In The Wretched of the Earth (1963), Frantz Fanon discusses how European settlers incentivize members of a colonized population to resist armed revolution, by offering them positions in military and government agencies. Ushered into a “childish position” of permanent subjugation, nationalist intellectuals betray the collective struggle of their people in joining with the oppressor, exemplifying what Fanon calls “detached complicity” with capitalism.
This principle manifests in Adjani Okpu-Egbe’s mixed-media painting, “Trip Hazard” (2014), which addresses native resistance in Cameroon. An abstracted hand reaches from behind the backs of three dark-skinned figures, grabbing the middle one like a mechanical claw. The artist — who writes his own labels from a first-person perspective — details how the Cameroonian military dictatorship handpicks a few “selected and corrupted” elites who become “hazardous to all organizing efforts” among locals resisting neocolonialism.
I went looking for Fanon throughout the rest of Okpu-Egbe’s latest exhibition at the International Studio & Curatorial Program, On Delegitimization and Solidarity: Sisiku AyukTabe, the Martin Luther King Jr. of Ambazonia, the Nera 10, and the Myth of Violent Africa. Not only did I notice a physical copy of Black Skin, White Masks embedded into one of the installations, I also found an extensive collection of decolonial theory by the likes of C.L.R. James, Angela Davis, and François-Xavier Verschave, whose book Françafrique: The Longest Scandal of the Republic documents the clandestine networks of French economic control in so-called “postcolonial” Africa. Okpu-Egbe embeds these texts beside consumer products like Nutella and Q-Tips, alluding to the proletarianized workforce that produces them in precarious labor conditions and the lack of fair trade practices ensuring their poverty.
For Okpu-Egbe, the personal is the political. Born and raised in Ambazonia (formerly Southern Cameroon), he learned early on that his homeland was a point of contention among capitalist superpowers. Since 1961, calls for Ambazonian self-determination have been rejected or glossed over by the United Nations and US-backed Cameroonian President Paul Biya, resulting in the extension of Europe’s original colonial project under the guise of humanitarian aid. The artist aims to debunk “both sides” narratives around these events, particularly the double-standards imposed on Ambazonian protests and self-defense measures. In addition to influential texts, many installations include QR codes that link out to further reading on the imperial counterinsurgency plaguing the region for 60 years.
In “Assault on Ebam” (2021), Okpu-Egbe turns neocolonial relations on their head. Placed at the gallery entrance, this towering installation references the extrajudicial pillaging of an Ambazonian village by French-backed death squads. The artist lays flags of the UK, US, UN, EU, and France on the ground, a perceived act of sacrilege, while hanging small Cameroonian flags on green military mesh against the wall. The visual rhetoric of this arrangement reflects how Anglophone powers hold up Biya’s dictatorship in Cameroon’s name, and its resonance is reinforced by a small painting of a contorted Black body at the very center.
Multiple works in On Delegitimization and Solidarity ruminate on the theme of motherhood, positioning Black feminism as a force of resistance against white, patriarchal interventionists. One such work, “The Aftermath of Mautu” (2021), shows a mother dressed in blue — a color that symbolizes love and harmony — holding her children close while balancing a yellow fish on her turned cheek, suggesting stability and rebirth. Okpu-Egbe alludes to the French army’s senseless murder of Ambazonian women and children in the southwestern village of Mautu earlier this year, flanking the affectionate painting with plastic camouflage helmets that shine ominously under the gallery lights.
In merging Afro-Expressionism and Surrealism, Okpu-Egbe pushes historical materialism into the realm of spiritual meditation. In “Sisiku AyukTabe, the Martin Luther King Jr. of Ambazonia” (2021), he crowns the first president of the Federal Republic of Ambazonia on an imagined cover of Time magazine. The Federal Republic positions itself outside the Françafrique influence and remains internationally unrecognized, making it unclear whether the inclusion of this corporate magazine aims to be devotional or ironic. Further, portraying AyukTabe as the “Martin Luther King Jr. of Ambazonia” begs the question of what the late Civil Rights leader might have accomplished if he had the chance, and whether mainstream media would have treated him the same.
Okpu-Egbe has lived in London since 2004 and briefly worked in the British military before becoming a working artist and co-founder of the Ambazonian Prisoners of Conscience Support Network. His art expresses what W. E. B. DuBois called “double-consciousness,” an attempt at reconciliation that implicates himself as well as the viewer. Ephemeral elements bolster the transience of the show, which has taken different forms since opening in July. He molds the faces of his subjects with painted pieces of bubble wrap, thus turning them solid, and wraps the gallery walls with the disposable material.
The artist’s commitment to Ambazonian heritage hints at his close relationship with his mother, who passed away in early October. Her insistence on never leaving visitors empty-handed comes through in the artist’s own efforts to supply us with the tools to venture out in the world and affect real change. While I experienced just one manifestation of this exhibition, the artist will continue to add new works and shift the curation, making it a true work “in progress” (a phrase he also wrote all over the gallery walls). Perhaps you will see something different from what I did — a new progression or breakthrough since this review was published. Okpu-Egbe’s art and politics feel inseparable. Not only is that deeply admirable, it’s also necessary for awakening the world to the disparities that still exist between racial capitalism and African liberation.
On Delegitimization and Solidarity: Sisiku AyukTabe, the Martin Luther King Jr. of Ambazonia, the Nera 10, and the Myth of Violent Africa is on view at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (1040 Metropolitan Avenue, East Williamsburg, Brooklyn) through February 25, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Amy Rosenblum-Martín.