Cameroonian Artist ANJEL Sends A Powerful Message Of Pride In The Beautiful Black Body
Boris Anje Tabufor (*1993), whose artist name is Anjel, is an artist based in Duala, Cameroon. In his work he is dedicated to shaping multifaceted, beautiful black bodies, as empowered and confident individuals. His use of radiant colours, overall patterns and highlighted consumer and popular culture makes his Neo-Pop pieces stand out. His painting style is reminiscent of the Old Masters, paying attention to detail by delicately forming wrinkles, creases and shining, smooth skin. Mainly working with acrylic paint on canvas, however, his fascination with Warhol’s Pop Art can be felt by his use of silkscreen as an artistic technique.
Developing a passion for art early in life, and having the privilege to receive early drawing lessons from his artist cousin Samuel Njomke, Anjel moved on to study drawing and painting at the Institute for Fine Art in Foumban, Cameroon, where he gained his master’s degree in fine art in 2018.
Anjel’s figurative artistic practice centres around portraying the Black body. The artist “draws inspiration from far and near, from [his] immediate surroundings”, as he states in an interview released by his Barcelona based gallery OUT OF AFRICA earlier this year. He admires artists like, Kehinde Wiley, Tim Okamura and Kerry James Marschall for their specific ways of displaying the Black body as proud and worthy individuals. To Anjel the “existence of an artist” lies within his ideas for his artistic creations, not necessarily within the creation process itself. Anjel describes his artistic practice as his “refuge”. However, the artist uses his safe space not only to create captivating images, but to highlight social issues and phenomena.¹
In 2017, Anjel created a body of work that showcased a line of dazzling characters in brightly coloured outfits — the dandies of Brazzaville, Congo. He came across this subject of interest, in 2016, during his time as an artist-in-residence at the city’s renowned artist-run Contemporary Art Center “Les Ateliers Sahm”. The members of the Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People (SAPE), also known as sapeurs, are religiously dedicated to following their codex of dressing in an extravagant sophisticated manner, thereby often camouflaging their social status. Whilst having little to no money, these men spent everything they have on their outer appearance, on brands and expensive fabrics. This practice seems to be a rooted in colonial times, when second-hand clothing was used as a form of payment given to house boys, who would take pride in their ability to present themselves in elegant attire.²
In earlier works from 2017, the artist sets his protagonists into undefined imagined spaces with brightly coloured monochrome backgrounds, which feature structuring horizontal stripes. The stripes signify bands of bondage between the protagonists and the luxury brands they are attached to. According to the artist, this feature is a reference to the black bands of bondage depicted by Picasso in his painting “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust”.³ In later works, Anjel reveals the obvious paradox of the SAPE in his paintings by putting these colourful characters centre stage, surrounded by a backdrop of run-down houses in seemingly poor neighbourhoods. By illustrating the stark contrast between the feigned appearance of wealth and the harsh reality of poverty, the artist provides a fascinating insight into a remnant of colonial dandyism and reveals his awareness of the social grievances surrounding him, at the same time.
This tendency to express socio-critical aspects in his work can also be observed by his intense use of fashion brand logos, plastered all over his latest canvases or covering the figures skin — as was his practice in earlier works — in order to address society’s excessive consumer culture.
The work “L’équilibre” from 2017 shows two male figures standing on black and light pink chequered ground in front of a bright pink wall. Three black equally wide stripes run across the bottom of the wall. The two men are not identifiable by individual facial features, instead the focus lies on their attire and posture. In the areas, where the figures’ skin should be visible, for instance on their faces and hands, Anjel choses to eradicate any defining details and instead paint plain black shapes. The left figure’s skin is additionally completely covered in brand logos and names, such as Dior, Boss, Chloé or Louis Vuitton. Thus, the men are not meant to represent individual people, but stand in for a specific type of person, as an example. Only their accessories like glasses, earring, pipe and cigar indicate, where their eyes, ears and mouths should be.
