Bernard Ategwa’s marketscapes will immediately be familiar to anyone residing in one of Africa’s sprawling urban landscapes. His series is a tribute to Marche non glace, a fixture of life in Douala, Cameroon. But this is where our sense of familiarity ends. Ategwa’s paintings reorient our gaze, bringing his painting subjects to the front of our consciousness. Asking us not just to see and forget, but to celebrate, and interrogate the economic and social dynamics of urban African markets.
Ategwa’s subjects are a part of the city’s tapestry. Gaze upon the traders of food and drinks, of electronics, of hairstyles and things. Listen for the hum of life. Embrace the vibrancy of the scenes, brought to extraordinary focus through Ategwa’s skilled brushstrokes and mastery of color, which he has utilized to freestyle his way through the scenes. Oranges, pinks, yellows, blues, and greens convey the garrulousness of these markets, exemplified by the hawkers hustling ferociously for the day’s wages. Pushing items to pedestrians. Nothing is off limits in Ategwa’s marketscapes. The market holds all kinds of possibilities. For sustenance, beauty, and companionship. The work entices us into the frenetic world of scattered commerce. Provokes us to see and humanize the often dehumanized market hustlers.
Ategwa demands humanity from the viewer. Even faceless, the women demand our gazes, exploding from the inside with rich hues. What may be regarded as garish in the real world becomes an exhibition of originality. Ategwa’s series offers a comprehensive memorial of humanity, lending some necessary permanence to the lives that we forget as soon as our transactions end with them. Ategwa has created dignity, where there was only chaos. Style, where there was only fashion. Legacy, where there was only the promise of the day. Ategwa’s Marche un Glace offers stories and lessons on humanity, on poverty, and on choice. In the real world, the marketplace hustlers are as interchangeable as the goods and services they hawk. In Ategwa’s work, they are immortal.
Text by Fareeda Abdulkareem.