In the realm of African art, masks are some of the most exemplary and iconic artworks. Whether displayed to be admired for their shape, form, and volumes, or presented in dialogue with ethnographic information and contextual images, masks are omnipresent in collections and displays of African art. As aesthetic and ethnographic objects, masks are used as gateways to the understanding and appreciation of “cultural styles” as well as the formal and creative solutions adopted by artists and workshops. Yet the appeal of masks also relies on their perceived irreducible difference and mysterious spiritual aura. Even when isolated and stripped of their fiber costumes and attachments, there is always a reference to the body of an absent wearer, thus evoking a situated and embodied history of production, performance, and social meaning that often does not accompany the mask into the museum. Yet even when isolated and stripped of their embodied meaning, masks are still perceived as affecting.
The meaning constrictions of masks in museum displays often extend to many other African art objects which, in their aesthetic and function, known or imagined, suggest different forms of conceptual and geographical displacement. Many galleries and museums in Europe and North America contain large numbers of religious and performative objects, collected as Europeans expanded their control over territory and over the minds and bodies of people throughout the continent. While these were often seized, stolen, or acquired as people “converted” to new beliefs and cultural practices, others were purchased in rather straightforward market interactions. Indeed, the fascination shown by foreigners towards these “mysterious” and “sacred” artworks also gave birth, almost immediately, to a rather secular, market-oriented production of masklike objects meant for display rather than performance.
This article investigates the longstanding history of commercial practices and stylistic experimentation that characterize the production of masks and other artworks in the Grassfields of Western Cameroon. While I acknowledge the importance of long-distance and international trade as an important stimulus for creativity and artistic production, my intention is to highlight the significance of contemporary artistic inventions in shaping local understanding of aesthetics and material displays. Collections, museums, eco-museological itineraries and, more recently, experimentations and artistic interventions by contemporary artists Hervé Youmbi and Hervé Yamguen (Fig. 1) have produced a complex and intriguing regional and national artistic scene. Here the taxonomies distinguishing commercial productions from “authentic artworks” have been blurred and subverted in local practices, where masks are now moving between spheres of practice and understanding that defy canonical strictures.
NOT JUST FOR TOURISTS: ART AND MARKETS IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
In a 1910 postcard, published in 2014 on Bruno Claessens's blog, four young men stand by an artfully arranged display of decorative masks and figures carved in Kongo style (Fig. 2).1 This early Loango market stall, featuring “fetishes” for sale, was strikingly similar to more contemporary commercial displays of comparable objects found in rural and urban centers across Africa and beyond. While postcards documenting early tourist markets are not very common, the practice of creating objects for sale to merchants, travelers, and colonial administrators is as old as contact itself. The classic examples of the Afro-Portuguese ivories (Fagg 1959, Bassani et al. 1988) or Loango carved tusks and figurines (Bridges 2013) are well-known cases. Yet many travelers' and collectors' accounts testified to the entrepreneurship of local artists and middlemen, fast to grasp and cater to the tastes and preferences of new customers. Scholars have highlighted the importance of commerce in shaping artistic production since early contact times and likely even earlier.2 A paradigmatic example is found in Enid Schildkrout's essay on Fredrick Starr and Herbert Lang's collecting in the Congo. In one of the pages of his diary from 1905, Starr wrote:
Fetishes were too plenty and too fresh to be entirely satisfactory … Yesterday a well carved wooden figure was offered. I refused it because it was rather new and empty in its stomach hole. Today it appeared again, this time with a fat round belly neatly sewed up and well smeared with cam and oil. I agreed to the price, getting it down to 1.50 francs (Starr, Dec. 4, 1905 quoted in Schildkrout 1998:182).
Such interactions were clearly not limited to the Congo area, but were recurrent in almost any region touched by European “civilizing” and “scientific” endeavors. As colonial powers expanded their control over inland territories, new objects and productions started to develop to cater to the needs of a society in transformation. The Cameroonian Grassfields offer important insight into this process of artistic and market changes over the course of the twentieth century.
