Ernest Dükü, Painting in Symbols
Artist Ernest Dükü paints in symbols. Colours, textures, letters, and signs are intertwined in a complex cobweb of meaning and grounded in the cultural observations connected to symbols used by Egyptian, Ethiopian, Jewish, Christian and Islamic peoples. The result of this mixture is the unsaid words of our collective unconscious; its connection with the signifiants that we create with our culture and within a broader, universal context. Beginning his career as an architect and interior designer, Dükü's studies led him into the world of painting and plastic arts. Dükü expresses such questions as spirituality, animism, and philosophical musings on the Self and the Other combined with cultural observations through the study of symbols to essential create a new language through his fresco-esque sculpted paintings.
"Everything in the human world has consisted of symbols as long as mankind has existed. Yet it is said that Africa has no history, because it is not written down in text. But there is an African history that is recorded by means of symbols. That’s why I use numbers and symbols; it is a criticism of this attitude and a desire to show how the symbolic can be reverted to its former glory." Ernest Dükü via 1:54 Contemporary African Art
CM: Who are you?
I often say that I am part of the future of art because for me, art is created by the elements we at once look for within culture and what I call the fundamentals that permit us to compose what is at once a personal history and one of mankind. I begin what the question 'what is writing'? Why were there societies that were founded upon it, and others that never wrote? And from this question, I came to understand that there were societies that wrote, not with words, but with symbols, and when I searched for symbols from West Africa, I realised that these symbols were really a way with which to describe the world. Those who didn't have writing, used symbols as a reflection of themselves. We find them in architecture, in statues, and they have allowed me to go farther for these symbols created connections... when a symbol can be found in two geographically distant places, they become connected.
CM: Are these symbols inspired by spirituality and animism or by a more anthropological research of West African civilizations...
It is here that symbols allow us to connect all these different areas: anthropology, spirituality, animism, religion... Because we see clearly that different societies use symbols to express the ideal of the divine and as a result–which is also the centre of my work–how societies have given meaning to their symbols, and how they have evolved in time, and finally, I realised that symbols are like "Sens-Interdit' [Do Not Enter signs], I consider them symbols. You can clearly see how this symbol has been given a universal meaning and that wherever you go, this symbol is recognised by everyone. We are now facing the idea that a symbol is something of ancestral, primal, and which continues in a certain way to give us signs of what childhood is, what's happening after childhood, what is the reality of what we have learned and what we is innate. But also how it evolves over time with our teaching around the symbols, and how we read them and who allows us to, in the end, have a vision on the world.
CM: What is the name of this painting?
Before else I need to explain something about my work in the plastic arts, which is that I come up with the title of the piece before I start to work on it. And as a result this piece Is playing on a metaphor by being called Obi-wan@Picasso. Those puns that I associate with and call "suitcase words" end up giving a meaning to the content of the piece itself. I begin with words that become visual symbols in themselves. And at the same time I begin with the sonority of the words coming from many languages. It's a game of words. In the practice of symbols, I came to understand that the symbol is the vehicle of the idea, so as a result I created a language that allows me to make sense of all the different metaphors.
CM: And you use the same symbols in different paintings?
Yes. It's an alphabet that is slowly writing itself and becoming a language at the same time.
CM: What is culture?
The question is how is it fed? We give a child an education in the form of culture and he is raised with what the parents want to transmit and it is here that symbols become important, unless certain symbols which could become universal– and I engage with this a lot–the hopes for masculine and feminine... we see clearly that these things are given meaning elsewhere and I push on these symbols to say that we cannot simply be in a linear perspective, especially when speaking of symbols, when the symbol itself becomes multi-sense. And culture plays a big role in this, and can change the complexity of the meaning, but the symbol always remains.
CM: There is a timeless quality in your work like a fresco...
Precisely. Here we see drawings, but the work it is based in, just like a fresco, is based on observations that I was able make of ancient forms like Egyptian painting, and there are all these elements that come together to this result but originates from the very question of what is a fresco? A fresco tells history, it is storytelling. All these elements come together in the language of signs.
CM: What led you from working in architecture and interior architecture to creating fine art?
It is because of architecture that I made this transition. When I was in school I saw how I was searching in 'traditional' African architecture. I put that in quotations because what does traditional mean? It is at once the closeness of space, and also the fact in this particular architecture, there is a connection between the art work and the construction. I was attracted to making what I call painted sculpture, the study of forms and then into the world of symbols. Architecture is a language. When we said there was no writing, it was the signs upon the different edifices that told the stories.
CM: Who are the architects and artists that inspire you?
The Ivorian artist Christian Lattier. He went to the L'École des Beaux Arts in Paris and has done exhibitions with artists such as Picasso and Dalí, Lattier very quickly invented what he calls "sculptural art" and he is also an architect. He makes sculptures out of strings. I realized that the influence for me–and I say this with a lot of humility–is that I don't like the notion of the master, but rather the person who observes and he goes to the essential of what he is searching for. Lattier permits you to understand the complexities of creation through the place of observation of a given culture.
And Frank Gehry because we find sculpture in his work. We are no longer within the formality of architecture but exploring the potential of form.
This interview has been translated from its original French
Photo © Ernest Dükü courtesy of Somerset House
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