Fred Ebami illustrates modern Africa with his contemporary vision of Pop Art

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Written by Nadia Leigh-Hewitson, CNN

Over the past decade, Fred Ebami has paved the way for a style he calls “New Pop” – digital Pop Art through an African lens.

The 45-year-old Franco-Cameroonian artist creates hopeful images ranging from the everyday to the iconic – with a particular focus on the African continent and the global African diaspora. His portraits are a rich blend of iconography, symbolic motifs, slogans and interpretations of classic Pop Art imagery.

His works, created primarily on computer, aim to bring Pop Art into the 21st century and have been exhibited at Tate Modern in London, Champs Élysées in Paris and Art Basel in Miami. Last November, Ebami opened a retrospective in Lagos, Nigeria, and her work is currently featured in an exhibition titled “NEW POP” in Brest, France.

The portrait of Fred Ebami – often inspired by Andy Warhol – celebrates African icons. This work shows Nigerian musician and innovator Afrobeat Fela Kuti. Credit: Fred ebami

Drawing on the walls

Ebami’s life as an artist began at the age of seven, drawing on the walls of his childhood home in Villeneuve-la-Garenne, France. “I wasn’t a very talkative person when I was a kid,” he said. “Drawing was my way of speaking.”

Ebami wanted to express himself through images, to make everyday life extraordinary with the color and drama he saw in comics, movie posters and Pop Art. He first discovers the work of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jean-Michel Basquiat as a child and is moved by the excitement and wonder that their explosions of color draw from quite ordinary subjects.

“Andy Warhol was the first pop artist I met,” Ebami said. “He took everyday life, everyday people and made them more beautiful, more interesting.

“When I saw their work, that was exactly what was going on in my head. But I had to find my own way of doing it,” he added. “Those three people, they were like a start button to me.”

Ebami hopes to honor the original pop artists by using a mouse and a computer screen. Aside from a handful of experiments with sculpture and painting, Ebami works digitally – he sees his computer as an extension of himself. He says working this way allows him to create work whenever inspiration strikes.

Fred Ebami opens his first solo exhibition at the MAM Gallery in Douala, Cameroon, in 2020.

Fred Ebami opens his first solo exhibition at the MAM Gallery in Douala, Cameroon, in 2020.

Everyday superheroes and African heritage

In May, he is preparing to release a graphic novel which tells the tragic and true story of two teenagers who died of hypothermia while they were boarded a plane between Guinea and Brussels in 1999. A letter calling on Europe to help the children of Africa.

While Warhol was famous for his colorful serigraphs of rock stars and models, Ebami often draws inspiration from the extraordinary deeds of otherwise ordinary people – he prefers to create striking images of everyday heroes.

“My art is a mixture of everyday life, society and comics, because I’ve always wanted to portray superheroes,” Ebami said. “Growing up, I realized that superheroes weren’t like Spiderman and Superman. They’re real life people like nurses, firefighters, soldiers.”

But his work also celebrates African stars, such as Cameroonian musicians André-Marie Tala and Manu Dibango, and instead of simple and pointillist backgrounds made up of colored dots, favored by many masters of Pop Art from the mid-20th century, Ebami uses textile patterns linked to her African heritage.

Growing up in France as a child of Cameroonian descent, Ebami noticed that the conversation around Africa in the West was always negative – having lived in Douala, Cameroon throughout his teenage years and returned in Europe as an adult, he says little has changed.

“The story is that there is only poverty, only war, only bad people, only people who are being killed,” he explained. “But we have a new generation that has to show that we are wonderful, need to show that we are awesome. I want to show you the new side of Africa, and if I can do it with my art, I will do that. until my death.”

Pop Art in the digital age

Since the start of his professional career, Ebami has faced criticism of his form. He says some in Africa find it difficult to appreciate his digital work as “real art,” although attitudes are starting to change.

Despite continued resistance from more traditional art circles in Africa, Ebami has shown her work throughout the region and has taught digital art master classes in Cameroon, South Africa, Ivory Coast and Morocco.

“People in Africa are just realizing how powerful digital can be,” Ebami said. “It’s the language of tomorrow and they have to get started if they don’t want to be left behind.”

“My goal is not to be the only one,” he added. “My goal is to inspire the new generation and show them another way to communicate. To show another way to be connected to the world.”

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