The vivid colours spurting under Ajarb Bernard Ategwa's brushes, pay tribute to the pop aesthetic and echo the heat and bustle of Douala. The city is the first destination for young people who come from all over the country seeking a better life. This chromatic palette, imbued with personal symbolism, embodies this cultural multiplicity, and participates in the narrative.
If Cameroonian artist Ajarb Bernard Ategwa mainly feeds his iconography with scenes from everyday life in Douala, the exhibition Kwata Saloon embodies a new thematic experiment. In this series, the artist focuses on the ephemeral hair salons popping up each year in Cameroon from November to February. This glimpse into these beauty parlors unveils scenes where intimacy and conviviality mingle. It highlights the coexistence of cultural and intergenerational links. By presenting the different generations, genders and layers of society involved, the artist underlines the communal nature of this process. In this way, he emphasises the strong relationships between individuals, cultivated by hairstyling. Whilst he is interested in these salons, he bears witness to a temporary period, in which wellbeing and sharing are at the centre of social life.
Kwata Saloon glorifies the allure and beauty of the people Ajarb Bernard Ategwa paints and more particularly women. The artist presents them in their best outfits, sporting impeccable hairstyles; mirroring that time of the year when the body becomes a source and tool of contemplation. The presence of these characters radiates the composition. On the canvas composed of bright colours, the skin - adorned with touches of paint - contrasts with the environment and challenges the viewer’s eye. They are caught up in the action. Rather than looking at a painting, they are contemplating scenes of life, reminiscent of genre painting. In a space where daily life is often marked by heat and agitation, these ephemeral hair salons bring a new dynamic. Douala 24 December (2021) is a window on the effervescence of a salon in Douala on Christmas Eve. The eye is immersed in the privacy of the place. The canvas captures the hustle of a moment of celebration, a distinct fragment of family life, tinted with tenderness.
The vivid colours spurting under Ajarb Bernard Ategwa's brushes, pay tribute to the pop aesthetic and echo the heat and bustle of Douala. The city is the first destination for young people who come from all over the country seeking a better life. This chromatic palette, imbued with personal symbolism, embodies this cultural multiplicity, and participates in the narrative. Ategwa explains: "Blue evokes the sea and calls to Douala, Kribi, and Kimbe. Yellow invokes the sun and points to the north of Cameroon. On the other hand, in using red and brown, I hint at the conflicts that have been plaguing the western regions for the past five years.” Thus, the artist connects the distinct social phenomenon he depicts to the socio-economic and political context of Cameroon, through a strong and recognisable visual identity.
While his large canvases transcribe a moment of sharing and freeze the movement, his close-up portraits echo the selfies shared on social networks. The general aesthetic reflects media society, just as it is rooted in the tradition of studio photography. The posture of the models - whose hands frame the face - recalls the signature shots of Malian Seydou Keïta. The traditionally multicoloured backgrounds become, here, monochrome. A direct contact is created between the audience and the model: the unique focal point of the composition. Ategwa invites thought on appearance and self-assertion. Whilst his figures are anonymous and reduced to a set of contrasting colours, their accessories anchor them in a context of both local and global influences.
From the paintings by Cameroonian painter Boris Nzebo, through which hairstyles question who we are and highlight social inequalities; to the militant hair sculptures by Ivorian artist Laëtitia Ky, hair becomes commonplace in the art world, as well as in the public domain. It carries out asserted identities as well as claims. Whether it reconnects with tradition or diverts from traditional clichés, hair goes beyond its mere aesthetic value. Looking to the cultural rituals ahead of the festive December season, Ategwa reflects on a social practice that links several generations together. Under his brushes, hairstyling is creating social links. While he sheds light on women, he also depicts the men involved in this beautifying process, which can last an entire day.
Through very personal painting, Ajarb Bernard Ategwa builds the archives of the daily life of his time. He focuses on habits and their social dimensions. Kwata Saloon, which means neighbourhood salon, invites us to look closer at an ephemeral everyday reality, thus questioning the relationship between the personal, the political and the social.