The entrance to Jean-David Nkot’s studio is not easy to find– it’s nestled down an alleyway in the Nkongmondo neighborhood of Douala, Cameroon, past the statue of homegrown hero Samuel Eto’o, a footballer who played for Chelsea. This is where Nkot creates his large canvasses, filled with color and symbolism and dealing with 21st century issues– specifically, migration.
“Each artist in each generation tries to represent the events of his time… I’m working on the context of immigration, to speak about this part of the human condition,” he tells RFI.
Every inch of Nkot’s work evokes a feeling, with splashes of strong, bright colors, even when dealing with subject matter that is not so joyous.
“I speak of violent problems emerging within society, but I give it an aesthetic element. At the same time, the world is not only about violence, and you have to convey hope in what you’re creating– this is how I deal with color in my work,” he says.
Nkot uses stamps and maps in his work as a way of starting a discussion, he says, while the viewer looks at the central figure of his canvas.
“I’m writing a message; the stamp is considered like a visa, and the symbol of a franked letter shows that it is en route to transmitting the message… my message, to the world,” he says.
Maps have a special place in Nkot’s art, whether they be topographic or textual. In one of his pieces, the logo of the United Nations agency for refugees, UNHCR, is featured in the background.
“They take care of and regulate things in a refugee camp,” he says. “I made this with their logo because they create the camps in the transit zones, they make shelters for the people who are seeking asylum,” he adds.
The maps Nkot incorporates into his work also represent the point of departure, the point of arrival, and the voyage, all part of his idea to start a conversation about migration.
“My work should not be forcibly seen in a direct manner; I want to open a debate, I want the viewer to delve into the work and discover what’s happening now,” he says.
Using the background of the painting to create a repetitive pattern is another technique Nkot says he began in his 2015 series.
“The MIG-31 is a fighter plane, and for me, it’s a symbol of violence, because it’s a weapon of war. And when there is a weapon of war, it butchers people, and this work depicts the expressions of the people who suffer because of those weapons,” he says, pointing to the painting on the wall of his atelier.
Migration, but not just to Europe
Displacement and migration are two key issues in Nkot’s work, and many think of south-north migration, such as those in Africa trying to reach Europe. But Nkot reminds the viewer that the biggest displacement is within the African continent, where movement is just as perilous.
During his residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, Nkot created a series of paintings called Autopsy of the Stations of the Cross that created seven different “stations” of various migrants whose faces were somewhat obscured to show how migration takes place today. The outline of these faces were placed in front of a background of maps.
“I did this by trying to trace the steps of a displaced person who went to different parts of the city before deciding to get on the boat to Europe,” says Nkot.
“Others decide to stay in Algeria or Morocco, many others decide not to leave. For my work it’s not just a question of Africa-Europe, Europe-Africa. It’s also Africa-Africa,” he says, describing the internal movement of people within the African continent.
This could even be applied to Cameroon, according to Nkot, who lives and works in Francophone Douala. The crisis taking place in the two Anglophone regions of the country began after peaceful protests by Anglophone teachers and lawyers who took to the streets to demonstrate against alleged discrimination by the Francophone central government.
The ensuing government crackdown provoked the creation of an armed separatist movement and self-declaration of independence for so-called Ambazonia.
In light of four years of violence, the UN carried out an assessment last September showing that more than 700,000 people had been forced to flee their homes, a number considered a conservative estimate due to difficulty in accessing the regions.
“You see people who leave Bamenda [capital of the Anglophone North-West region] to come to Douala, it’s not displacement” in the traditional sense, says Nkot. But if people in Douala think it is not a major hardship fleeing the violence, they are wrong, according to Nkot.
“It’s displacement because you change your city, you change your life,” he says.
“The way people reflect on this in Douala is not the same as people reflect on it in Bamenda or even Buea [capital of the Anglophone South-West region]” where the violence is ongoing.
Others who move from their own homes, leave because of economic problems or war, but those who must go would prefer to stay put if they could take care of themselves financially, says Nkot.
“I say to myself, how can this problem be resolved today? And how, with the work that I do, can I open up the debate? I am not against migration, but I want to open up the debate, and highlight the migratory process, like what’s happening in Cameroon,” he says.
Original work, based on neighbors
All of Nkot’s work comes from real people and real stories, people in his neighborhood who he knows and speaks to regularly.
“By staying here, it allows me to follow their dreams– these are the stories I put into my work,” he says. And while he paints others, he sees his art as a form of personal therapy, because the same questions and internal conflicts his subjects discuss have also affected him personally.
“When I speak of immigration, and I am saying this sincerely, when I started my career, I thought about leaving,” says Nkot.
“I had the feeling that nothing worked, and I couldn’t find a solution, because I thought I was wasting my time and that being away from here would be the only chance to be able to express myself,” he says.
But Nkot started working and realized that he could live in Douala and have the emotional support of friends and family. “I decided that I didn’t need to leave,” he says of the quandary he faced.
Nkot uses his 2018 work, The Cleaning, to discuss the three types of spaces he deals with in a painting: the mental space, the physical space and the virtual space. The mental space is what the subject of his painting is thinking, of what he would like to be.
The man in The Cleaning lives in the Nkongmondo neighborhood and posed for him, holding a mop, and leaning against a chair.
“The physical space is represented by the stool… in Africa, a chair is a very strong symbol. The chair defines who you are in society, to have a chair is a sign of nobility,” he says.
The virtual space is the topographical map in the background, and he places the route that people have taken to get to their dream country on top.
“You see the route that people have to go, from Togo to Benin, Benin to Ghana, Ghana to Burkina Faso, to Cote d’Ivoire, so this map is mixed in to create our map formula,” he says.
As for subject of The Cleaning, he ultimately decided not to leave Douala–he’s a car mechanic here in the neighborhood, says Nkot.
For Nkot, his work provides the basis for new conversations.
“It’s normal that today one is trying to give another image of an African, and in particular of the African continent. That image that is always shown to the world that it’s a sick and poor continent– this continent is full of talent and should be highlighted,” he says.
His new work with acrylic on canvas will be shown in London from 5 October at the Jack Bell Gallery in London. It is his third solo exhibition.