All photos by author, except where otherwise noted
The purpose of my article is to inquire about the way that different kinds of image and object collections can construct social memory and articulate and express social and interpersonal relationships, dissent, and conflict. I will examine this topic through research carried out in the Bamileke kingdom of Bandjoun, West Cameroon, since 2002 (Fig. 1). The issues involved are to some extent analogous to those concerning the transmission of written texts: continuity and discontinuity; translations, rewritings, and transformations; political selections and deliberate omissions (Forty and Kuchler 1999). Nevertheless, things are not texts, and we must remain sensitive to the difference between them. In spite of a widespread stereotype that African societies do not preserve material culture, in the Grassfields, the West Cameroon highlands, we can identify several collecting practices animated by different interests, motivations, and aims. In fact, the modern Western museum is only one among many different ways of collecting and “making worlds” through the order given by the collection (Pomian 1978, Bargna 2013).
The assumption that is the starting point of my article is that collecting is not a Western prerogative or the consequence of colonial domination, but a bundle of different, widespread, transcultural practices of shaping and representing reality. Collections are forms of concrete thinking operating through things, in ways that are always locally diversified. Proceeding in this way, I try to distance myself from the cultural stereotype of the “museum collection” and consider the collection in terms of what Wittgenstein called a “family resemblance”: that is, a series of overlapping similarities, where no one feature is common to all. That said, we must also specify that resemblances are not in the things themselves; rather, they emerge from an act of comparison which is always oriented and located somewhere, in an individual and collective collection experience, and in a theoretical and methodological background and goal. Therefore, in spite of all, the museum largely remains our starting point for two main reasons: firstly, because the “museum” is also found in Bandjoun; and secondly, because we can use the museum stereotype as a conventional prototype for identifying the similarities and differences that compose the always open range of possibilities that we call “collection.” To be clear, in considering the museum as a stereotypical prototype, I do not ignore the fact that the concept of the museum and its definition change over time and that every history written in terms of continuity is a retrospective illusion or an ideological projection. I shall proceed, therefore, from what is most similar to the concept of the museum, and then gradually turn towards other collecting practices, trying at the same time to expand the use of the collection as a heuristic paradigm of research.
STRUGGLES SURROUNDING THE KINGDOM MUSEUM
The first case that I will consider is that of the kingdom museum (Fig. 2): namely, a “collection” explicitly presented as a “museum” by the legitimate possessor—the public figure of the fo (king) who inherits and holds the collection, but who is not the owner—and the curator who is delegated to manage it.
The royal treasury is the subject of special care. Many objects kept inside the museum have a sacred aura, because they are charged with ke, or “force,” a power which places them in the sacred (Maillard 1984:131–71). The possession of certain objects (such as stools and drinking horns) and their measured exhibition enable the exercise of authority through the ke they convey. In particular, the acquisition of degrees of notability and the exercise of the rights attached to them is bound to the possession of certain objects. They do not simply attest to the power in place in a symbolic way, but they make it effective (Warnier 2009): their possession legitimates usurpation, while their loss undermines the established power (Maillard 1984:86). If the official ideology explicitly states that the transmission of power takes place through ascription (from father to chosen son), what happens in reality (given the conflict between fathers and sons, and between brothers) is that the heir, according to a commonly accepted practice, has enough strength to succeed him (Ouden 1987). In this context, the kingdom museum collection appears as a weapon, a power-knowledge device, playing a role in the political arena.
The museum itself is a stratified construction in which the contributions brought from the inside and the outside are mixed and mutually determined. That is, the social and public identity of the collection emerges at the intersection point between the local and the global generated by cultural heritage policies and the different attempts to take advantage of them. In this sense, the last fifteen years in Bandjoun have been marked by a growing cultural activism which has its landmarks in the restoration of the Bandjoun cultural week, the rebuilding of the traditional nemo or bung die (“House of the People”), and the opening of a new kingdom museum.
