Brixton’s intimate Knight Webb gallery is currently home to a solo exhibition by Adjani Okpu-Egbe, an Afro-Expressionist whose work’s bright colours and cheery patterns belies its often serious content. Adjani’s paintings are raw, surreal and frequently incorporate found materials. The artist himself works out of a studio at the back of an off-licence in Brixton, which also serves as a hub for the Cameroon community in London. This allows for the public to view Adjani’s art live in the making, which gives a viscerally social nature to his work.
Having served in the British Army, Adjani was particularly affected by the killing of Drummer Lee Rigby, a British soldier killed off duty by two men claiming to be Islamic militants. Confronted with news of the murder, he quickly set to work, using bubble wrap he noticed looked good on his canvas the evening before the attack on Lee Rigby. The exhibition’s name ‘Poppable’ references Adjani’s unusual choice of medium, which in being outwardly strong but easy to break, Adjani seems to suggest, isalso representative of the vulnerability of servicemen. By virtue of including an actual packet of Sertraline, an antidepressant, the eponymous piece in the exhibition addresses mental health, an often neglected aspect of military vulnerability. The piece is also indicative of Adjani’s autobiographical approach and ability to channel his emotional responses to everyday life and extraordinary occurrences into his work.
Another piece ‘Syrian Conundrum’ addresses one of the year’s headline issues. Depicting a wide-eyed woman wearing a Niqab and clutching two entwined children, the picture powerfully evokes the horror of the ongoing conflict. Upon closer inspection, you see that Okpu-Egbe is intent on unambiguously conveying the civil war’s brutality. Only one of the children’s faces is visible, painted onto newspaper shreds with his left eye dripping blood. A missing number 7 has been painstakingly painted onto the shreds, so we know, in touching detail, the age of the boy holding an AK 47 pictured on guard duty in Aleppo. The piece, ‘Brazen in the Face of Adversity’ features what are probably the only two unabashed happy expressions in the exhibition, as well as a Diesel-branded hat and a polka-dotted handbag, suggesting that a teenage concern with fashion continues even in the most challenging of circumstances.
By using reclaimed doors as the base for ‘Syrian Conundrum’ and also for ‘Brazen in the Face of Adversity’, which depicts two people intertwined with a dog and a mysterious creature, he connects them together. This link succeeds in offsetting the bleak nature of the former with the muted optimism of the latter. The use of doors in both works reinforces the references to the Middle East by alluding to the intricately decorated doorways, carved out of wood, often found across the region.
Recurring imagery helps Okpu-Egbe’s pieces come together as a collection, for example, addition and subtraction sums adorn many of his paintings. Mathematics’ pivotal role in Adjani’s work harks back to his school days. Back then, he says, he would sketch over his mathematics homework, only to hide his artwork with symbols and equations whenever his father came to check how he was doing.
Few of the figures that feature in Adjani’s paintings stand alone, instead they overlap and grow out of each other, sometimes in unexpectedly irreverent ways, in one piece, the wheels of a bicycle encircle a character’s eyes. Dogs appear multiple times, their forms mirrored by humans depicted with four legs. Fish also abound and the spiny-toothed head of one tops a humanoid form in ‘Work in Progress’. I found myself eerily reminded of the creature in Francis Bacon’s unsettling ‘Second Version of Triptych 1944’.
Fragments of text appear in several paintings, challenging us and prompting curiosity in equal measure. In the “white man war” with “blackman victims”, why are we called upon to remember “Nsanahang” in particular? Who lives at 102 Elms Road, the address that features in ‘Mario Balotelli’s Revery’ and what is the connection with the famous footballer?
All in all, this is a show that packs a powerful punch for its size and certainly rewards those who give it the attention it deserves. Would-be visitors should be aware that the exhibition is open by request only for the rest of August. That said, I did get the impression a viewing could be speedily arranged. On a further note, be sure to peruse the rack in the corner, I expected to find prints but was pleasantly surprised to come across more paintings, which will hopefully be framed and displayed sometime soon.
Poppable: New Paintings by Adjani Okupe-Egbe is at the Knight Webb Gallery until 31st August