Hailing from the territory known as Southern Cameroons (next to Cameroon), London-based artist Adjani Okpu-Egbe (born 1979) works in a childlike style to explore heavy local and global issues. Fish float above human heads, mouths are sometimes beaks. The background is frequently a striking blue or red. Money is suspended in air. The African identity is present throughout in a playful, deeply autobiographical manner. The colour black is assertive, also celebratory.
The semi-abstract, semi-figurative Afro-surreal expressions provide social commentary, with the aim of resisting injustice, demanding accountability, documenting events and generating awareness. A valuable perspective that is barely mentioned in mainstream media is presented to the viewer.
Okpu-Egbe often paints on found, salvaged materials such as reclaimed doors and bubble wraps. It is as though by transforming discarded stuff he is indicating the nature of his subject matter—that, so many times, happens to be people or phenomena on the verge of disappearance, keen on being recognised or in need of rescue.
Some works examine political movements and figures in Okpu-Egbe’s self-declared yet internationally unofficial state in west-central Africa—also called Ambazonia. For example, the portrait of Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe (born 1965), anglophone separatist leader and the first “de facto” president of the Federal Republic of Ambazonia. The self-proclaimed head and nine of his followers, the Guardian reported last year, were convicted of charges including terrorism and secession. Next, “Takumbeng”—a female social movement in the Northwest Region of Cameroon (north of Ambazonia)—is another topic for the painter. The group is comprised of matriarchs protesting harmful traditional practices against women; they are considered “a dreaded name to oppressors of the voiceless”.
Included also are prominent personalities from the past, from within Africa and the diaspora—like South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko (1946-1977) and American abolitionist Harriet Tubman (1822-1912).
Biko was at the forefront of the grassroots Black Consciousness Movement in the 1960s and 1970s; it attacked traditional white values, particularly the “condescension” of white liberal opinion and rejected the white monopoly on truth. The slogan was a direct and powerful “Black man, you are on your own”. Biko’s writings also popularised the “Black is beautiful” concept, which had its roots in the Négritude intellectual framework of the 1930s. Biko died of injuries resulting from interrogation conducted by the security police.
Harriet Tubman, on the other hand, was born into slavery in Maryland, and whipped and beaten by multiple masters. She later used the Underground Railroad—a network of secret routes and safe houses—to save several enslaved individuals. She also campaigned for women’s suffrage.
Broad African themes are important—African History, Pan-Africanism, Afrocentricity—in Okpu-Egbe’s work but they are transcended to incorporate more general matters like archaeology, feminism, hate and the patriarchy. He connects the Ambazonian struggle for independence to the global social justice movement, bringing into focus similar events in West Papua, West Sahara, the Central African Republic, moreover, taking up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, civil war in Syria and the genocide carried out on the Rohingyas in Myanmar by the regime.
The artworks do not only intend to only highlight “struggles”, they go further to act as a call to rally support and resistance, and above all, solidarity with those who bear the brunt of most violence—notably women, children, the less-abled, the elderly and Prisoners of Conscience. In the case of the Syrian Civil War, for instance, it is the younger ones who are shown in a helpless state, bruised and bloodied, manhandled by a masked older person.
Okpu-Egbe further intends to explore notions of White Supremacy, torture, solitary confinement in prisons, as well as police brutality, with specific reference to circumstances surrounding the death of lesser publicised cases, like that of Gugsa Abraham. Other areas of interest are Francafrique, neo-colonialism, advocacy initiatives like ‘Black Lives Matter’.
Okpu-Egbe’s noteworthy exhibitions are Surpassing the Eternally Mysterious Afro-surreal held at Sulger-Buel Gallery in London in 2019, Regarding Africa: Contemporary Art and Afro-Futurism curated by Ruti Direktor at Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel in 2016 and The Underdog, a solo presentation at the 2014 edition of the 1-54 African Art Fair in Somerset House, London. In 2012, Okpu-Egbe was amongst the artists commissioned nationwide by BBC to interpret the Queens Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the River Thames, making him the first African artist to officially partake in such an event.
Okpu-Egbe’s earlier paintings contain some mathematical scribble, referring to the exercises he was forced to do as a child. It is a repetitive sign of his relationship with his father who wanted him to abandon his dream of pursuing a career in professional football to instead become an economist or a businessman, and, was subsequently used to identify any imposing or repressive authority. Over time, as Okpu-Egbe’s practice and emotional intelligence evolved naturally, the subconscious automatic scrawl disappeared.