Boris Nzebo: on the conversation we’d never had

by Christine Eyene

Sekteur ArtWe picked up from where we left the week before in Douala, Cameroon. A last drink before setting off to the airport.
A final taste of Douala night life at Sekteur Art, the coolest Hip Hop bar in town. We talk Cameroonian Hip Hop, we talk Cameroonian art scene.
He tells me about the building of his new studio designed by Jules Wokam, one of the country’s leading designers whose work was part of the London showcase of Design Made in Africa, exactly ten years ago.
Art feeding architecture, feeding into design, and back. Just the kind of synergy we need in Cameroon.

He then reminds me of his next solo show at Jack Bell Gallery. I visualise the same large outlines of women’s heads and hairstyles structuring Douala’s urban landscape. Or is it the other way around? I stopped looking the day I realised I was no longer able to see beyond the picturesque. The aesthetic of it I got: the large format, the expressionist colours, the thick grid framing the urban. The message I understood. For, if we never lingered on his art, it is in his company that I first reconnected with Douala five years ago. A street-savvy urbanite, Boris is arguably one of the best ambassadors of Douala underground. And it is this marginal world that is depicted in his art.
For the first time we properly talk about his work. He tells me about his intention, I tell him what I read. I amicably challenge him on his assertion that his painting and more particularly the hairstyles “denounce certain facets of our society”. I push him to expand on this statement: which facets is he really talking about; which exact wrongs in our society; if these are global how is he addressing the local; if these are local how can he ascertain his socially-concerned message is reaching those at the root of society’s ills when his paintings are – good for him! – mainly bought by western collectors; in what way are his collectors relating to, or advocating for an awareness of, the said social issues?
As time runs off, we decide to continue this conversation in London…

We meet again at Jack Bell Gallery and resume on the meaning of the hair that Boris sees as a beauty attribute cared for when damaged. He uses hairstyles as a pretext to question the fact that contrary to the attention paid to their hair, those in power fail to address damages within our society.
Beyond the pleasing aesthetics of his work he has observed that, for certain viewers, his art has proved to be more than an instantaneous visual experience. He mentions the example of one Cameroonian collector for whom it took several visits to the “Pangaea” exhibition (Saatchi Gallery, London, 2014) to really penetrate the painterly surface, understand the various issues at stake, and ask themselves some of the questions triggered by the work.
To raise social issues, he claims, art does not necessarily have to be rough. One can do that is a sober and aesthetic manner.
As to whether the viewers understand his message or not, he cannot be certain of it. It all depends on one’s sensitivity. Some might understand it but still not want for society to change. That’s how the world his. But what is sure is that he will continue raising the issues he feels are important to address.

“Boris Nzebo |Black History Hotel”, exhibition view. Courtesy: Jack Bell Gallery, London.

He gives me a tour of his exhibition. “Black History Hotel” consists of four new large paintings inspired by his first trip to London last year, describing his “experience of Soho with its vibrant nightlife and proximity to the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus” – the exhibition statement reads.
What is striking from the outset is that this time it is not the female figure that predominates but Boris’s own portrait, executed in his signature style of thick outlines letting through the colourful urban landscape deployed before his eyes. More than his features, one recognises the artist’s hairstyle, the hat and the earing. Three out of the four portraits clearly represent him from the side, full-face and from behind. Their placing in the gallery space reflects these different vantage points.

Also of note is the presence of words, a new addition to his work. Appearing in French and English, they are an expression of the artist’s thoughts and questioning. They also act as signs and billboards grounding the scenes within a London setting, especially Soho where he was based. This is the case in Is It Possible? where Boris saw some form of street art in the city lights. Here his pop art touch is applied to a casual street scene where actual signs are combined to imaginary ones, like “Bobo Street Village”, a word play on his own name (Boris) which, unknown to him at the time he painted it, also evokes “Bourgeois Bohème” the French translation of Hipster. Such an enlightened intuition in the face of London’s gentrification and the social crisis this engenders.

Is possible
Boris Nzebo, Is It Possible?, 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 200 x 230 cm. Courtesy Jack Bell Gallery, London.

The Knowledge (or as the painting suggests “Knowledge is a Strength”) pushes the self-referential a bit further. The artist is seen face-on. His self-portrait assumes the confidence of a painter whose style has decidedly and visibly gained in maturity, as is obvious in the balanced composition and the rich harmonious colour palette. The cityscape and city dwellers form the background of a more important, more personal, if not self-centred, narrative. A different earing from the previous painting bears the letter B, the artist’s initial. It is shaped as a light bulb. Not just the symbol of an idea, but that of enlightenment, of knowledge as the title reminds us. And this knowledge that the artist possesses is that of painting, a skill which outlet is the “JB Gallery”, that has also enabled the artist to travel, hence the “Jack Bell” tour bus. “My painting is not dead” reads a sign held by a person reminding Keith Haring’s iconic symbol-like figures.
Something is lost in the spelling of the word “strength”. Not only does this indicate the usage of words across foreign languages. It also brings forth the non-cognitive attribute of letters as pictorial signs.

Boris Nzebo, The Knowledge, 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 200 x 230 cm. Courtesy Jack Bell Gallery, London.

Hot Town features the inscription “Black History Hotel” that gives its title to the exhibition. Here the male portrait is not that of the artist, however the painting contains elements that are typical of what usually catches Boris’s eye. “Bella Bella” inscribed on the figure’s shades refers to the calling attractive women would encounter in the streets of Italy. However male beauty is implied by the barbershop. And the sign “Love Pretty Boys” on the Chat Noir strip club may well be appealing to male spectators.
Although not explicitly represented, sexual activity is also conveyed through the street sign “Rue de la Joie” (Street of Pleasure), an actual prostitution hotspot in Douala which demonizing is signified by the 666 number combination. One can also contextualise this work within the history of contemporary depictions of Douala’s marginalised lifestyles. Indeed, the cut-off writing of “Bell” brings to mind the series “Belles de New Bell”, the documentation of Douala’s New Bell area sex workers by Cameroonian photographer Patrick Wokmeni.

Boris Nzebo, Hot Town, 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 200 x 230 cm. Courtesy Jack Bell Gallery, London.

In this painting Boris blends London and Douala in what they have in common. At night, the two are not so different. Except maybe that one is more permissive than the other. In both places, urges that are naturally part of human activities, regardless of one’s sexual orientation, are satisfied in whatever experimental offerings are made available.
It’s all there in his final piece, London Town: the enticing young woman in sexy underwear, a Viagra advert, the ejaculating penis, the explicit DVDs and videos, and the casual passers-by. Yes, casual, including the two gay guys. At home, Boris says, they’d be spat at or lynched. Here they can be in the open. At home they have to remain underground and socialise in places that are safer undocumented, at least for now.

Boris Nzebo, London Town, 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 200 x 230 cm. Courtesy Jack Bell Gallery, London.

These are some of the issues discussed by Boris Nzebo in this exhibition. In the same way hairstyles are an aesthetic device used to address social issues that affect us, “Black History Hotel” uses London as a pretext (and UK’s Black History Month?) to depict forms of uninhibited morals across geographies, and implicitly touch on some of the injustices we still face in Cameroon, in terms of gender equality and equal rights for all.

Boris Nzebo | Black History Hotel
Until 6 November 2015

Jack Bell Gallery
13 Mason’s Yard
St James’s
London SW1Y 6BU

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