The two men appear to boast with confidence and seem to have a spring in their step, with one of them almost looking like he is dancing. The man on the left, who is slightly heavier set, wears a wide cut beige suit, a black tie with orange dots, a light blue shirt with white stripes, blue hat and matching blue shoes with elegant ornaments. In his right hand, he is holding his glasses, while at the same time pushing back his jacket to reveal underlying suspenders. The other, slimmer figure is sporting a blue tight-cut suit with a green striped shirt and matching handkerchief in the jacket pocket. Additionally, he is wearing a bow tie and black cummerbund, matching hat and shoes in light brown. The outfit’s highlight is a red and yellow chequered sock that is visible, due to his rolled up trouser leg. Their attire is stylish and bold — the men are literally dressed to impress. As a finishing touch and as if to unequivocally identify and label these men as SAPE, the artist places a round, stamp-like shape onto the image, which reads: “S.A.P.E. — Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élegantes”.
In his work “MJ”, also from 2017, the artist spells out the paradox by writing the words “Hunger, Poverty, War, Disease” onto a patch that seems to be sowed into the inner lining of the protagonists expensive looking jacket. Again the figure’s skin is covered with brands, his shoes sparkle with embellishment and his belt and walking stick brim with gold.
This discrepancy is even more explicit in the work “Affiche I”, where two impeccably styled men in blue respectively red suits, with matching hat and shoes, are placed in front of a backdrop of a run-down building. The walls of the building have cracks, the paint is pealing of and it is smeared with graffiti. A faded poster on a wooden door announces a long past SAPE event — again unmistakably referring to the society that inspired Anjel to create this vibrating series of works. Both characters, whose faces are empty black shapes, are equipped with glasses that glow white and thus stand out against the plain black faces. This image is reminiscent of the scary comic/film character Kevin from “Sin City”. This feature provides the men with a strange, otherworldly aura. It is, nevertheless, an indicator for the artists interest in popular culture.
Another, however, global social issue comes to the fore in his work. The immeasurable use of social media, digital communication and its influence on the younger, impressionable generations has found its way into Anjel’s topics of interest. Similarly to the brand logos, the artist fills the bodies of his subjects with the logos of social media companies and emojis. The paintings are a representation of people’s constant need to present themselves in a positive light and their craving for attention and approval. The faces of the figures are literally sucked into their smartphones. As soon as the selfies are uploaded into the internet or onto a platform, their faces belong to the World Wide Web, the control over their image is lost. The portrayed children and teenagers might not really know what that implies yet, but the adult woman trying to shine a better light on her pose with a second phone might grasp the consequences of her doing, ignoring them, nonetheless. A beautiful detail in this painting is the see-through blouse that shows the emojis on the woman’s décolleté shining through the fabric.
In his recent works, which were presented at his Spanish gallery OOA in a solo exhibition in July 2020, Anjel presents a new mindset. The focus still lies on the Black body, but instead of faceless generalisations he paints vibrating, confident individuals. Their faces and bodily features are crafted in great detail. Their skin tone is held in a reduced colour palette of dark colours mixed with white, reminiscent of black and white photographs. This approach causes the surrounding objects, clothes, and sometimes their lips with their vibrant colours to stand out even more. The displayed individual style is a manifestation of their characters. The painting’s protagonists are friends and acquaintances of the artist from his surroundings or social media.
For these paintings the artist creates an all-over pattern of logos, covering the entire background. It is the foundation on which the figure is placed upon. The background is held in only a few colours in addition to the parallel stripes that cross the canvas — a feature that can be found in his earlier pieces. Most paintings are void of any surrounding objects, except for character defining accessories of the protagonist. These latest paintings rarely show the figures at full height, as was the case in his SAPE paintings, but rather present the upper body up close. This method evokes a greater intimacy between the subject and viewer.
The painting “Black is Beautiful” from 2020 shows a self-assured young skater girl with her skateboard. The angle of the portrait is from a low viewpoint, which causes the figure to look downwards. She is wearing a jeans jumpsuit and a tight yellow long sleeve shirt underneath. Anjel captures her radiant confidence and her unique facial features. Her very short hair adds to that notion. The hoop earrings were added to give the subject an extra edge, as they are not part of the original photograph that the artist used as inspiration. As a finishing touch, the Ralph Lauren polo-player-logo is distributed all over the image.
