Fred Ebami is illustrating modern Africa with his contemporary take on Pop Art

CNN  — 

For the past decade, Fred Ebami has been blazing a trail for a style he calls “New Pop” – digital Pop Art through an African lens.

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

His artworks, created principally on a computer, 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 in Lagos, Nigeria, and his work is currently being shown at an exhibition titled “NEW POP” in Brest, France.

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

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

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

“Andy Warhol was the first Pop Artist I came across,” Ebami said. “He was taking everyday life, everyday people and making them more beautiful, more interesting.

“When I saw their work, it was just 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 jump-start button for me.”

Ebami hopes to honor the original Pop Artists using 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 working this way allows him to create work whenever inspiration strikes.

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

Everyday superheroes and African heritage

In May, he is set to release a graphic novel that tells the tragic true story of two teenagers who died of hypothermia whilst stowed away on a plane from Guinea to Brussels in 1999. Found in their possession was a letter making a plea to Europe to help the children of Africa.

While Warhol was famous for his colorful screen prints of rockstars and supermodels, Ebami often takes inspiration from the extraordinary acts of otherwise ordinary people – he prefers to create striking images of everyday heroes.

“My art is a mix of everyday life and society, and comics – because I always wanted to represent superheroes,” said Ebami. “As I grew up, I realized that superheroes were not like Spiderman and Superman. They’re real-life people like nurses, firefighters, soldiers.”

But his work also celebrates African stars, like Cameroonian musicians André-Marie Tala and Manu Dibango, and in place of the simple, pointillist backgrounds made up of dots of color, favored by many mid 20th century Pop Art masters, Ebami uses patterns from textiles connected to his 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 – after living in Douala, Cameroon, throughout his teenage years and returning to Europe as an adult, he says that little has changed.

“The narrative is that it’s only poverty, only war, only bad people, only people getting killed,” he explained. “But we’ve got a new generation that need to show that we’re marvelous, need 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 been faced with criticism of his form. He says some in Africa struggle to appreciate his digital work as “real art,” though attitudes are beginning to change.

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

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

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