Boris Nzebo’s visual language began as no more than an urban vernacular drawn from Douala’s bustling streets and commercial market places. upon receiving an offer from his brothers to design signs for their barbershop, the artist began producing graphic illustrations to entice customers and attract new business. It wasn’t long before his illustrations of elaborate hairstyles became a source of local fascination among the urban dwellers of Cameroon’s largest city. In many West African cities, inhabitants play a vital role in the daily operations of commerce and trade, becoming one with the city itself while redefining its structural and architectural parameters to suit their needs. In Nzebo’s works on canvas, we encounter a world in which the crisscrossing of urbanity, identity and appropriation found in street art is combined with the genre of landscape painting.
While at times kitsch, Nzebo’s works are instantly recognisable owing to the unique character of the artist’s densely layered compositions and vivid colour combinations. Simultaneously personal and universal, they speak a language familiar to Douala's inhabitants, who are themselves the audience and subjects of Nzebo’s painterly expressions. Studies of traditional often-elaborate African hairstyles are combined with informal snapshots of local neighbourhoods, urban architecture and scenes from daily life. Beginning with the heavily stylised executions that owe much to the artists painted commercial signs (HLM- Habitats à Loyer Modérés, 2013), Nzebo’s works have been increasingly concerned with advertising and cosmetic beauty (Down Town, 2013). Women provide an inexhaustible source of inspiration, their individual characters becoming more numerous and idealised with every reinvention by the artist.
Nzebo’s paintings emerge out of Douala’s intersecting tensions, where the metropolis and coastal spaces meet, and where economic and social issues continue to contribute towards urban decay and unrest. The plank houses and apartment blocks are blended with symmetrical faces and well coiffed hairstyles of glamorous models to reveal the contradictory lifestyles of materialistic societies. They draw attention to the cult of hair in West and Central Africa, a medium of astonishing creativity and perfectionism used to convey a sense of identity, as well as a social status and political stance. Nzebo’s aesthetic and thematic approach to popular style articulates an essential urbanity. The plaited heads of his subjects, recalling the recently deceased Nigerian photographer J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, are intertwined with the urban metropolis’s unique lines of continuity, with their broken yet fluid irregularity.
© Osei Bonsu, 2014