In 2001, therefore, during the reign of Fo Ngnie Kamga (1984–2003), a new nemo (Fig. 3) was built to replace the battered building dating back to 1960, and a new museum was created to replace the one created by Fo Fotué Kamga Justin in the 1980s. This newly created museum was sponsored by COE (Centro di Orientamento Educativo), an Italian Catholic NGO. The new “House of the People,” however, was short-lived. It was burnt down by arson, the result of disputes over the succession to the throne in January 2005, as had also happened in 1959, and then was rebuilt again in 2006–2007 (Fig. 4). The fire also reached the old museum building and the few objects that were left in there, but the new museum did not suffer any damage. Nevertheless, this recently renovated museum has since been dismantled to make way for a new arrangement, this time promoted by French cooperation. What is particularly interesting in these events is not only the occurrence of a strong will to build, accumulate, and grow shown by the king and the elites, but an intense dialectic of construction and destruction, dismantling and renewal, that affected the museum collection itself. These events allow us to move our attention from the collection as a product to the collection as a process, setting out the framework of multiple and contrasting agencies deciding the fates of a collection, the role played by chance, and the several antagonistic collecting paradigms present within a single collection.
The museum created by COE was part of a wider project of creating Grassfields kingdom museums, aimed at the preservation of local heritage and touristic development. Although COE is directly connected to the Italian Episcopal Conference, the project had no clear missionary intent. The museum was not imposed by outside pressure, but rather was negotiated with the king, who assured the construction of the building. Moreover, the project included the training of local conservators and the research directorship was entrusted to a Cameroonian academic of international renown, Professor Jean-Paul Notué, himself born in Bandjoun. The curators were aware of the danger of reification involved in every museum and they tried to avoid it, adopting the musée vivant model, in which the objects collected are taken out of the museum every time the kingdom's ceremonies require it. This culturally sensitive approach apparently also informed the exhibition setting, conceived of by the Italian architect Antonio Piva, whose intention was to valorize local materials and techniques in order to minimize differences between the inside and the outside of the museum.
Why dismantle a newly built museum, conceived and made with the involvement and agreement of the king and the elites? What did not work? Many factors played a role in this situation, including the presence of different development actors competing with each other in the same field, and thus the availability of new financial resources, a generational change that has brought to the fore a new curator, and a shift in the goals of the museum and of its intended audience. The museum thus passed from one format, La route des chefferies, to another that was connected to the program Musée au Service du Développement, sponsored by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The concept of the new program's synergy between heritage preservation and tourism development was very similar to that of the previous Italian cooperation. In some ways, this was a rebranding operation in which the changes in the container affected the content too. There is more, however, in that the focus of the project was the construction of the large new museum of Dschang (Fig. 5), a city in which the French municipality of Nantes sponsored an urban renovation project that had, until recently, remained stagnant for many years. This difference in fact constituted a major reorientation of the regional geography of museums in the Grassfields, as well as the balance of power, money, and visibility amongst them. This shift was the result perhaps of the differences between the centralizing French tradition and the Italian ethnological tradition based on small community museums.
COMBINING PLANNING AND BRICOLAGE
The new curator of the Bandjoun museum, Flaubert Taboue Nouaye, trained by both the COE and the EPA (Ecole du Patrimoine Africain), and holding a degree in cultural mediation, was later appointed Director of the Dschang Museum (Fig. 6). He presented himself as an homme de terrain, opposing his entrepreneurial and practical approach to the intellectual and academic one of the previous curator, Prof. Notué. In the locally focused approach extolled by the COE, Taboue Nouaye perceived an elitist point of view oriented to a foreign audience, as opposed to a more didactic approach aimed at spreading knowledge of tradition among new generations of Bandjoun. For this reason, the original works are now flanked by replicas as required to fill the gaps in the collection for narrative and argumentative needs.
The curatorial project of Flaubert Taboue Nouaye is focused on the topics of “The Forge—Arts and Power.” This subject is intended to provide a unified interpretative approach that allows the curator to build a grand narrative of the Bandjoun community focused on the kingdom under the broader label of “Unity in Diversity.” In accordance with this ideological and pedagogical aim, the exhibition is filled with information panels, providing instructions for a culturally appropriate reading of the objects and images.
The attempt of Taboue Nouaye was to make the museum the pivot for sustainable development, although dealing with probably unsolvable contradictions such as the preservation of a tradition based on secret and unequal knowledge distribution and the “democratic” need for its dissemination, the will to recover cultural roots as a system of life irreducible to modernity and at the same time attempting to make the culture profitable by turning it into a commodity. The appeal to “tradition,” in short, appears as the best (im)possible way to get at modernity. The fact that people have to go to the museum to relearn their own tradition implies not only the voluntary recovery of what was lost, but also access to that from which they were previously excluded, albeit in the impoverished form of a cultural product deprived of all power.
