Fred Ebami illustrates modern Africa with his contemporary take on pop art

Written by Nadia Leigh-Hewitson, CNN

For the past ten years, Fred Ebami has paved the way for a style he calls ‘new pop’: digital pop art through an African lens.

The French-Cameroonian artist, aged 45, creates hopeful images ranging from the mundane to the iconic, with particular emphasis on the African continent and the global African diaspora. His portraits are a rich mix of iconography, symbolic patterns, slogans and interpretations of classic pop art images.

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

Fred Ebami's portrait -- often inspired by Andy Warhol -- celebrates African icons.  This work showcases the Nigerian musician and Afrobeat innovator Fela Kuti.

Fred Ebami’s portrait — often inspired by Andy Warhol — celebrates African icons. This work showcases the Nigerian musician and Afrobeat innovator Fela Kuti. Credit: Fred Ebami

From drawing on 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 very talkative when I was a kid,” he said. “Drawing was my way of talking.”

Ebami wanted to express himself through images, making the everyday extraordinary with the color and drama he saw in comics, movie posters and pop art. He first discovered the work of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jean-Michel Basquiat as a child and was moved by the excitement and wonder that their color explosions came from very ordinary subjects.

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

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

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

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

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

Everyday Superheroes and African Heritage

In May, he will release a graphic novel that tells the tragic true story of two teenagers who died of hypothermia while being trapped on a plane from Guinea to Brussels in 1999. In their possession was found a letter begging Europe to help the children of Africa.

While Warhol was famous for his colorful screen prints of rock stars and supermodels, Ebami often draws inspiration from the extraordinary deeds of otherwise ordinary people – preferring to create striking images of everyday heroes.

“My art is a mix of everyday life and society, and comics — because I’ve always wanted to represent superheroes,” says Ebami. “Growing up, I realized that superheroes are not like Spiderman and Superman. They are real 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 the simple, pointillist backgrounds made up of colored dots, favored by many pop art masters of the mid-20th century , Ebami uses textile patterns associated with his African heritage.

Growing up in France as a child of Cameroonian descent, Ebami found that conversation about Africa in the West was always negative — after living his teens in Douala, Cameroon, and returning to Europe as an adult, he says little has changed. .

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

Pop Art in the Digital Age

Since the beginning of his professional career, Ebami has faced criticism for his form. He says some in Africa struggle to appreciate his digital work as ‘real art’, although attitudes are beginning to change.

Despite continued opposition from the more traditional art circles in Africa, Ebami has shown work across the region and taught digital art masterclasses in Cameroon, South Africa, Ivory Coast and Morocco.

“People in Africa are only now realizing how powerful digital can be,” says Ebami. “It’s the language of tomorrow and they have to go with it 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 a different way of communicating. Showing a different way of being connected to the world.”

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