At Manchester Art Gallery, Cameroon-based artist Boris Nzebo has a small but intense exhibition. Ten or so artworks hang here, all painted in a disordered pop-art style. The vivid colours and the layered images combine to crowd the canvas in a way which calls to mind the sensory overload that is the modern city. This cacophony of colour and image imbues his work with an emotional density that confuses the boundaries between the individual and the location in which they abide. Nzebo chooses to explore themes of identity and self-expression through large scale canvases as well as steel cut-outs. More than anything else, Nzebo seems concerned with hairstyle in a manner that calls to mind the work of Nigerian J.D. Okhai Ojeikere – an influential photographer that Nzebo has cited as an influence.
At first appearance, it seems to be this interest in self-expression that concerns Nzebo the most. A close up of a man or woman, paying particular attention to their hairstyle or make up, is layered over a busy street scene. However, even though our eyes want to focus on the adornments of the individual, Nzebo seems to say that there are more burning issues than image: in the background of the pictures, he finds a platform to identify the problems inherent in his society. In Les Grandes Realisations de 2035 ‘The Great Achievements of 2035’ (2014) a stylish woman with dreadlocks looks wistfully away from the viewer while silhouettes in the background sit on bikes or under umbrellas. The context of this is President Paul Biya’s promise that by 2035, Cameroon would be in a position to provide all graduates with jobs. Citizens’ initial scepticism has now been realised – most university graduates have to become ‘benskinneurs’ (taxi drivers) or vendors. Urban Style (2014) is the namesake of the exhibition as well as the first painting that you come to when you enter the gallery space’s main entrance. A dapper young man with sunglasses clearly fits the bill for a city slicker. Layered around him however are images of children sitting by the roadside with buckets of water: a rather less glamorous reality taking place around this man-about-town.
This portrayal of the individual is one of the main unifying aspects of his work. Specifically, his individuals seem to mostly be young and beautiful. Personality and the location are intrinsically linked: these young Doualians who appear on canvas have all been formed by the location around them, and – it is suggested – the social problems that this location harbours, despite their concern for the superficial and beautiful. For him it’s all about the hair: self-expression of an African identity that is layered over street scenes that must feel very familiar to anyone who has lived there. In a way the exterior becomes the interior, the personal the political. How much does where we come from shape who we are? A whole lot, Nzebo seems to say.
Urban Style is on at Manchester Art Gallery until the 13th of November.