The Taboue Nouaye critique of the COE project becomes clear in the aesthetic shift from the previous setting to the new one. The Italian architect Antonio Piva, charged with the layout of the original COE exhibition, decided to use the bamboo stalls he had seen at the local market as pedestals for the works on display (Fig. 7). The use of local artifacts and traditional materials and techniques, in his mind, was a means of approximating the cultural context for the objects on display, thus reducing the distinction between the inside and the outside of the museum. Although the proposal was not rejected, the locals seem never to have loved this display. To them, putting sacred and venerable objects on the lowly and mundane stands used to sell vegetables at the market appeared completely inappropriate. The stalls could be attractive only for an audience which had been fed by primitivism, arte povera, and sustainable development rhetoric. For the locals it was only a rude reference to their poverty and a reversal of the hierarchic symbolism opposing the market to the royal quarter. Piva, in his wish to be culturally sensitive, was in fact creating a clash between two different regimes of value.
The new layout of the museum seems to put things in their proper places. The project was confided to Sylvain Djache Nzefa, an architect born in Bandjoun but working in Nantes for many years. Instead of an open space, as it was before, there is now a very directed exhibition path, a sort of winding course vaguely reminiscent of Jean Nouvel's sinuous “rivers” at the Quai Branly museum, connecting the scenes on the “banks” (Fig. 8). The goal is not to connect the museum to the ordinary life outside, but rather to celebrate Bandjoun identity and the power of the kingdom by means of a rich and spectacular setting, able to project the museum on the international scene. These are traditional objects displayed in an international style.
The Bandjoun museum is actually quite an eclectic museum, combining aesthetic glamour and a strongly didactic approach in order to attract the students who are its main target. The overwhelming presence of the texts, a little annoying for the Western eye, is probably perceived differently in a place where books are quite rare because of their price. The authority of the written word asserts the cultural importance of the objects and also sometimes makes up for the lack of visual or ethnographic interest of certain objects. This latter point is especially the case for the Dschang Museum collection, which for the most part consists of replicas commissioned by the museum itself.
Perhaps the most significant indicator of the spirit of the museum, combining planning and bricolage through its ability to react to circumstances and seize opportunities that arise in current events, was exemplified in 2009 when the fo, the ultimate authority, permitted the display of a work of contemporary art in the core of the museum, the prestigious hall located at the end of the exhibition. It was a potentially disruptive monumental installation, consisting of a pyramid of mud and soccer balls (Fig. 9), created by the Italian artistic collective Alterazioni Video, a very transgressive group of art activists that I brought to Bandjoun (Bargna 2012). In their mind, it was a camouflaged work, mimetically making use of local materials, techniques, and forms (the pyramid resembles the shape of the roofs of notables' houses) in order to create an unexpected disorienting effect, inserting a pop culture element into the heart of tradition in a way that might appeal to an international art world audience. In the local context however, this artistic device seems to have worked differently. Soccer is not something coming from the outside, but rather a national tradition, already represented on the porch columns of the nemo. This motif connected in a significant and accessible way the local and the global, offering an image of the self as able to compete in the international arena. The puzzling effect is not excluded, but there is nevertheless a culturally accessible means by which to interpret it. In 2014 the sculpture was still there, but without any label and presented as a work by a local artist.
All considerations so far raise the question of the relationship between the political-religious authority that the king exercises over the collection and the effective power and knowledge of the curators managing it on a daily basis. The role of the curator is legitimized by the king, who retains the final word on what can be accepted into or must be rejected from the collection; but in practical terms, the discretionary power of the curator is very broad and goes beyond simple executive functions. He has specific knowledge of “art” and “tradition” that the fo, Djomo Kamga Honoré (Fig. 10), educated as a chemist, lacks.
The king employs the museum as a weapon in his ongoing competition with Bandjoun's powerful neighbor, the Foumban Sultanate (Geary 1984), and with the other Bamileke kingdoms. Within the kingdom, the museum is also used, as in the case of the nemo, to reassert the unity of a heterogeneous community around the power of the monarchy. The scientific authority and international visibility granted by the recent renovations offers the kingdom an additional resource, although with the required acceptance of some compromises and risks. In effect, this project alters the royal treasury, or at least its visible part. Rigorous selection on the basis of international artistic and ethnographic criteria, in the case of Jean-Paul Notué's project, rejected a large quantity of objects, mainly gifts and souvenirs collected by different fo over time. In this way, the scientific care involved in identifying and selecting a collection of high-quality objects produced a model of “authenticity” that has become normative for the fo himself.