The background of the work “Yes We Can Breathe” is held in dark red covered with the golden Louboutin logos. The red tone is a reference to Louboutin shoes, whose signature feature are red soles. A man is placed in the centre of the painting. He holds his head high and shows his bare chest with delicate jewellery around his neck, due to the low cut neckline of his flowery shirt. His light pink lips match the prominent flower on his shirt. In his mouth he is holding a white flower, probably a rose. At first glance this reminds the viewer of Casanova-like characters making advances to women. But the white rose can also be read as a symbol of innocence and purity. Throughout history and in recent events, the world has yet again proven that there are still too many people out there, who would never attribute a Black man with these traits. The man displayed here, however, carries that rose in an unwavering, matter of fact manner. The white Armani logos seem to fly like butterflies all over the scene, also creating a sense of calm and naturalness. The inspiration for this work came from a picture of Nigerian-American rapper Jidenna, which was published on his social media account.
The work “Sweet Cabata”, in contrast, shows a curvy woman in a sexy short dress. She seems self-assured, looking at the viewer through red glasses, that match her tiny wrapper-dress. In her hand she is clutching an even tinier leopard print handbag, that makes her stature appear even more imposing in comparison. Her voluminous hair spills out from under a red hat. Her radiant aura is intimidating and impressive simultaneously.
“Far from all Odds” reminds the observer of the SAPE paintings from a few years prior. The protagonist is standing in the centre in a cool pose, his coat thrown over his shoulders nonchalantly. With the dark coat the figure stands out against the light turquoise background, which is covered with logos of fashion brands in several colours. The coolness factor is exaggerated by the dark sunglasses and his earring in the shape of a cross. He is casually presenting the tool he needs to tend to his afro and maybe his beard. For the Black community, the comb has become a symbol of strength and power, which is used in popular culture and art in various ways.
Last but not least, the work “Strength is Within” presents two subjects that have been ever present in the public eye all over the world this year — the coronavirus pandemic and racial injustice. In front of an orange background with light blue logos, a man is standing with his back turned to the viewer. His hands are placed on his back as if he was being arrested and restrained in handcuffs. The picture of a Black man being arrested is a scene that is too frequently witnessed, when it is unjustified or handled overly brutal. It is an issue the Black community has been endlessly wrestling with. Anjel plays with this very familiar image. Though the character is not actually bound, it is implied by the position of his hands, nonetheless. Another image the world has become used to, is that of people wearing masks. As the portrayed man is turning his head to look in the direction of the viewer, his face mask becomes visible. In the painting, Anjel displays a medical mask. But even this practical piece of clothing has nowadays become an accessory for the fashion business.
In just a few years, since his artistic career started, Anjel has created an impressive body of work with several work series that are thematically linked. Even though his mindset has slightly shifted and his approach to the subject has changed, there are still overarching topics that are incorporated in his work — a tendency to address social issues and fashion as a tool. In an interview that was mentioned earlier, the artist explained his use of fashion in connection to the Black body by borrowing words of artist and curator Dario Calmese, who stated: “Black people have continually engaged the fashion object beyond its utilitarian functions into a device of pride, protection, resistance and camouflage”.⁴ Anjel is acutely aware of this fact and uses it to show proud, confident and radiant Black characters.
¹ Quote from: https://www.instagram.com/p/CBVDjFFBR4y/ (20.12.2020)
² Paul Laster, https://whitehotmagazine.com/articles/is-beautiful-afropunk-art-anjel/4670 (20.12.2020)
³ As stated by Marion Maneker in, for instance, a short article for Art Market Monitor Pablo Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” was inspired by a bondage photograph by Man Ray. See https://www.artmarketmonitor.com/2011/04/05/picassos-black-bands-of-bondage/ (14.01.2021)
⁴ Dario Calmese, http://www.projects-gallery.com/fashioning-the-black-body (20.12.2020)
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