The Grassfields, corresponding to the francophone West and the anglophone North West Regions of the Republic of Cameroon, is a densely populated, politically and linguistically divided region, and a well-known area in the study of African art. While never a favorite of the European and North American high-end art market because of their bold and blocky forms, Grassfields arts have nevertheless found a place in all significant institutional collections of African art.3 The centers of production and use of these artworks were located in a relatively small and densely populated area in the west of the country, but despite their known local specificity, Grassfields arts have become an almost metonymic representation of the artistic production of Cameroon as a whole.4
One recurrent theme of the scholarship of this region was an emphasis on style and shared material culture as important elements defining the area as an ethnic/cultural unit. According to Fowler (1997), art was what defined the Grassfields regional character, despite great political and linguistic fragmentation. Indeed, the stylistic homogeneity of the region was a feature that reflected in visible terms the broad circulation of artworks through short- and long-distance networks of exchange, whereby masks, stools, pipes, and other prestige items would be traded and exchanged both as diplomatic gifts and as commodities (Bravmann 1973, Warnier 1985) (Fig. 3). The slippage in identification from artistic style to a somewhat uniform cultural area was by no means unique to this region and can be traced as a common taxonomic and classificatory device in many canon-shaping art historical publications. Yet, in the Grassfields as elsewhere, trade and exchanges were more influential than cultural or linguistic identity in determining artistic forms and regional aesthetics.5
Whether locally produced or acquired, the public display of art was an important feature of the manifestation of local political power and a marker of distinction, which identified the rank and prestige of individuals and households. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Grassfields artworks were systematically and competitively acquired by government officials, scholars, missionaries, doctors, curators, and explorers (Geary 1983, 2011). Important field collections from this area are found in prestigious European and North American institutions and particularly in Germany, Switzerland, and France (Obenhofer 2010). Chris Geary (1983:85–94) accounts for the almost aggressive early twentieth century collecting practices of various foreigners interested in securing the best pieces for their government or funding institution. While older objects were most coveted, collectors would not refuse to purchase the bold zoomorphic and anthropomorphic masks, stools, pipes, figures, richly decorated containers, garments, and other artworks inspired by the local material culture of power and produced by the many contemporary workshops active at the time.
Many scholars have written about the complicated historical dynamics that have influenced the development of the arts of the Cameroonian Grassfields and their lasting legacy in contemporary production (Argenti 2002; Forni forthcoming; Geary 1983, 2011; Geary and Xatart 2007; Horner 1993). Indeed, the artistic preeminence of the Grassfields was not just a thing of the past, but continues to be a notable and acknowledged feature of the region in the twenty-first century. Artistic workshops are found throughout the region often still mirroring regional artistic specialization (Knöpfli 1997, Warnier 1985).
In this rich regional scene, Fumban, the capital of the Bamum kingdom, is the main market center for regional artworks, with thousands of artists working in a variety of media and hundreds of dealers trading artworks locally, nationally, and internationally (Fig. 4). The centrality of Fumban as art market and production center has deep historical roots, which can be traced to the aggressive expansive politics of Bamum leaders, their ability to assimilate conquered people, their ability to control artistic production for the court's display and for diplomatic exchanges, and the centralization of artist workshops around the palace (Forni in press; Geary 2011; Tardits 1980, 2004). In addition, Bamum leaders, and particularly King Njoya (r. 1886–1931), strategically used art as a vehicle of diplomatic and commercial exchange with the Europeans who explored and/or settled in the region since the early 1900s (Geary 1994). The political and diplomatic production supported by Bamum kings and notables rapidly morphed into a broader range of artworks when King Njoya, towards the end of his reign, released control over the sale of and access to prestigious goods, allowing court artists to work not only for the king and foreigners but also for a broader segment of local society.6 Other kingdoms specializing in art and prestige items production also saw the progressive expansion and diversification of their clientele, with workshops producing a broad range of objects for local, national, and international markets.