The king, however, gains an advantage from this because the same scientific care, for example, also brought to the center many objects disseminated throughout the kingdom. The curatorial desire to elevate the standard of the museum's collection and to conserve in a safe place objects otherwise menaced by thefts and termites resulted in important political ramifications. Bringing power-charged objects to the center meant that the local political equilibrium was altered between the fo and the subordinated chiefs, who are indeed very resolute on keeping their autonomy and prerogatives. It is no wonder, then, that in fact very few objects were given to the museum. The majority of such objects continue to be kept in compound shrines, used in rituals and usually kept invisible (Fig. 11).
MAKING DIFFERENT: DIVERGING COLLECTING PRACTICES
The king's collection, therefore, is not the only collection in Bandjoun, but is one of several different collections present in the village. We can distinguish two kinds of “collection”: sets of objects and sculptures connected to family cults of the ancestors, and other, more individually oriented collections that constitute sorts of cabinets of curiosities or private museums, set up by the nouveau riche of Bandjoun. These three interrelated kinds of “collection” present a network of differences and similarities that allow us, at least in part, to leave the kingdom museum and see it as one of the local possible collecting practices. The kingdom museum itself is not entirely an import from abroad filling a local void, but rather it imposes itself upon a preexisting form of collection known in French as les choses du pays (“things of the country,” or the treasury of the kingdom) that is stored in the so-called grenier du roi (“the king's granary”), a building permanently warmed in order to preserve the objects from humidity and insect attacks. From this point of view, it is contiguous to objects and sculptures gathered in the family houses (dshang) that preserve the skulls of the family ancestors. All these sets of objects can be considered “collections” to the extent that they have been assembled and preserved in a special place, establishing relationships between themselves that are not random, receiving special care, and being handed down to successors. To say that collections existed in the past and continue to exist in Cameroon, and elsewhere in Africa, is not to deny the differences with the concept of the museum. For example, the high level of replaceability of the objects, the lack of importance attributed to their age, and the scant attention to their preservation, by Western standards in any case, are significant deviations.
In different parts of Bandjoun it is also possible to find nouveau riche people, bourgeois who made their fortunes in the city or abroad, presenting themselves as collectors and their collections as private museums. In this case, the accurate exhibition of objects collected, either as an integral part of the house's furniture (Fig. 12) or in a building expressly built to mimic a museum's display, is an important aspect of the collection's display, increasing the “symbolic capital” of the owner (Bourdieu 1979). Through heterogeneous things collected during their life, these people display their “modernity” and social success (Rowland 2002), writing their autobiography by means of exotic objects, often souvenirs, gifts, and photographs, and the appropriation of traditional symbols and ornaments long ago reserved for the king. These heterogeneous objects speak about the life of their owners, witnessing their travels, jobs, or political careers and the important persons they have known. The nexus which connects them, the principle of the intelligibility of the collection, resides in the biography of the collector, in his connections with these objects and the experiences they evoke.
This is probably true also for an another kind of collection: the collection of contemporary art located in the new cultural center of Bandjoun Station, created by Barthelemy Toguo, an artist of international renown based in Paris, but born in Cameroon (Bargna 2008). This center, whose architecture makes reference to the local style but also is distinct from all the other buildings around, is devoted to the production, collection, and exhibition of contemporary art (Fig. 13). It brings to Bandjoun another kind of collection and display, different from those already in place.
Bandjoun Station is equipped with a library, a video room, and rooms for both a permanent collection and temporary exhibitions of contemporary art. Barthelemy Toguo intends for his center to work both as an international workshop and a cultural center open to the people of Bandjoun. It is neither a nostalgic return to African roots, nor the simple transposition of a Western institution elsewhere. It is rather an expression of a specific sensibility of the place—a reshaping of the artist's travel experiences around the world, on the basis of what the specific place demands and suggests; in this regard, Bandjoun Station represents a “zone of contact” (Clifford 1997:188–219) and transit in which the relationship between the local and the global has to be interpreted in terms of their complex interconnectivity. The permanent collection housed at the third floor of the building renders Toguo's design: it is not a collection of his artworks, but the result of the exchanges he has been making with other artists and collectors over the years: a collection of international art, aiming to avoid “the pitfall of the ‘African art ghetto’.”1 Some agricultural projects created by the artist are also presented as a way to connect visiting artists and local people, putting together symbolic and social aims (Fig. 14).
