches your eye and smiles, don't think it’s weird — that's how we treat others here. Another thing I would say is, to the Black men who are coming from elsewhere, when you catch the eye of another brother, acknowledge them with a nod. It's a Black code thing: it’s like, ‘I see you,’ and then you just move on. It's really an American thing, especially in DC where you have a large population of Africans and African-Americans.

On getting out of the city

When I feel like getting out, I drive up to Wilson Bridge. There’s a lovely park, and the bridge is about three miles long, so I could bike or walk. The pathway actually takes me to Maryland, to the National Harbor. It’s very beautiful and pedestrian-friendly. As I'm walking along the bridge, there are post signs that tell me about the history of the place, so it is beautifully designed. And you're greeting other people on the walk as well. It's lovely.

‘Union Market is a mix of so many different cultures. This is really one of the beauties of DC.’

On the city’s creative underbelly

The city has a rotating public art program, where every two years an artist comes in and installs a piece at the Torpedo Factory — a factory that was historically used to manufacture torpedoes during the Civil War, which has now been turned into an art space. So there's always something to look forward to, and it creates a beautiful cultural atmosphere. My studio is in a historical building called the Eckington School. It was built in the 1800s by Jesuit priests, so the building is one of DC’s historical monuments. It's a living workspace for artists, and there are huge windows overlooking an old neighborhood in DC.

On experiencing the multiculturalism of DC

Union Market is a mix of many different cultures, where you can go grocery shopping for things you can’t find in regular supermarkets. Before it started getting gentrified, you could buy food from Korea, Japan, China, Africa. Now it's sort of mixed-use — they're building condos, but they still have nice restaurants that still retain that multicultural vibe. I like to take my friends there and have a pupusa or something from Latin America, or have a coffee from somewhere else. This is really one of the beauties of DC.

First row left of Victor in front of the Torpedo Factory Art Center; right in his home, courtesy of Victor Ekpuk. Second row of Union Market courtesy of Union Market. Third row of Victor’s mural in the Banneker Hotel courtesy of Victor Ekpuk. Fourth row of Wild Days bar at Eaton DC by Adrian Gaud.

On the best hotel rooftops

I have my work in the lobby of the Banneker Hotel, a beautiful boutique hotel. The rooftop has a bar that gives you a vista of the city and the monuments, so it is a lovely place to hang out. Then there's another hotel called the Eaton Hotel. In the winter months, they have a firepit on the rooftop bar, so you're just sitting around with your friends, with people you're just meeting, and having a conversation.

On DC in one word


I call it the capital of the world, because you will find almost everybody here; everybody's represented. This is where you have embassies of all the nations of the world, so you can find bits of those cultures in different places. DC is very cosmopolitan, multinational.


Related stories & places