A plunge into the deep blue submarine world of Arnold Fokam

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Arnold Fokam, AquariHomme at Goethe Institute in Yaoundé
Arnold Fokam, AquariHomme at Goethe Institute in Yaoundé

AquariHomme, an exhibition at the Goethe Institute in Yaoundé, plunges viewers into the whimsical world of the artist Arnold Fokam. This alternate blue world is inhabited by aquatic chimeras that are half-human and half sea-creatures. Here, underwater, these female creatures nurture a different kind of life. Their see-through bodies are the seats of thriving marine life. Pink, green and yellow foliage fills out their bodies and, at times, stretches out, contrasting elegantly with the ambient deep blue of marine life. 


Away from what we know and practice, the massive destruction of natural habitat, Fokam paints a world of symbiosis where humans, depicted exclusively in female forms, live in harmony with their marine environment. In this immersive exhibition, he brings to life the concerns of gender equity and environmental justice that animate his creative practice. We reached out to him to learn more.

Obatala: Can you elaborate on the concept of AquariHomme?

Arnold Fokam: “AquariHomme” is another way to spell aquarium. Etymologically, aquarium derives from the Latin word “aqua,” which means water, and the suffix “rium,” which means place, structure. It designates a space made of water. “AquariHomme,” as I imagine it, refers to a set of bodies made up of water. I coined the term to evoke a certain symbiosis between water, an element, and the human body. The AquariHomme series is inspired by marine life, the impact of water on daily life, as well as, the action of Man on the sustainability of this element. The term refers to the aquatic nature of the human race and its dependence on water. As a result, the symbols of water also become attributes I use to re-invent women’s image in contemporary society.

Arnold Fokam, AquariHomme Series
Arnold Fokam, AquariHomme Series

O: Women are very present in your work. I think I have only seen paintings with women. Can you tell us why?

AF: There is a need for me to represent the environment in which I grew up. It was an environment dominated by a strong female presence. My daily experiences allowed me to see how strong and resilient women are. And yet, in a certain way, this is not what society tells us, especially Cameroonian or African society. Despite the evolution of mentalities, the perception of women as inferior, or the weak sex, remains deeply rooted in most people’s mentalities. Sometimes even at a subconscious level. My paintings, therefore, reflect my desire to rectify this point of view, characterised as “cultural,” by offering images that exalt the female body. Also, humanity, “Man,” has always been represented through features, words, images that exclusively refer to the male gender. For example, to speak of the human race, in French, we can use the word “Man,” as a synonym but not “Woman.” So I thought it would also be interesting to have other points of view; Humanity, represented by feminine traits, should also be considered.

O: Is this something you were always sensitive to, or is it recent?

AF: The concept, the words, and the way to articulate them are recent. But from an early age, the majority of my sketches or scribbles depicted only female figures. There was already this desire to celebrate woman, although it was unconscious.

O: You depict women in a very voluptuous and sensual way. How do you stay in the register of homage without falling into that of objectification?

AF: First, painting the bodies of naked women has no relation to eroticism or sexuality. Nudity is a way to show not the carnal aspect of the body but the spiritual depth of it. There is this need to show the interior, the seat of the soul, of the thought. Thus, the transparency of the body plays a huge role, because it allows us to communicate with the aqueous material, the essence of women. Also, the very first paintings of this series only represented chiselled bodies, whose physical characteristics were almost those of the “perfect woman.” In the most recent images, I wanted to pay homage to all body shapes: chubby, slender, medium, etc; so that every woman can recognise herself through these paintings. Also, in recent works, the different elements represented in the characters’ bodies create an illusion of clothes. We can see that they are naked, but we cannot feel their nudity. It is as if they are all dressed. The atmosphere of the work is, therefore, imbued with a sense of modesty. The dignity of the character is preserved, especially since the emphasis is not on the body itself. Its different parts are barely visible, so the focus is more on what is inside. These myriads of living beings warmly animated with bubbles constitute the very identity of these characters. It is about life, and a woman is the only human being who can carry life within her.

Arnold Fokam, Installation View AquariHomme at Goethe Institute in Yaoundé
Arnold Fokam, Installation View AquariHomme at the Goethe Institute in Yaoundé

O: You mentioned your sketches. How does a painting begin? Give us an insight into your creative process.

AF: My creative process is centered on the relationship between the human body and water. That concept is the starting point. I then break it down into multiple topics. I bring these issues to life through sketches. I create compositions and layouts. Sometimes I ask people to pose for photographs, and I use them to draw on the canvas. And that’s when the actual painting begins. I pay a lot of attention to the harmony of colours, the contrasts between them, and how to manipulate them to give the illusion of transparency, especially when depicting the body.

O: Contrasts of vivid colours dominate your last series of paintings. Can you elaborate on that?

AF: Indeed, I explore a lot the hot-cold contrast in my work. The primary colour of the AquariHomme series of paintings is blue, in all its shades. Since we are talking about water, chromatically, it is the colour that refers to this natural element. We are therefore immersed in almost monochrome blue works. It generates a calm, peaceful, but also icy atmosphere. That’s why I like to balance it so much with bright warm colours that remind me of my continent and its high temperatures.

AquariHomme at the Goethe Institute in Yaoundé will conclude on January 11th.

The interview was conducted in French, translated and edited for clarity.

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