Bandjoun Station is a work in progress and we cannot say anything about its future, but it will be interesting to observe how this artistic milieu, this “station” where travellers from all around the world will arrive, will affect all the other collections existing in Bandjoun. Similarly, how will Bandjoun Station be affected by them? Significantly, the opening of Bandjoun Station awaited the inauguration of the new nemo, which took place in November 2008, recognizing in this way the authority of the king and connecting, at the same time, contemporary art and traditional culture. A work of Toguo, donated by the artist, is expected to be placed in the kingdom museum.2
LOOKING AT THE HOUSE OF THE PEOPLE AS A DISPUTED COLLECTION
In the last part of my article I would like to extend my perspective on the collection by using this paradigm in the analysis of the nemo, an architectural artifact that we usually do not consider in these terms. The nemo, located in the royal quarter of Bandjoun (Bargna 2005), is the heart or, in Bamileke terms, the “stomach” of Bandjoun. It is considered the innermost part of the kingdom. The nemo is the assembly-room of the “council of the nine” (mkamvu'u), that is the political and religious organ that assists the fo in his rule.
The nemo is presented as a house built by the people and for the people. Nobody is to be excluded from the nemo's construction and everyone is expected to take part in it, either through work or by giving money. Not only are the people resident in the kingdom involved, but also those who have migrated to the great Cameroonian towns of Douala and Yaounde, or abroad to Europe or the US (Fig. 15). The nemo maintains a sense of local belonging in connection to the global (Bargna 2006). The nemo, of course, is a building, and it may seem arbitrary to speak about it in terms of collection. At the most, it appears to be a container for possibly housing a collection. In reality, there is nothing inside the nemo at all. The sanctuary is empty.
I propose nevertheless to regard the sculpted posts on the outside of the nemo as a sort of “permanent collection,” hosted in the exterior of the sanctuary, instead of treating them as part of an architectural artifact provided with an intrinsic unity. As a collection, the images sculpted on the posts compose an ensemble put together by one or more discourses or narratives. They are located in a strategic order of discourse, and they are used in individual and collective tactics aimed at enforcing or eluding the dominant narratives. They are, at the same time, the expression of the established order and an accidental accumulation of “objects,” heterogeneous in their content and origin.
What we can see in the iconography of the nemo is a collection of images that continually surpasses both the plan of the curator and of its political patronage, i.e., the king and the elites surrounding him. Post hoc interpretations of this iconography are often aimed at reducing dissonances and contradictions between the official political stances and the divergent visions of individuals and groups pursuing their particular interests and aims (Bargna 2007). It is not only a question of the difference between theory and reality, speech and images, immateriality and materiality, agency and objectification, planned intentions and effective results (Miller 2005:1–50), but a conflict between differently oriented practices situated in a field of power and knowledge relationships. The posts do not constitute a collection, but rather several different kinds of collections marked by conflict. The materiality of the carved poles, the apparent architectural unity of the artifact, and its “monumentality” allow the “public transcript” to assert itself as the dominant discourse but, at the same time, the indeterminacy of the image lets several “hidden transcripts” (Scott 1990) survive and express themselves in a subordinate and marginal way. All of these transcripts are on display but not equally visibile.
Within the nemo's many different “collections,” the principles inspiring the official collection are those supporting the cultural identity of the Bandjoun's kingdom and its historical memory. The origin of the nemo very probably goes back to the colonial period. Its “tradition” would be a strategic response given by the elite menaced by the advance of modernity (Malaquais 2002:344–46). It is an invented tradition, but less a reaction than an attempt to domesticate modernity by a ruling class in search of a local way to assert its “conservative modernism” (Warnier 1993:28). In the 1980s, these practices of remaking the tradition were once again taken up by the urbanized bourgeoisie, which acquired the traditional titles sold by the fo. It is the fo himself who brings together the different roles of businessman, traditional king, and local administrator in the Cameroon Republic. In this context, the images “collected” on the posts have usually been the figures of the fo's ancestors, which in a visible form connected the present and the past, the hereditary king and his community. At least, this is what happened until 2001, when the images of two jazz musicians (Fig. 16), a football player (Fig. 17), Pope John Paul II, an envoy of the World Bank with a bag full of money (Fig. 18), and some kings dressed in jackets and ties appeared on the front of building. If the nemo in its own historical origin has always been a point of connection between “tradition” and “modernity,” the local and the global, what was new in the 2001 nemo was the explicit presence of modernity in the presumed core of tradition. In attempting to understand these changes, we have to shift our analysis from the collection as a product to the collection as a process. Gaining a diachronic perspective on the nemo also allows us to recognize the role played by chance in determining the different choices and decisions taken by the actors involved and their effective connections. In other words, what is the contingent dimension of the reality that the artifact—in its apparent stability, resulting from its materiality and the presumed coherence of its pattern—tends to disguise, in this way transforming chance into necessity? In this manner we will be able to discern other antagonistic collecting paradigms.