GLOBAL NETWORKS AND AESTHETIC INFLUENCES
The social and political transformations at the beginning of the twentieth century account for the remarkable concentration of workshops and dealers in the Grassfields, and Fumban in particular. Here production aesthetic and style have continued to morph and change as a response to the transformation of local demands as well as the continuing expansion of the African art market in Europe and North America, and more recently South Africa and Asia. Research by scholars of commercial art have highlighted creative dialogue between producers and consumers often mediated by dealers, acting as intermediaries and cultural brokers.7 In Fumban this dialogue and mediation has long been recognized as being a crucial aspect of creative production. Makers and brokers were not just passive recipients of the collecting and scientific interest of foreign agents and scholars, but they often took an active role in understanding the developments in the field of African art and in shaping it. Cultural brokers—whether kings, notables or dealers—understood the potential that artistic innovation had in sustaining a regional and international art market and strengthening the relevance of Fumban as an art-producing center.
Missionary George Schwab, in a letter to the director of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University sent on January 5, 1930, recounted the critical role of his interpreter and field assistant Mosé Yeyap (Fig. 2) in facilitating his collecting activity on behalf of the museum.8 Schwab requested that the museum send for his collaborator a book “with plenty plenty pictures” on African art. While it is not clear whether or not any book was sent, museum director Dr. Earnest Hooton selected twenty-five images of African artworks from the Peabody collection, which were sent on March 15 for Schwab to share with his “native friend.” Yeyap's interest in African art, at the time when the canon itself was first being constructed in the West through a process of appropriation, taxonomy, and selection, reflects an awareness of global trends and, ultimately, “coevalness” (Fabian 1983) often obscured and denied in primitivist narratives.
At the same time, the early interest in African styles and art forms from other regions laid the path for the eclectic production and aesthetic experimentation that characterizes many contemporary workshops in the Grassfields. Paul Gebauer, living in the Grassfields from the 1930s to 1961, documented different instances of experimentation in Cameroonian workshops, including Ife-style brass heads produced by Bamum brass casters living in Nkwen, near Bamenda (1979:122). While certainly many of these formal experiments were initially developed with foreign customers in mind, after decades of production, artworks in different African styles have become quite integrated into the material culture of the region (Forni 2015b; forthcoming).
Twenty-first century palaces, museums, dance fields, and domestic parlors continue to be populated with heterogeneous material displays, including figures carved in different canonical African styles, such as Kongo, Punu, or Chokwe, Indian religious iconography, Catholic devotional images, Chinese décor, international pop icons, and advertisement calendars. Contemporary Grassfields artistic productions comfortably straddle a variety of globalized aesthetic stimuli that are appropriated and reinterpreted locally, posing a challenge to externally imposed art historical taxonomies. A Chinese-made carpet representing a tiger may be found behind a royal throne in lieu of the leopard pelt associated with kingly power (Fig. 5). Locally carved sculptures inspired by power figures from the Democratic Republic of Congo are often placed in royal courtyards, ritual spaces, and palace museums. Punu-style masks grace the entrance to the private spaces inhabited by the king and his wives.
Unmistakably, the works embody a globalized African aesthetic vocabulary, and yet they function effectively as signifiers in traditional displays. These stylistic adaptations seem incongruous to observers familiar with art-historical style distinctions in African art, who usually dismiss these “out of place” objects with a mixture of disbelief and disdain. One of the reasons for these new introductions is definitely the seemingly unstoppable disappearance of “antiquities” from Grassfields palaces, regulatory societies' gathering places, and family compounds.9 However, local leaders and communities have a much more flexible attitude toward introducing novelties in their material culture of power than rigid ethnic style paradigms may suggest. At the local level, the cultural displays that fuel and reinforce traditional political and religious structures are not constricted by art-historically defined stylistic parameters, but on many levels appear open to opportunistic acquisitions as well as new visual vocabularies and aesthetic experimentations.
BLURRING BOUNDARIES, CHALLENGING TAXONOMIES
As is by now clear, creative experimentation with styles and object types is not a new characteristic for Grassfields workshops. In a similar vein, pieces carved in foreign styles have long featured in public and private spaces, where in many cases they have to come to embody local meanings through a somewhat sophisticated reading of their formal characteristics. When I questioned Ibrahim, the palace carver of the Chefferie of Batoufam, on the choice to place a Punu-style female mask above one of the main entrances to the palace (Fig. 6), he put emphasis on the concept rather than the style of the carving. In his opinion, the choice addressed the desire to highlight the social and spiritual importance of women in Bamileke society. “I know that the style is Punu, but it is clearly a woman. In our tradition, we do not have masks that clearly represent women. This one conveys the message very clearly.”10 From this perspective, the introduction of new and somewhat unconventional objects within the public display spaces of palaces clearly isn't just a shift in formal characteristics or carving style, but it is the adoption of a whole new type to fill novel needs for which no satisfactory solution exists in the local sculptural tradition. While formal innovation in local palaces is usually accomplished through juxtapositions of artworks and objects available in local markets, urban contemporary studio artists take a more head-on approach to finding ways to think and express the shifting needs of contemporary displays and community performances.
