Acrylic painter Ajarb Bernard Atwega uses his work to explore the vibrancy of everyday life in his home city of Douala, Cameroon, and in his latest exhibition, he turns his attention to the lively relationships cultivated by local hairstyling culture. Kwata Saloon, currently on display at the Afikaris Gallery in Paris, is full of brightly coloured figures across two types of canvases: larger snapshots of families constructing these elaborate hairstyles, and smaller portraits of women showing off their best looks.
Between November and December each year, pop-up salons across Cameroon bring people together to style women’s hair for local end-of-year festivities, which Atwega captures through his colourful figures on simple, but equally vivid, backgrounds. Although it is only young women getting their hair done, the styling teams are a mix of genders and span across generations, highlighting how these events are a true coming together of the community. Atwaga’s use of different colouring styles puts full attention on his subjects and their interactions, highlighting the shared joy and learning found in this aspect of Cameroonian social life.
I seek to liberate [my characters] from the duress of their everyday lives, instead paying homage to small moments of raw joy and broad solidarity.
Across the exhibition, Atwega harmonises concepts that might otherwise seem contradictory. The salon scenes have a real sense of hustle and bustle through their colours and busy composition, but Atwega also captures the tenderness of these moments between loved ones. Similarly, the individual portraits of women singled out on monochrome backgrounds, dressed and styled to their absolute best, represents the beauty of self-assertion and confidence, while other images remind us that this strength is built on the love and solidarity of a community. Even if we aren’t connected to Atwega’s specific cultural context, his works are a poignant reminder of the importance of gatherings for those of us still separated from our loved ones. They are nonetheless hopeful in their promise of the exciting times to come as we anticipate the easing of restrictions around the world.
Atwega’s stunning new works celebrate the intersection between large community and intimate relationships. Kwata Saloon is on display at the Afikaris Gallery until September 28, with a virtual tour of the exhibition available on their website that is perfect if you can’t visit in person.
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