GLOBAL MEDIASCAPES AND ARTIST AGENCY
If Roger Milla (the football player) and Manu Dibango (the jazz musician) began to appear on the nemo in 2001, it was due to a concatenation of circumstances, none of which, taken separately, was either sufficient or necessary in itself. The king was sick and forced to stay in Paris for medical treatment. The temporary weakness of power provided an opportunity for some artists, Tzuakou Innocent in particular (Fig. 19), to express themselves more freely. Through his unforeseeable action, global mediascapes and mass culture, such as football, jazz, consumption goods, and advertising, appeared in the context of the representation of “tradition” codified by the elite. Without this contingent combination of necessity, intention, and chance, we probably never would have seen such massive iconographic changes affecting the “House of the People” in 2001.
This temporary weakness of power, the void created by the fo's illness, is the reason why the ancestors were placed on the sides of the building, while footballers and musicians are on the front. This arrangement marks the advance of young, market-oriented artists and the withdrawal of the old ones, artists of the palace among them. When Tzuakou had the chance, he deliberately used the “sacred house” as a shop window for his business. His purpose was to shift the center of attention to himself, as is clearly expressed by his signature and address directly sculpted on the posts, probably for the first time in the history of the nemo. So we continue to have a “collection” in the nemo, but based on different criteria. New artistic and commercial criteria are superposed upon and contradict the political-religious ones established by the kingship, creating two different “regimes of value” (Appadurai 1986:3–63). At first glance these two conceptions respond to different sets of “objects” that we can characterize as “traditional” and “popular art” (Barber 1987). In reality, however, their identities are not fixed; rather, they constitute uninterrupted negotiations depending on the effective power relations in place at a particular moment in time. When the kingship resumed its prerogatives with the installation of a new king in 2004, the official transcript was restored by virtue of a reinterpretation of the extant imagery. The reinterpretation was the responsibility of specific individuals delegated to this role: the curator of the museum and the servants working at the palace as tourist guides.
But if Tzuakou paid no attention to the symbolic constraints connected to the nemo, his action is not solely the trivial externalization of his immediate purposes and casual circumstances. It also responds to a personal conception of the world, confusedly animated by a political critique, that intersects in part with the needs and wishes of certain segments of Bandjoun's population. In this reflective and significant aspect, the images sculpted by Tzuakou respond to discernable principles which assemble a real collection of images of modernity in both its positive and negative aspects. The stylistic changes introduced by Tzuakou, his mimetic and expressive realism (“the old artists made statues, we make persons,” he says) strike the collective unity emphasized by the nemo and underline a disintegrating appropriation of it. His style abandons the traditional frontality and symmetry of the figures in favor of moving characters, also portrayed in profile or from behind. The figures are no longer reproduced according to repetitive modules, one over the other along the pole; rather, they interact with each other to compose scenes or small narrative sequences. These characters seem go beyond the bounds imposed by the log and enter the outside world. This is in particular the case of the figures sculpted with an outstretched arm projecting laterally from the pole—a style introduced in the nemo by Tzuakou in 2001 (Fig. 20) that reappeared in the nemo built in 2006 (Fig. 21), also taken up by another artist, Taffe Mogué Ladislas.
Through his images, Tzuakou suggests different models of identification based on individual success and an alternative to the rhetoric of unanimity previously supported by the nemo. What actually appears here is nothing more than the other face of the Bamileke ethos: the individualistic, competitive, and entrepreneurial side of their society. What is embarrassing about it, for the “public transcript,” is only its presence in the building that ideologically asserts the complementary side of collective unanimity.