A complex and unconventional reading of form and concept is the foundation of the more recent production of Douala-based multimedia artist Hervé Youmbi, an established artist with rather extensive international experience and exposure (Fig. 7). One of Youmbi's longstanding artistic concerns has been to reflect on the blurred boundaries and heterogeneous sources of inspiration that are the basis of creative practices of contemporary artists. Always attuned to the apparent contradictions of contemporary life and the somewhat constructed tension between tradition and innovation, Youmbi lives and practices in the urban space of Douala. Like many other urban dwellers of Bamileke origin, Youmbi maintains a connection with his family village and the broader region, where he returns periodically for professional and personal reasons. In his personal life and his artistic practice Youmbi straddles different cultural and creative spaces, finding inspiration from his own strategically liminal artistic positioning or, at times, from surprising ways of crossing boundaries between spaces of creation and art fruition.
Crossing of boundaries and challenging of taxonomies is very much at the core of Youmbi's last series, Visage de Masques (2015), an ongoing artistic experimentation with the masking tradition of Ku'ngang, one the most important and lively masking societies of Western Cameroon.11Visage de Masques is a complex conceptual piece in which Youmbi plays with the boundaries that define “fine art,” “commercial art,” “gallery space,” “art work,” “masquerade,” and his own identity as an internationally represented artist living in Cameroon's largest city, yet he is also intrigued by the contemporaneity of the traditional culture that still, in some ways, defines him.
Ku'ngang is a ritual society widespread throughout the Bamileke region (Fig. 8). Divided amongst familial lineages and characterized by different ritual appearances, performances, and functions, Ku'ngang interconnects the different segments of communities and it is often considered at the core of Bamileke kingdoms (Perrois and Notué 1997:74). While certain ritual manifestations of Ku'ngang, such as the yégué masquerade, are quite consistent throughout the region, others present a rather varied array of characters and ritual implements. Yégué is an impressive masquerade with a horned headpiece covered in cowries and long dreadlocks of human hair that conceal the body of the dancer (Fig. 9). Other Ku'ngang masquerades have more defined zoomorphic or anthropomorphic figures with wooden headpieces often representing monkeys or humans with bold features and grotesque expressions. Ku'ngang masquerades are “affecting performances” (Kratz 1994) that mesmerize and terrify, as they are charged with powerful medicine that makes them dangerous to those who are not initiated in the secrets of the society (Perrois and Notué 1997:74).
Because of its symbolic relevance and its role in local communities, Ku'ngang is a society that continues to attract young people to its ranks. As an important ritual agent, it is also the site of creative innovation in its public manifestations. While the ritual appearances of Ku'ngang are mostly enacted in rural communities and are clearly connected to the strong sense of “tradition” that defines local identity in many Bamileke kingdoms, they have not remained static and unchanging across time. In 2010, Youmbi was invited to a ceremony in Melong where he witnessed members of a Ku'ngang group from Bafang perform wearing silicon Halloween masks of a screaming face (Fig. 10). This creative adoption of a Chinese-made industrial mask inspired by the famous Edvard Munch painting The Scream of Nature (1893), and popularized through a series of horror movies, became the impetus for Youmbi's reflection on the plasticity of tradition and the role that the artist plays in shaping local culture through creative involvement in traditional performances.12
Youmbi refers to that ceremony as a “call to work.” He started to investigate the function and roles of masks in Ku'ngang performance and the heterogeneous sources of inspiration available to mask makers and performers in the Grassfields. Though his family is originally from the area, Youmbi, who was born in the Central African Republic before moving to Douala, had never before explored in depth the connection between local religious and spiritual practices and the way beliefs are embodied in the objects used in ritual and performances. In searching to understand why that particular “scream mask” could become a part of village ceremonies, Youmbi identified the centrality of the ancestral skull as a frame through which to read people's reaction to form. Though foreign in inspiration, manufacture, and intended use, the Halloween mask can be read as an expressive representation of a skull-like face which, in the Grassfields context, can be easily associated with the ancestral spiritual realm at the core of local religion. In general terms, Grassfields arts put great emphasis on the head as the central element of expression of an individual's power. Masquerades in particular emphasize the head as the main component of the dramatic effect of their performative appearance. Yet they do so through a combination of heterogeneous elements that reflect local sensitivities and long-distance trade connections, both colonial and postcolonial. Most of the older masks were decorated with beads, cowrie shells, and other precious material imported from far away. Contemporary masks, on the other hand, reflect new forms of globalized commercial and cultural connections (Fig. 11).
