Karl’s Chronicles Article 28 Cameroon – Antiquated Modernism
The trace perceptions of an idea hang on the tree like the last defiant leaves in the thrashings of a bleak winter. Out of reach and separate until by natures design they finally relent, swaying down to muddy earth. Either rotting, a forgotten idea blending back into the soil or swept up amongst others and undistinguishable to the masses. An article follows a similar course, rarely does it come fully formed but only with sketchy outlines crossed with frenzied brush strokes. Ideas that may or may not develop beyond lines and curves into understandable illustrations. Just like the leaves, if left untouched, they rot and putrefy. No longer a trace with subtle definitions, but a fused nondescript pile. Its beauty lost into a confusion of sweeping ugliness. But the rot germinates new life. Again taking trace form as the shoot, guided by the sun, grows and blossoms into an iridescent fully-formed article.
Ideas get swept around, back and forth, accepted and rejected, frequently inchoate. Pumped up and bolstered by research or floundered by the foibles of life. I had been scratching my head for several days to add the fine attire to a body of an idea. Something different but authentic, interesting to a reader without repetition. It could be easy to judge that a journey across Africa would uncover too many stories to keep up with, but time and human behaviour is one of boundless repetition. Schedules and rotas, itineraries and plans, self-designed or set by others, we follow their course with assured faith as the earth spins around the sun. As E. M. Forster once wrote ‘Adventures do come, but not when we want them to.’ Adventures like articles are arbitrary in their formation, and sometimes require adroit skill in their realisation. Only becoming conscious long after conception.
Perched at the top of the square like a wise owl surveying the pitter-patter beneath, sat the grubby white rectangle of the museum. It’s pair of dark square windows glaring across the artisans squatting outside their small emporiums, enclosed from the inside world by the fabric partition of a faded curtain. The Musée des Arts et Traditions Bamoun had flowered from the rich art collection of Salle Mosé Yeyap, a patron of the arts during the reign of King Njoya. Initially, a private collection before the declaration of a museum made it accessible to all.
I had read about the museum and drew on the idea it would bolster the weight of the sultan’s palace and the kingdom’s history. Both presented artefacts which recorded prime events such as war, festivals and music. The battles between the Bamun and their Tikar, Fula, and Bamiléké neighbours. Long spears and tarnished cutlasses, even a macabre victory calabash, incongruously offset with a skull and jawbones from an enemy warrior. An xylophone decorated with snakeheads in tune to the kingdom’s coat of arms, and smoking pipes over two metres in length sounded exceptional. Why? You would have to stand on a chair or lay down like an opium addict to smoke it. All of this resonated a perfect accompaniment to continue the flow of its predecessor. Of sultans, of absolute rulers before the interference of European empires and national independence redesigned the landscape.
Half a dozen male youths sat along the broad lower steps of the museum, beneath a set of carved doors that remained shut. On enquiry, the museum would re-open in fifteen minutes at midday. Noon came and went, and still, the doors stood procrastinatory closed. Another chap conferred with his colleague, seeing me shuffle my feet in the coppery dust that stretched like a moat around the building. ‘The museum is closed until next week’, he said under a fit of sneezing, ‘the curator is sick and has gone to Douala.’
From mere minutes to an entire week, how the time frame had quickly jumped. I asked if no one else had a key? Did the museum as a whole only function by the activities of one. Undoubtedly one of these chaps could open up and escort the occasional visitor around. Silence hovered for a moment, a shifting of heads as they contemplated the idea. The same guy looked up like an elder holding consultation and said ‘no.’ Casually removing the prints and patterns of a forming idea like the gentle sweep of an incoming tide.
Momentarily defeated and creatively disorientated, I answered the bleating calls of several artisans, passing through the curtain into a gossamer interior that smelt of wood smoke. Some no grander than an under-stairs recess. Little space maximised by shelves and hooks that held up row upon row of wooden faces. Bug-eyed over aquiline noses and voluptuous heart-shaped lips. One felt a pressing judgement of being on trial or the growing expectation to perform. In a gallery or theatre of Jim Henson’s outlandish doing. Dozens of lifeless eyes grounding your presence as the one of abnormality. Aziz wavered behind me like the hand of a giant clock, trying to ascertain my evaluations by reading the back of my head. I came to the point of expecting these masks to open an energetic, rambling and nonsensical dialogue, like children whose teacher has just proposed an interesting question.
