Cameroonian artist William Tan Njepe (a. k. a. Twilliam) is inspired by the painful memories, which were dredged up from what he calls his “stolen” childhood years, and references his native Bamileké cultural traditions. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke writes
Short dread-locked hair, a singlet top that could have once laid claim to being immaculate white and paint-smeared dark shorts convey the impression of an archetypal artist. Twilliam – real names, William Tagne Njepe – looks every inch the part, as he sits on a hastily-cobbled wooden perch stool, pensively putting finishing touches to one of his large-sized painting hanging on an easel at an end of his cluttered studio, whose floor, here and there, is generously smudged with paint stains. A closer look at the painting reveals a big thought burst depicting children in a playground against the backdrop of a school wall painting, which has lavishly been adorned with the images of happy-looking kids and a Mickey Mouse. Then, distinctly looming larger than this medley of cheery forms is a monochromatic spectral form – likely that of a child-hawker – that seems to wrench the viewer away from the idyllic setting back to the grim realities…
Indeed, Twilliam’s works have, since 2016, been swirling around those golden moments of childhood that he never had. Somehow, it is as though the ensuing series, he dubs Stolen Childhood,mourns his supposed victimhood in the implacable weaving of fate. Denouncing child labour, these works are strident in their advocacy for the rights of children to education and normal development.
As if growing up in a single-parent family setting wasn’t challenging enough, he had to endure the extra burden of living with a sick mother. The grim circumstances not only saw him dropping out of school but also forced him into child labour to complement the family’s subsistence. Thus, stints in petty-trading, as a construction site labourer and as a porter, among many other things, conspired to deny him the kind of happy childhood that he imagined the other children around him took for granted.
It was sometime in 2004 that the 37-year-old Cameroonian artist realised that painting could help exorcise some of the pains of his “stolen” childhood years. “I painstakingly re-enacted the scenes of happy children, brimming over with joie de vivre,” he recalls.
Yet, colourless images of child-hawkers wading against the tide of lovelessness and straining under the scourge of sacrifices, sexual abuse and forced labour, obtrude themselves like accusing spectres and spoilsports into the colourful scenes.
Of course, the realisation that he was not alone as a “victim” of this scourge, which seems to ravage countless other children around the world, on further fuels his passion to become a voice for the voiceless. Those lost years, he believes, are crucial to forging a child’s personality and asserting a level of autonomy. “Each brush-stroke is an action to denounce and condemn the violence, crimes and horrors that traumatise and claim the lives of millions of faceless children out there,” he says.
Because the Douala (Cameroon)-based married father of three children plumes himself on being a committed contemporary artist, he deliberately confronts his viewers with unmistakable allusions to his messages. While handcuffs and bars symbolise restraint and the absence of freedom, for instance, the omnipresent thought bursts and comic book characters allude to stolen childhood dreams. Also, while inserting STOP signs to denounce the violation of the child’s living space, he never fails to depict the victims in spectral monochromes.
Twilliam’s full-time studio practice flagged off in 2005, after his period of apprenticeship at the Doula-based Atelier Viking, where he trained under the renowned contemporary Cameroonian artist Kanganyam Viking from 2001 to 2002. Also at Atelier Viking, he was taught screen-printing and calligraphy in 2003.
Now well-established in the Douala art circle, he has not only become an active member of the non-profit association Futur’Art, which is involved in the discovery, training and promotion of young painters, he also belongs to SOCADAP (société camerounaise des droits d’auteurs et voisin des arts plastiques). He was also a member of the Putulum collective from 2005 to 2006.
Among his career highlights was his participation in several group exhibitions not only in Cameroon but also in Chad, Switzerland, France and Nigeria. In Nigeria, he was part of a group exhibition held in 2011 at Terra Kulture in Victoria Island, Lagos.
His commissioned works include the making of a fresco for the Douala urban community, during a public health awareness campaign in 2011 as well as the production of four frescoes for the Cameroonian National Museum in the capital city Yaoundé during the commemoration of the country’s 50th independence anniversary in 2012.
From distinguishing himself as BARBECUEXPO’s revelation of the year in 2009, Twilliam was featured at the 7th Francophonie Games held in the French city of Nice in 2013 as Cameroon’s representative and has since 2014 been showing one of his works from the series Les Faiseuses de Beauté (The Makers of Beauty) at the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Though born in Douala, Twilliam traces his family roots to Bandjoun, a village in Western Cameroon. Besides drawing his inspirations from his childhood memories, he also references the cultural traditions of the Bamileké ethnic group, one of his country’s largest ethnic groups among whom he was raised. Strengthened by his past experiences, he resolutely focuses on honing his skills and strives daily to improve on them.