Starting from this consideration, Youmbi set out to create new masks, made in collaboration with local commercial artists who specialize in wood carving, bead working, and coiffure making. While the conceptual development of Visage de Masques was long in the planning, most of the pieces were realized in 2014 during a residency at Bandjoun Station, the contemporary art space and cultural center founded by artist Barthelemy Toguo in 2008.13 Here, in the heart of the Grassfields, Youmbi was able to work with a number of traditional artists to bring his vision to life. Alassane Mfouapon, a wood carver in Fumban, was charged with the carving of the wooden component of the mask (Fig. 12). The carving was done following Youmbi's instructions through various iterations before reaching a successful form. The carved headpieces were then taken to Baham, where they were beaded by beader Marie Kouam (Fig. 13), and then to Bandja and Bandjoun, where hair extensions and other decorative elements were added (Fig. 14).
Youmbi's goal was to produce a body of work that would relate to the sensitivities, aesthetic, and techniques expressed in older examples, while at the same time introducing a broader range of global visual stimuli, both Western and African. Through the various components of its installation, Visage de Masques tackles the impact of colonialism on artistic production and ritual expression in Africa in a layered and playful way. Youmbi's hybrid masks combine well-known African mask styles (such as Dogon, Yoruba, Kota, Punu, and others) with the carved reproduction of the Chinese-made, European-inspired “scream mask.” Through novel formal combinations, these masks are meant to distill the essential meanings associated with the power of masquerades in the Grassfields, while at the same time emphasizing a self-conscious appropriation of an idea of African-ness that goes beyond historical stylistic traditions from the region (Fig. 15). In their hybrid and unconventional stylistic associations, the masks are a form of scream or direct challenge that the artist directs towards his multiple publics. This is a scream against the lasting consequence of colonialism and the enduring conceptual and powerfully structural labels that continue to define Africa's place in the world. The scream also intends to shatter the glass barrier that divides traditional and contemporary art by placing these different forms of artistic expression in distinct and opposing conceptual time-spaces that, as a consequence, deny coevalness and possible interaction. Through this work and its conceptual and practical development, Youmbi claims a space not constricted by ethnographic and art-historical taxonomies and the freedom to shape a present informed by traditional knowledge as much as by the awareness of global trends.
Youmbi's masks are positioned in a space encumbered by wooden crates which display labels identifying the objects as both ritual artworks and contemporary art productions (Fig. 16). Through direct references to the market, museum labeling, and global art circulation, the artist plays ironically with the international art world that he is a part of while also embracing a sense of cultural belonging that complicates the—sometimes superficial—globalizing trends of the contemporary art scene. At the same time, Youmbi also wants to openly belie the repetitiveness of local aesthetic displays. His project is as much about producing masks that would challenge the views of urban gallery-goers as it is about engaging members of the local masking societies in a discussion about contemporary ritual expression and probing the boundaries of stylistic permissibility.
By choosing to work with regulatory societies, that were more than just a mere reproduction of a somewhat emptied façade of tradition and that played a role in the shaping of the social and political aspects of the community, Youmbi wanted to position himself as the catalyst of a dialogue that could shape and transform the appearance of masquerades to reflect a keener awareness of a more contemporary aesthetic complexity, while at the same time making a powerful statement against the static nature of what is perceived as traditional. And in order to achieve this, his masks had to leave the gallery and be danced.
