“I’ve lost a few friends because of my art” says Adjani Okpu-Egbe standing in the basement of the Mok Space gallery opposite the British Museum. “Girlfriends too. I didn’t have time to go out. It’s expensive, buying canvas and paint brushes. But I was so depressed that it was therapeutic.”
Okpu-Egbe’s determination to succeed is clear. His talent, too, is apparent. In the past year he has put on his first solo London exhibition (‘Letting Go’ at Mok Space), appeared on the BBC’s Diamond Jubilee coverage painting in front of millions, exhibited in New York and Los Angeles and now returns to London with a new show ‘Community Man’ at the Brick Box in Brixton market.
His remarkable journey as an artist is barely a year old. Self-taught, he only seriously began painting in earnest after a bad injury whilst on duty with the British Army in Kuwait in 2009 caused him to become physically immobilised and so depressed that painting was the only form of therapy that gave him purpose and happiness. “If it wasn’t for my art and my daughter I wouldn’t be here right now” he tells me while we chat about less profound but equally meaningful subjects (football and women). Football in fact is a big inspiration to his work and explains a lot about how and why he became an artist. Born in Cameroon his early dreams, like most, were to become a footballer.
“My father was a business man and wanted me to follow him but I was not interested in his lifestyle. He didn’t allow me to play football. I had an opportunity to play at an academy but my father chased the men away. I was forced to do Maths but I would just paint pictures of famous footballers. Maradona, Roger Milla, Gary Lineker…who's that other guy with the long hair…for Marseille…? ” After some deliberation I realise he is talking about ChrisWaddle. Some of Adjani’s friends went on to play for club sides in Cameroon and had trials in England. Meanwhile he was forced to stay in doing maths equations. If his father caught him painting pictures of footballers he would beat him. “Sometimes I wouldn’t have time to flip the page over [when I heard him coming] so I’d start doing my mathematics on top of my artwork. So if you look at every piece of work there’s a maths equation in it – straight from my childhood.”
Later, he moved to England and joined the British Army. Many of the pictures in his collection were painted in his tiny room on the military base at Abingdon in Oxfordshire while recovering from injuries sustained on duty. Two years ago, during the aftermath of the London riots he was painting in the street, trying to encourage youths and re-instil a sense of community togetherness when he was arrested by the police who alleged he had looted a t-shirt. He produced the receipt for the t-shirt he had in fact bought but they ignored his claims and he ended up on the cover of the Wandsworth Guardian. Ultimately, the attention may have helped him but the incident highlighted a disturbing trend in indiscriminate policing that followed those dark days of summer.
So, what does his art represent? “Social injustice really pisses me off” he says. “I can hear just a comment. Sometimes I eavesdrop. I can change direction, follow people, paint what they say. Most of the work is autobiographical and I’m very prolific. I can start painting whenever, if I’m pissed off and have nothing to paint on I will paint on your shoes.”
He’s not just saying this for effect, he’s wearing an outrageously colourful pair of converse painted beautifully in his usual acrylics. Later he posts on facebook pictures of his flat where he has spontaneously painted nearly every surface and door in the place. I wonder what the landlords will think of that…
'The Blackwhite Conundrum' by Adjani Okpu-Egbe
How to describe his style? Basquiat meets Ofili meets Miro meets Matisse? His work is a (forgive the pun) riot of colour and distorted figures, warping into scenes that are at the same time familiar but twisted into something more surreal. The tube carriage, for example in The Blackwhite Conundrum, is recognisable with its handrails and seats, but the tiny seats (almost details) are drawn comically small, Lowry-esque, and occupied exclusively by white figures. In the foreground a veiled Muslim woman wearing a remembrance day Poppy and holding the hand of her child stares out of the canvas. Her body, the fabric of her hijab, frayed and torn appears to pour itself liquidly over the floor, as though she is melting inside, or being eroded away by chemicals. The child has her back to us, staring down the carriage as though down a vortex to another dimension. Above there is no roof to the tube, instead we seem to be looking up into the stars and swirls of the night skies. A Metro newspaper litters the ground, a beautifully depicted reference to that which binds London’s commuters together – ignorant tabloid free journalism. The piece is clearly a comment. But on what? My reading is that it speaks of the self-consciousness of the ‘other’ in London society. The minority figure who is as British as anybody in the tube carriage but feels a sense that they stand out, that they are awkward and are being looked at. Stared at even. The veiled woman stares at us pleadingly. It captures that moment we’ve all experienced in London when you make eye contact with a woman wearing a headscarf and she looks at you, clearly smiling unseen, and her eyes say “despite all appearances I’m just the same as you and everybody here.”
The slightly mangled, amorphous heads, eyes and images as well as the splashes of paint resembling bodily fluids like blood remind us of Francis Bacon’s dark brooding works – but in Okpu-Egbe’s images there is less of the darkness and more of a kind of buoyant confused disorientation. I sense this disorientation in his manner. He is a buzzing restless chap. You sense his brain is literally overflowing with ideas and that there’s not enough hours in the day to get them all down on canvas.
We see political messages and references to popular culture. Some of them are clearly jokes that have exited directly from the artist’s sub conscience with very little intervention of logic. Mario Balotelli’s Revelry features what looks like a Rastafarian girl with a bull terrier and a seal on her back. “I want Balotelli to buy it” he tells me. Maybe, just maybe.
Head Of A British Commonwealth Soldier is a beautiful Picasso inspired portrait of a soldier in primary colours. The veteran’s head is haunted and spooked by everything that surrounds him, even a tactically placed railway card – the tough journey back to civvy street?
Barefooted Athletes, Pride of Africa a richly blue background with a jet black figure takes me back to the Miro retrospective at the Tate in 2011. Adjani explains it thus: “when people want to become stars, Olympic athletes for example, all they see is the bright stars, they don’t see where they came from. They trained barefoot. A whole poem sits behind the picture telling the politicians [in Africa] to piss off basically. Politicians are intellectual gatecrashers. They do nothing to help the sports people in Africa to become the stars we see. It is also a celebration of black people’s endeavours. We make the best of something time and time again. Take Obama. How does a man come from an African background, an enslaved people, and become president? We have this resilience embedded in our DNA, it’s just some people don’t know how to use it.”
Adjani Okpu-Egbe’s himself is remarkably resilient. There’s nothing he can experience that’s going to keep him down. He’s discovered his latent talent and it’s about to explode onto the art scene. Mario, if you’re reading this, in your Cheshire mansion. I think your mansion could do with a splash of Cameroonian-London colour.
'Community Man' his latest show is currently on at the Brick Box in Brixton until the 31st January.