Mediascapes enter the nemo by means of Tzuakou Innocent's imagery and aims, first of all in the form of advertising. Not only did he try to use his participation in the building of the nemo to create a market for himself, but in a more substantial way, he chose his subjects in order to draw a financial advantage from the persons he portrayed. It is for this reason that, in a rather ingenuous way, he decided to represent VIPs such as Roger Milla, Manu Dibango, and so on. This objective also explains why the football player grasps a bottle of beer in his hand. Tzuakou had pasted a Guinness label on the bottle, hoping for a reward from the Cameroon Breweries. If he has conceived all this as a real possibility, it is because of the widespread presence of mediascapes in the daily life of the people. In particular, in the case of beer and football, we have two of the most appreciated consumer goods of Cameroon (Diduk 1993). Moreover, their matching in the post is not fortuitous, because their connection has been already established by Cameroonian advertising. The beer firms with their posters and trucks are everywhere, sponsoring football matches as well as royal burials. Nevertheless, the direct display of the Guinness label on the sacred house was considered inappropriate, and so it was removed.
COLLECTING AS AN OPEN PROCESS
Our attempt to interpret the nemo as a form of collection seems to have its limitations in the fact that the collecting practice ends when the posts are put in place and the house is built. This limitation, however, concerns more our ways of defining the object than an inherent feature of the object in itself. In fact, we can continue to see the nemo as a process, and not simply as a product, beyond the term of its construction as a single artifact. The nemo is involved in a larger dialectic of creation and destruction, which finds in iconoclasm a quite extreme possibility offered to opponents to manifest their dissent in an anonymous but clearly visible way (Goody 1997). In this perspective, for example, the burning of the nemo does not appear as a mere accident, but rather as a recurring event motivated by political aims and personal interests. These motivations find a way to express themselves by contesting and renewing the criteria and content inspiring the nemo's image collection.
In the new nemo built in 2006–2007, after arson destroyed the former one in January 2005, a new orientation was imposed upon the carved posts. The rebuilding of the nemo (Fig. 22) became both a tool and an expression of the restoration of the social order, so that the images have again become strictly disciplined. For the artists, it was more difficult to find their own space. This time there was a coherent plan, arranged by the young curator of the kingdom's museum, itself recently renovated by the COE. The main concern was for the nemo to provide the Bandjoun people, the youth above all, a sort of visible handbook to manage the basis of “tradition.” The political purpose of the nemo in this way took a didactic form. The model was “the book,” meaning both catalogue, as the iconography of the building is animated by the concern to offer an inventory of the main elements of tradition, and narrative, as the scenes that tend to prevail over single characters often require reading as a narrative sequence (Fig. 23). This time, the writing on the nemo therefore appears in the form of both a logical constraint which imposes a disciplined order on the whole composition and captions directly sculpted on the posts.
Now the “collection” begins to refer explicitly to the art world, as it originated in the West and then spread all around the globe. Most likely this connection is not something absolutely novel because, as is well known, a great percentage of West African royal art is in its origin the result of political interactions between local and colonial powers (Bargna 2000). Today this nexus takes a different and more programmatic form by making reference to global issues concerning world heritage, cultural identity displayed by the museums, and the international art market. In this context, the canon is provided by Western catalogues, which arrive in Bandjoun as photocopies, and by photographs often downloaded from the Internet or drawn from magazines, Encarta cd-rom, and the Larousse Dictionary. A catalogue, however, already exists in Bandjoun. It is the catalogue of the royal museum located between the nemo and the king's palace (Notué and Triaca 2005).
In addition to a neo-traditional oleographic style elevated to a politically correct model, marked by a moderate naturalism and conventional rural life subjects, we can assist at the reproposition of the “traditional,” prototypical style of the art of Bandjoun in the replicas of the posts of Taliebu (Fig. 24), an artist who was born at the end of nineteenth century and died in the 1960s (Notué and Triaca 2005:100–101). In this case, the attempt to preserve or rediscover tradition goes together with a more global perspective. In fact, the “traditional,” the so-called classical style that, as the curator contends, “has made Bandjoun famous all around the world,”3 is more the result of museum exhibitions than the product of Bandjoun itself. What is really happening is that through this quotation of themselves by means of the “Other,” the past takes an objective and detached form, increasing the gap between the past and the present. In this way the nemo tends to become part of a heritage to be enjoyed in terms of “culture.” This phenomenon, however, does not prevent the nemo from continuing to be used in its customary way as a sanctuary. For most people, the nemo (as well as the kingdom museum) is still not a place to go visit.