ART FOR THE GALLERY AND FOR THE DANCE-FIELD: SHIFTING MESSAGES IN CONTEMPORARY ART SPACES
The first manifestation of this component of Youmbi's multisited and multidimensional artistic intervention took place through the collaboration with Hervé Yamguen. An artist in his own right, Yamguen contributed to the project not as a creator but as a participant. Following the recent death of his father, Yamguen had been called to assume his role as successor and take up responsibility at both the family and the community level. As part of his succession duties, Yamguen had to be initiated and become a full member of the Ku'ngang society of his village, Bandja. Yamguen was keen to wear one of Youmbi's creations at his inaugural appearance as a Ku'ngang member. Yet it was still necessary to obtain the formal approval of the ritual leaders to insure that the mask would be in fact considered fully part of the society's performance (Fig. 17).
Yamguen and Youmbi met with the taku' (father of the ku dance) and other leaders of the Ku'ngang society of the village of Bandja, where Yamguen was going to be initiated. Though they requested to see and approve the new mask before it entered the dance field as part of the public performance of Ku'ngang, the conversation was overall very positive. The leaders of the association and the fo (king) of the village were all quite keen to see new forms of masks being developed for their traditional performance. While certain formal elements were considered to be essential (such as the number of horns to be included to properly indicate the status of the wearer or the length of the hair attachment to fully conceal the body of the wearer), others were quite clearly open to reinterpretation and could allow for quite a broad creative intervention. The mask that was then made for Yemguen's public appearance as a new member of Ku'ngang was a modern interpretation of a traditional form that maintained a close resemblance to the original while introducing elements of innovation, such as the use of buttons and glass beads alongside the symbolically relevant cowries (Fig. 18).
Other masks created within the project are more daring and innovative in their formal approach. These are pieces in which Youmbi draws freely from a variety of African stylistic traditions, choosing forms and ideas that he considers germane to the underlying principles and aesthetics of the masquerade traditions of West Cameroon. By mid-2015, the yégué mask that Youmbi made for Yamguen was the only one that had made its way from the original installation of the series in the art gallery of Bandjoun Station, to the village performance, and back again to the gallery space in Bandjoun. As he continues his engagement with local masking societies, Youmbi is confident that he will find other members willing to embody one of his creations within local ceremonies as a way to expand and innovate the visual vocabulary of performance. However, he is also aware that the performative component will require a long-term engagement with communities and even possibly the transformation and adaptation of the final product in order to mediate between his own vision and the aesthetic of the dance performance.
This tension between personal creativity and collective aesthetics is an underlying feature of Youmbi's project that manifested itself at different phases. While, on the one hand, Youmbi aspired to engage and promote the local savoir faire of village artists and offer a different creative input through his dialogic methodology, on the other, he also wanted to maintain full control over the final product and ensure that none of the artists involved had a full formal and technical understanding of the final product. Youmbi was keenly aware of the high level of receptiveness and skill of local artists, who for over a century had been able to capture and interpret market trends and adjust their production to respond to local and international trends. Though Youmbi valued the creative and aesthetic input of the village artists, he also wanted to make sure that replicas of his masks would not quickly become a feature of the art stalls found in cities and towns throughout Cameroon.
While this was his first project that engaged directly with makers in Fumban and other villages in the Grassfields, it was not the first time that Youmbi incorporated Grassfields artists' work in his installations. Fumban-made masks were already central to his earlier work Ensemble vide (2000) (Fig. 19). This piece played with and challenged the canon and the definitions of value imposed over African creators by institutional and art market gatekeepers from Europe and North America (Malaquais 2011a). Definitions of value, aspirations, and constricting market dynamics in the globalized art world were also the central themes of another of Youmbi's works, Totems to Haunt Our Dreams (2010) (Fig. 20), which was exhibited in Dakar, Johannesburg, Cotonou, Kinshasa, and New York (Malaquais 2011b).