Beneath the masks were neat rows of sculpted brass animals, elephants, giraffes and rhinos, side by side as if they were waiting for the arrival of a brass ark. Wooden figurines with bloated stomachs and holding long pipes, their dignity covered by thin slips of hessian. Fetish dolls with rose pink eyes wrapped in skirts of twisted nails stood next to slim totem poles, formed of piggy-back animals that would mesmerise a circus audience had they been alive. In the larger craft-shops, the walls were heavy with a panoply of masks. Some elongated with death white skin, cut with paper-thin eyes like the subjects of a Modigliani piece. Others had a thick lion-mane of hair over rectangle eyes, a pyramid nose and lips puffed up like a parrot-fish. Creativity flourished as far as the mind could extract new and bizarre conceptions. Some of the pieces were made on-site, but the majority came from the adjacent street where carpenters and sculptors sat labouring away on shady verandahs, their few tools laid out by their feet. A woodpecker tapping of hammer and chisel on wood which echoed over the gardens and into the street beyond. A hypnotic rhythm enjoyed by the tethered goats who drifted away on the verge opposite.
In the pale green lounge of Nchare Amadou stood a long wooden table jumbled high with wood carvings. Impossible to decipher what was what with the protrusion of limbs, rotund stomachs, chords of hair, and bear-sized feet sticking out. Amongst it all was an expressionless face peering out as if buried under rubble. Everything was for sale, but I had to laugh at the unconventional method of display. Draped with dust the mountain of statues, masks, sculptures, pieces of bronze, bead necklaces and absconded feathers must have remained undisturbed for a decade. In the corner of the room, propping up a vintage television and an archive necklace of family pictures was a giant wooden cask made from hundreds of tiny human figures. Line upon line, each supporting the regiment above. But the best was kept in the rear rooms, life-sized sculptures that hovered between the occult and horror. Some, as Mr Nchare proudly pointed out, were several centuries old. Antiquities which would be difficult to sell and impossible to export out of the country. I wondered how he ended up with them, these human and animal carvings stopping short from scuffing the ceiling—kept in the gloomy dusty confines of former bedrooms, lacerated where the wood had splintered and slowly being consumed by tiny insects. A bald-headed, open-mouthed individual with flaring nostrils wearing a tight neck collar of large bolts. On his head, a crown of the double-headed serpents crawling over an open animal trap. Close to him and illuminated by the white glare of an upper window, leaned a tall man with a distrustful face, large oval blank eyes either side of a rocket nose and an ear to ear beard—the impression of a pirate and his body a massive ensemble of auburn feathers.
The place resembled the storerooms of a national museum, occasionally wheeled out and put on show to the gasps of school children and the bemusement of parents. A private collection that must inevitably compete with the museum at the head of the square. If ever one suffered from a lack of ideas, then a peek in this engine room of eccentricity set your mind tripping over itself—oddities and curiosities born centuries ago that influence today’s mania for the unorthodox.
Facts: The museum in Foumban is open Mon-Sat 8 am-5 pm. Tickets cost 1000cfa. Seek permission before taking photos as it isn’t a default assurance.
The Museum and craft shops are located south of the centre. Taking the Bafoussam road opposite the Restaurant Les Délices that swerves around the central post-office and the town’s stadium. Keep left when the road forks which will take you past two dozen houses with their own workshops. You can see some of the craftsmen working, before continuing to the village square lined by the emporiums and the museum.
There are no set prices for the artwork; everything is brought by bartering. Don’t accept the first price, which is highly inflated. Start low and gradually increase the amount. Rather like an auction, go with a budget and stick to it, which is challenging when you see some of the crafts for sale. You will receive a lot of attention as every merchant invites you into their shop under scratched record pitches of ‘it’s free to look’, ‘I’ll give you good price’, and ‘you are my first customer, you bring great luck’. But it is friendly, and no one becomes aggressive if you turn them down.
Prince Aziz, Galerie Incha-Allah, fist emporium below the museum (on your right with your back to the museum). +237 699 26 18 26
Nchare Amadou +237 699 28 04 55. Molih Seidou +237 695 65 18 96 .
It is located halfway up the street that leads to the square. On the right-hand side with the square in front. It is a case of asking around as the houses here do not have names or numbers.
For information regarding accommodation, food and transport, you can refer back to Article 27 – The Sultans First Stand.