Whitehot Magazine

Ajarb Bernard Ategwa’s Garden of Joyful Delights

Ajarb Bernard Ategwa, Green Environment, 2023. Courtesy OOA Gallery, Barcelona

March 12, 2024

Like so many artists of his generation, Ajarb Bernard Ategwa began making art by drawing cartoon characters and popular objects—in his case African masks—when he was a child, but once the young Cameroon artist decided later that he wanted to make art his life’s work he began devoting the time and extra effort to learn the needed skills. His one-person exhibition “Garden of Delights” opens at OOA Gallery in Barcelona, Spain on March 16 and runs through April 21, 2024. 

A self-taught artist who was often discouraged by others to pursue a creative career, Ategwa initially made realistic portrait drawings that were commissioned by people whom he met while promoting his art on the streets of Cameroon’s coastal city of Douala. Desiring to learn more about other genres of contemporary art, he visited the local galleries and took note of the various techniques being used by practicing artists. 

Given space to paint by an employer, he developed a body of work and invited an established artist to see it and got a positive response, as well as some good advice. The more seasoned artist told him to quit his job and devote himself entirely to his work, which he did—much to the chagrin of his employer. “I met with my boss and told her that I wanted to stop working,” Ategwa confided. “I said that I just wanted to make my art and be an artist. She also tried to discourage me, saying that my work wasn’t selling because I was not yet known. But I left, and maybe after a year, or a year and a half year of hard work, things started to go well for me and my art—and it continues today.”

Ajarb Bernard Ategwa, Soccer Fan, 2023. Courtesy OOA Gallery, Barcelona

His first big break came in 2015, when he was selected from a group of 30 applicants to be one of three artists in the exhibition Jeunes Regards Urbains (Young Urban Perspectives) at the Espace Doual’Art in Douala. Exhibiting portraits with the faces of the figure filled with patchwork collages—to signify how many thoughts pass through the minds of youth—he was next commissioned by the city council to be part of a group of artists to paint some murals. And, adding more that breakout year, he was awarded the Laureate Prize by the Banque Internationale du Cameroun pour l’Epargne et le Credit, when his work was featured in a group show there.

Celebrated in the city where he had developed as an artist, one of the organizers of the Jeunes Regards Urbains shared images of his work with gallerist Jack Bell, who invited him to have a solo show at his London gallery in 2016. Presenting large-scale colorful paintings of young people hanging out at taxi stands, newsstands and markets while selling things through their DIY businesses, Ategwa captured the spirit of life for his generation in Douala, Cameroon’s fastest-growing city and its economic capital.

Ajarb Bernard Ategwa, I like my Style, 2023. Courtesy OOA Gallery, Barcelona  

Fluid with solid colors, patterns, figures and forms, the imagery in the large-scale paintings was outlined with bold lines to distinguish the characters and objects from the abstract elements in the artist’s lively narratives. “I started painting large after seeing a film about Jackson Pollock,” Ategwa shared. “I'm very comfortable making a big painting. It provides me the space I need to express everything that I want to say on the canvas.” Like Pollock’s paintings, the aesthetic energy flows through the talented Cameroonian artist’s canvases—from edge to edge, corner to corner.

With a desire to keep the pictures leaning more toward abstraction, he replaced realistic details with flat planes of color to construct a more symbolic interpretation of the scenes—creating a joyful collage of colors and shapes on the surface of the paintings. Following the series of street scenes, Ategwa captured another form of urban hustling with paintings of nude prostitutes in a place of pleasure, with hints of Afrofuturism in the masks that some of the women wore and European modernism in the fluent coloration of the figures. With each new series and solo shows at Jack Bell and Peres Project in Berlin, he experimented with color and form—leaving some areas of the canvas less painted to cleverly create a visual pause in the viewing—while continuing to explore the nightlife and daytime energy emitted from the urban chaos of dynamic Douala.

Ajarb Bernard Ategwa, New Design 2, 2024. Courtesy OOA Gallery, Barcelona

In 2020, during the isolation of the pandemic, Ategwa shifted his subject matter from groups of gathered people to individuals and couples painted in a portrait format inspired by the photography studio—Studio Ekwe’s—that had been next door to his birthplace in Kumba, a small town in Southwestern Cameroon, when he was growing up. “The guy was a very good photographer, the artist recalled. “There were probably 2000 houses in Kumba and you would see his portraits in nearly every one of them.” 

Painting posed people with colorful outfits against solid-colored backgrounds with painted frame-like borders, he filled the faces and skin surfaces of the figures with abstract brushwork to give them a universal appeal rather than a national, regional or local likeness. “I didn’t represent real faces because I wanted my paintings to go anyplace in the world,” Ategwa said. “If you are from China, India, Africa or America, you can imagine your face inside the figures. If I painted the eyes, nose, mouth and ears, you could more quickly identify who they represent. During the Covid crisis, I specifically wanted these paintings to be more universal.”

Ajarb Bernard Ategwa, The New Outfit, 2023. Courtesy OOA Gallery, Barcelona

In one-person exhibitions from 2020 to 2022 at Peres Projects, Jack Bell and Fredric Snitzer Gallery in Miami and at their booths at international art fairs, Ategwa created an expansive body of work of surreal subjects celebrating life in vibrant settings. Working with images culled from social media sites (what he considers to be the new photo studio), he punched up the patterns of the clothing by painting local Cameroonian cotton textiles (Dutch wax fabrics, like the Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare often portrays) and the backgrounds with lively fields of abstract mark-making. 

In more recent paintings, the artist has challenged himself to compose his subjects in more natural settings in one series of works and simultaneously add fragments of realistic faces in another group of canvases. Inspired by local banners and posters that had been altered by vandals and street artists, who had obliterated the depicted figures, the latter style is what the painter is exploring in his Garden of Delights exhibition. WM


Paul Laster

Paul Laster is a writer, editor, curator, artist and lecturer. He’s a contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art and writer for Time Out New York, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Galerie Magazine, Sculpture, Art & Object, Cultured, Architectural Digest, Garage, Surface, Ocula, Observer, ArtPulse, Conceptual Fine Arts and Glasstire. He was the founding editor of Artkrush, started The Daily Beast’s art section, and was art editor of Russell Simmons’ OneWorld Magazine, as well as a curator at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, now MoMA PS1.



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