In most cases, the photographs driving the artists in their work are collected and furnished by the curator. But in the case of Tzuakou, it is the artist himself who collects and proposes his images. The collection paradigm determines the artistic creation itself. On the one hand, when sculpting “traditional” masks, Tzuakou mostly takes his models from photocopies of international exhibition catalogues of African art. On the other hand, when he is portraying “real people,” i.e., identifiable individuals, he draws his models from magazines, the Internet, and TV. Tzuakou has no access to the international art market, but he thinks of himself as a contemporary artist, while having only a vague idea of what international contemporary art is. It is interesting to remark that the curator and the artists agree about the use of pictures as models for sculpture, although they do so for different reasons. A photograph of a king, for example, makes it easier for the artists to achieve their aim of figurative realism and provides the curator with an accurate representation of historical regalia. Once again, two different and competitive logics intersect in the same content, finding a tactical convergence. The use of photographs as models is certainly a strong constraint, but artists retain the power to change imagery without the risk of explicit disobedience, simply in translating the surfaces into volumes.
The enrichment in subjects (football players, musicians, etc.) introduced by Tzuakou is not completely removed but partially reconverted into a useful means of illustrating in an encyclopedic way the different aspects of tradition and its connection with the present and the changing world. Moreover, some aspects that, in the previous nemo, were perceived as a transgression, now, through their repetition in the new building, tend to appear as the starting point of a new tradition. The crucial point in the final result is the arrangement of the posts around the building that put the “collection” in its own effective display. The curator clearly emerges as both an authority and an author, while the artists' powers of negotiation are eliminated once they have finished their work. That said, Tzuakou has tried to influence the choice by appropriating the bigger logs to carve, as those are more likely to be placed on the front of the building. If it is possible to accord some freedom to the artists, it is because the effective meaning of their “words” depends in a large part on their place in the “text” of the spatial arrangement, whether in front or behind, on the sides, near the doors or far from them, and so on. In the case of Tzuakou's new post displaying football players (Fig. 25), one of his personal favorites, the presence of this subject matter is now legitimized by the post already displayed in the old nemo. But the post continues to be embarrassing to the curator, particularly because the players are not generic representations, but rather particular players who are easily recognizable. The post has, therefore, been included in the nemo, but placed on a side, in a minor position.
The nemo seems to have become more and more like a sort of museum which expresses in a material way the supposed union between the fo and his subjects and offers an image of Bandjoun's cosmology to the world. The nemo is planned as a sort of catalogue and intended to end in a published catalogue destined to accomplish the task, in glossing the speech that the architectonic text has begun. The collector point of view is especially clear in the pole dedicated at the mask tseah (Figs. 26–27): as in a mug shot, the mask is seen from all sides, also showing its internal part, the side you'll never see when the mask is in action.
All these phenomena are an integral part in the “production of the local” (Appadurai 1996:178–200) in which Grassfields kingdoms are engaged, and they cannot be interpreted as a linear passage from “religion” to “culture,” from “sacred” to “profane.” In effect, it would be wrong to see the relationships between the nemo and the local museum in terms of a mere opposition. Differently from the images collected in the nemo that are not sacred in themselves (no worship is addressed to them) although they contribute to create the sacred atmosphere of the place by their dramatically visible presence, many objects kept inside the museum keep their ke, their force and sacred aura. What we are remarking on is apparently a sort of displacement between the container and the content, a distance between the institution and the objects collected inside. On the one hand, the nemo is a sacred context bearing profane images. On the other hand, the museum is a profane context containing sacred objects. But if we look at the actual practices developed by the local actors, we do not find any logical contradiction, but rather a wide array of possible experiences depending on the different locations of persons and groups in the local power and knowledge relationships and the consequent unequal access to objects and places. Seen in this perspective, the relationships between sacred and profane do not appear as a dichotomy. For many people, the palace museum remains a secret, invisible, and precluded world, whose role is to exert a function of “containment,” creating a material armature (blindage) which allows us to master invisible worlds through visible means and vice versa (Rowland 2011).
Taboué Nouaye, personal communication, May 12, 2009.
Taboué Nouaye, personal communication, February 12, 2009.