Francis Abiamba, known in the art circles as Afran, is a Cameroonian born in 1983 in Bidjap from Equato-Guinean parents. He studied at the Institute of Artistic Formation in Mbalmayo and received a degree in ceramic work. He then joined a studio where great Cameroonian and Congolese painters work, working side by side with the likes of Otheo, Kanté, Roger Botembe, Francis Tondo Ngoma. After presenting his paintings alongside those of more famous artists, he finally had his first personal exhibition at the Spanish cultural centre of Bata, in Equatorial Guinea, in 2008. This young artist is concerned about environment issues and the defence of cultural identity, and uses the language of murals and art installations to make his work available to all. He now lives in Italy, and he is currently exhibiting his works made with jeans in Verona.
How did Cameroonian artistic past influence your work?
African art is quite different from classic western art. The African objects that are normally considered art pieces are in facts objects of daily use: masks used in rituals, fetishes used in worship, spoons, hats … Much significance is embedded in these objects, they are like coded messages to us. They can be considered art only if we accept symbolic language and oral tradition. When I was studying at the Art Institute, I used to visit older artists, each with his own history and technique. I learnt a lot from them, and I am not referring solely to techniques. Every visit was like a plunge into tradition. A great maestro was Otheo, one of the outstanding Cameroonian artists, who uses obom – a traditional tissue of the Fang-Beti ethnic group obtained from tree bark – to create his art pieces.
Why are you using jeans?
I always thought that I do not need to use African stereotypes to express myself. I speak of what I see, hear, fear, and suffer as a person not as an African. It does not matter where I am, Cameroon, China or Italy; I let the reality around me contaminate my thought. I used jeans to dress myself, then I started to decorate it. At a certain point, I was making ends meet by decorating the jeans of friends and clients. At the end, jeans ended up in my work, it has become my obom. Jeans has a long history. It was invented in Genoa, went to the States and came back to Europe. It is now stitched in China and used worldwide. Everyone wears it.
Your exhibit is titled ‘the habit is the monk’, why?
In this exhibit I wanted to put the habit at the centre, the accessories become the protagonist. The choice to present this exhibition in the African Museum of Verona was not by chance. In Africa art is not an accessory that adds beauty, it is a communication. In my exhibitions there are no static objects. Each piece speaks of me, of my life. There is also the history of each person who offered the used jeans for my creations.
Do you think this exhibition can be appreciated in Africa?
The question about who we are and who we want to be has no borders of place, age, culture. It is a question without colour. The human being has always asked himself questions like that, and always need to find answers. I believe I am healthy carrier of Africanity.