With Visage de masques, Youmbi engaged personally, and not just formally, with contemporary “traditional” African artists and their eclectic, market-inspired, commercial artworks. As an artist and educator, Youmbi has been very mindful that this project has also, to a certain extent, been an intervention in the world of commercial carving workshops. By bringing his designs to Fumban, he was consciously suggesting new ideas for the repertoire of these village carvers whose work continues to be found both in Grassfields palaces and living rooms all over the world. Youmbi's practice of engagement of “traditional” workshops throughout the region and of another artist as performer in the field questions the ontology of the artist as main creative agent, allowing for multiple circuits of feedback and intersection. Yet while he strives to instigate new formal reflections and conversations, he also wants to keep control over the final product, which he aspires to exhibit and sell in a more exclusive and regulated international art market circuit than the one accessible to the average Fumban carver.
Beyond the dialogic approach to creation which inspired Youmbi's commissioned artworks and the significant personal and technical exchange that this has generated, one of the most innovative aspects of Visage de masques is the ambiguous nature of the masks' display and artistic “identity.” In May 2015, the masks were exhibited as a contemporary art installation in the white box gallery of the Bandjoun Station. Within this contemporary art space, the pieces were unambiguously “works of art.” They stood as an artist's visual and conceptual challenge to the various taxonomies and distinctions that define spheres of meaning and value in the contemporary art system. Most of the masks, so far, have only lived as inventive and hybrid artworks in the exhibition space. In their 2015 installation, they were experienced as a group of cultural artworks installed in the same space as their wooden shipping crates and identified by labels that recalled at once “tombstones” used in museum presentations and the custom descriptions through which objects are listed for export. While the gallery installation explicitly and directly addressed the international and mobile nature of artworks, whose significance and value is closely connected to their commodification and their ability to travel and inhabit different exhibitionary spaces, Youmbi's projects have gone beyond this. With his work the artist strives to continue to complicate taxonomies to a point when they become obsolete and meaningless (Fig. 21).
Visage de masques is a gallery installation that needs to travel in more and different ways than what is customary for contemporary art. While it will be exhibited in Douala and possibly in a few international art capitals of the world in art fairs and museum exhibitions, Youmbi wants his masks to be active agents in local culture. In his vision, the embodied presentation in the dance field of Bandja will be only the first of many returns of these newly created layered objects of tradition to the sphere of performance. With this series, Youmbi wishes to go beyond the somewhat stifling dialogue with the international art world of galleries and biennials. He wants to engage in a serious material and performative conversations with the people of the Cameroonian Grassfields. This is something that could not happen through an invitation to the opening of an exhibit at Bandjoun Station, a space located at the core of the Bamileke area, yet informed by international sensitivities. Youmbi's goal is to bring the masks back to the performative space of the ceremonies at the core of the social and ritual life of local kingdoms.
The first outing done in collaboration with Yamguen, a traditional title-holder, but also an artist and a longtime friend, proved that this dialogue and reintroduction is possible and can generate very positive feedback (Fig. 22). Youmbi is aware that this introduction is going to require a lot of mediation and reliance on younger members of traditional masking societies. At the same time, he is also excited by the specific resonance and sophisticated semantic understanding of the pieces that emerge from the engagement with a public that is neither accustomed to nor interested in experiencing art in a gallery setting. In an almost ironic twist, in her speech at the opening of the Bandjoun exhibition, Madame Ama Tutu Muna, Minister of Arts and Culture, was quick to declare Visage de masques “Cultural Heritage” and express the desire to keep it in the country as part of the National Museum Collection.14 As of the end of 2015, nothing had really moved on the National Museum front and the installation was instead on its way to London and international art fairs. Indeed, the further passage of musealization proposed by the minister would complicate even further the conceptual and physical movements of the masks that would be positioned, somewhat provocatively, in a space still defined by a rather simplistic definition of heritage.15
Through the movement between different spaces, audiences, and modes of engagement with the artwork, Youmbi has found new ways to define his role as an artist. Though quite diverse in media and inspiration, one of the constant elements in Youmbi's work is the reflection on the broader social, economic, and political issues that shape the various worlds that he inhabits as a contemporary Cameroonian artist who participates in the international art scene. By bringing this reflection into what may be academically or canonically defined as a radically different sphere of creativity, market intersections, and aesthetic appreciation, Youmbi seeks to create a taxonomic short-circuit that may generate a more complex understanding of contemporary African creativity in Cameroon and abroad.
