The current collection of articles grew out of a panel, entitled “Reconsidering the Grassfields,” that Jonathan Fine and I co-chaired at the Sixteenth ACASA Triennial Symposium on African Art held at the Brooklyn Museum in 2014. The panel sought to bring together scholars working on any facet of the arts in the Grassfields, an area of Cameroon comprising largely the Northwest and West Regions. Originally referencing this area's terrain, the term “Grassfields” was early on extended to connote the shared cultural heritage of the numerous groups located there.
As it turned out, all of the papers presented on the panel focused on matters of cultural heritage and collecting practices. This should have come as no great surprise. The area is notable for the extraordinary number of museums established there within the last two decades. The establishment of these museums has been supported by outside NGOs, although they certainly also respond to local concerns. These contemporary projects are not without precedent, as is well known from the early twentieth century examples of the Palace Museum and the Museum of Bamun Arts and Traditions, both in Foumban, capital of the Bamum Kingdom. As has been noted before, while there are numerous studies of how African art and material culture are exhibited abroad, there are few that focus on collecting or heritage in Africa itself (Nelson 2007:23, Probst 2012:11).
It bears emphasizing that these are not institutions set up by the national or regional governments, but rather by local actors often, but not always, working in concert with foreign NGOs. The creation of these museums could be viewed as a response to a lack of government initiative, plugging the holes through private initiatives. One is reminded of Father Englebert Mveng's frustrated query in 1986, twenty-five years after independence, “A quand le musée national du Cameroun?” (Mveng 1992). While addressing government shortcomings may be part of the impetus, to stop at such a conclusion would be to deny the complexity of motives and negotiations involved.
As a whole, these institutions, both the more recent as well as the earlier examples, reflect the conflation of different conceptions of the collection—as expressions of royal authority, cultural identity, storage facility, income generator, among others. They also reflect a variety of different communities and interests. As a result, collections have been reorganized, restaged, or recreated. Multiple collections may arise that expand upon or compete with one another. In some cases, collections ostensibly intended to convey a sense of cultural unity seem just as likely to give rise to a sense of alienation. Therefore, the authors in this issue seek to understand heritage and collections as more than just objects conveying the past to the present, and instead investigate the complexities arising from their contestation in contemporaneous society.
Erica Jones investigates the differential treatment of objects depending on whether they are perceived as empowered or simple historical items, and in turn how they are affected by their positions within and without the museum context. While she considers objects from two collections in particular, the Mankon and Babungo Museums, the questions raised apply to all of the museums formed under the direction of the Italian NGO Centro Oreintamento Educativo (COE) after 1999, as well as under successor NGOs and those independently formed. That these questions should arise at all is in part a reflection of the way in which these museums are conceived, not only as a place of preservation, but also as housing a living heritage. The shifts in and out of the museum context not only are reflected in the treatment of the object, however, but also in their relationship to a larger whole. That is, if the museum is a place of fragmentation (Kirschenblatt-Gimblet 1998:3), the object removed for ceremonial use reverts from symbolic fragment to element of a living whole (Adorno 1988:175–85).1 This process highlights on the one hand the peculiar environment for the creation of meaning that is the museum, but at the same time requires recognition of the multiple potentialities of a single object.
Ivan Bargna also begins with a COE-sponsored museum at Bandjoun, but follows its transformation as it was revised under a program sponsored by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He reveals some of the missteps and misunderstandings that have occurred and the ways in which they have been addressed. The shifts in the display of objects points to the necessity of integrating the concept of the museum as conceived by the external participants, with the understanding of collecting practices and the display of objects held by the local population. Bargna expands our perspective on collections by examining those of local individuals as well as Bandjoun Station, the multifunctional space created by contemporary artist Barthelemy Toguo. Bargna returns us to the palace in considering the changing corpus of representations on the support posts of the nemo, or palace assembly-room, as a form of image collection itself. Not only is our sense of who is collecting altered here, but also what constitutes a collection and who is privileged to create one.
Silvia Forni explores the way that art objects, artists, and museums intersect with performance at the village level in the Bamileke context. Rather than following historical objects, her interest is in the masks of contemporary artist Hervé Youmbi, which combine local historical forms with those borrowed from across Africa and even from mass production, thereby challenging the rigid “tribal” categories constructed around Grassfields masks. At the same time, Forni follows these masks in and out of Bandjoun Station, international museums, and local Bamileke masquerade performances, tracing the artist's effort to further confound the distinctions between traditional and contemporary art. Forni's work suggests ways in which artists themselves may push the boundaries of a museum's role and invite collaboration with community representatives.
Jonathan Fine looks at the conundrum that presented itself in the early twentieth century to Bamum artists and art suppliers when European collectors began realizing that their actions were denuding the cultural landscape in the Grassfields of collectible works. In order to satisfy an emerging European desire for authentic works, defined as old and used objects, local agents were required to employ different strategies. One of these was the creation of new works of art in historicizing styles, while another was to in fact use the newly produced objects in contrived ceremonial activities. Fine presents us with a situation in which the objectification of Bamun tradition is supported from within, and has been for most of the twentieth century. This creation of tradition was aimed not so much at the preservation of the past, however, as it was oriented towards providing economic opportunities, i.e., the creation of a new market, at a time when prior models of artistic production and patronage were under pressure. At the same time, recognizing this point changes our understanding of the conflict between the central figures behind the creation of the two museum collections of Foumban as one focused on the rights to commission and display objects, rather than necessarily the nature of the objects themselves.
Finally, Alexandra Galitzine-Loumpet takes us further into the role of Bamum agents in the creation of an arts trade and the very questions raised by Fine's article, suggesting that the Bamum kings and their rivals took it to such an extent that we may consider this process as a sort of continuous self-patrimonialization. While this occurred at the level of the art creator and dealer, Galitzine-Loumpet links this self-objectification to the even broader political role of art, originating long before the colonial era. Her examination of the back and forth between court and other actors in Bamum society throughout the twentieth century emphasizes the degree to which this has been in reality a political struggle fought with visual materials. This politicization of art and of the very right to create and collect is a practice that continues up to the present with recent plans to create a new museum.
These articles point to important ways of thinking about the art of the Cameroon Grassfields not so much in terms of art objects as final products, but more so of processes of creation, collecting, and display. All point to the changing nature of these arts and of their meanings, roles, and forms. At the same time, while specific artistic styles and media may shift radically, the foundational perceptions of the roles that many of these objects play as political signifiers may persist. The widespread creation of museums in the Grassfields has pushed these authors to think not just about the objects, but more so about how Grassfields populations position objects. We may also see Grassfields populations as progressively engaging through these processes in the production of scholarship about the Grassfields itself.
Or perhaps it is still a fragment, but simply inserted into a different context?