Research for this article was supported by the DMV Research and Acquisition Fund and the ROM's Collection and Research Fieldwork Fund. I wish to acknowledge and express my deep gratitude to Hervé Youmbi, whose thinking, work, and photographs are the core of this essay, and to Hervé Yamguen, who danced the artwork. Thanks to Mark DeLancey for conceiving and editing this issue, to Jonathan Fine for remembering my work while working in the archive, Christraud Geary and Stefan Klein for lending critical images, and to Ciraj Rassool and Gary van Wyk for commenting on an earlier version of this paper.
http://brunoclaessens.com/2014/05/#.VUE7HZNBf_M, accessed April 29, 2015.
Many of the essays in Schildkrout and Keim (1998) detail specific histories of nineteenth and early twentieth century artistic transformations influenced by contact and the international market.
One famous exception to this rule is the Helena Rubinstein Bangwa queen, sold for record-breaking price in 1966. Yet its market prestige is to be connected more to its illustrious pedigree and its modernist icon status, following its appearance in a very famous Man Ray photograph, than to its aesthetics. Its iconic status and exceptional modernist appeal is proven by the fact that the Bangwa queen set the record for sales for African art for quite a long time (http://articles.latimes.com/1990-04-22/news/mn-392_1_african-art, accessed July 22, 2015).
Susan Gagliardi (2015), for example, investigates the scholarly creation of the Senufo ethnic label on the basis of aesthetic similarities over linguistic, religious, and national borders.
Classic references exploring this dynamic are Graburn 1976, 1999; Ben Amos 1976; Jules-Rosette 1984; and Steiner 1994. More recent scholarship highlighting the longue durée of commercial interactions and creative exchanges may be found in Forni and Steiner 2015a, Phillips and Steiner 1999, Kasfir and Förster 2013.
Epistolary exchange between Schwab, the Peabody Museum's director Dr. Hooton and his assistant Donald Scott (Letter to Dr. Hooton from George Schwab, January 5, 1930, Peabody Museum Harvard University [PM] 30–2, Collection from Africa, Cameroon, George Schwab). I owe this find to Jonathan Fine, who very generously shared this correspondence with me. Mosé Yeyap was a Christian convert employed as a translator by the French administration who took a very active role in shaping the political and artistic landscape in Fumban in the first four decades of the twentieth century. For a detailed account of Yeyap's activities, see Loumpet-Galitzine 2006, Geary 2011, Nelson 2007.
The issue of the preservation of Cameroonian antiquities is a rather complicated topic. Cameroon is known to be a rather lively market of antiquities in African art. Despite being the fifth state to ratify the UNESCO convention in 1972, Cameroon has not pursued a very serious battle against illegal export of artwork and ethnographic objects. Even though protective laws were formally in place since the 1960s, it was only in May 2013 that the government approved broad and comprehensive legislation for the protection of cultural heritage, which takes as models heritage laws found in Western countries and particularly the legislation of Quebec (Mme Medou, personal communication, July 2013). Yet, for its full implementation, this law requires a rather extensive and detailed inventory of national heritage which, despite the long history of heritage legislation and some international funding, has never been accomplished.
Conversation with Ibrahim, July 12, 2013.
This account of the origin and intellectual development of the Visage des masques series is based on different conversations with Hervé Youmbi since 2010, and more extensive focused interviews in 2015. I once more thank Hervé for his patience and generosity in sharing his ideas and images with me. While I am solely responsible for any error in presentation or interpretation, I credit Hervé for the ideas and content of the paragraphs that follow.
The popularity of Halloween masks, and the “scream” mask in particular, is not limited to the Cameroonian context. Gary van Wyk recorded the same masks being danced in Tanzania among Sukuma masquerade groups, as illustrated in a field photo published in van Wyk 2013:308.
More information on this space and Toguo's vision may be found on Bandjoun Station's website http://www.bandjounstation.com/index.htm (accessed June 19, 2015).
Gary van Wyk, personal communication, July 20, 2015.
It will be interesting to see whether this is in fact a real proposition and in which ways Youmbi's work will be allowed to intersect within this setting with the many contemporary “traditional” artworks mostly produced in commercial workshops that populate the “cultural” section of this complicated institution (see also Forni 2015).