For a modest Zambian art journalist, two hours of unwarranted detention after having a Cameroonian police officer disappear into a 'city market-like' crowd at Douala International Airport over an entry VISA gives the initial impression of disorder.
And having the officer return with the passport demanding two photocopies of the document to be taken at US$30 per copy clearly borders on cosmic insanity! Where on planet earth does a photocopy cost that much?.
So one's first impression of the country would be that of chaos. Nevertheless, as the age old saying goes "out of order comes chaos" and likewise this visitor's hosts fortunately arrived on the scene to arrest the situation. And as was to be experienced during the stay, outside the airport, Cameroon or indeed the city of Douala is not as chaotic as initially perceived, at least as far as art goes.
Douala, the country's largest city, is an economic metropolis and is one of few African cities that can boast a guided tour specifically for artistic monuments. In fact, a complete full-colour brochure and map indicating these sites is available courtesy of Doual'art, a private art association founded by Marilyn Douala Bell and Didier Schuab in 1991. It is Doual'art that launched Ars&Urbis a project which focusses on initiating and organising art projects in public spaces.
The Doual'art tour will take you to about 10 contemporary sculptures from the towering Sud Obelisk by Faouzi Laatiris to the cool stained-glass shade of Njé Moyé by Koko Komégné, a functional sculpture of a tree that also serves as a park bench.
But for the works realised by the Ars&Urbis project, the one which may be said to have the strongest presence in the city is Nouvelle Liberte by Joseph Sumégné a monumental sculpture of a figure that stands on one leg with its right hand facing down, its left hand holding a globe on its head and its left leg bent upwards in an almost dance-like posture. Erected at the Deido roundabout in 1996, a rough estimate would suggest that the sculpture stands about five times higher than our beloved freedom statue in Lusaka.
But unlike our statue, Nouvelle Liberte is not made of aesthetically pleasing, smoothed out bronze, Sumégné constructed it from discarded car parts and other scrap metal. It may be seen to represent both beauty and ugliness but can be best described in the words of Cameroonian critic Jacques Epangue who says "Nouvelle Liberte is a model for how contemporary art inscribes itself into urban space, integrating into its social milieu:
The most important thing is that it is a wonderful work, but that it is ugly at the same time, and it is just this ugliness which makes it something wonderful. It reflects the reality of Douala precisely, and I believe that it takes a very important place in local people's everyday life even if they are not aware of it".
Unfortunately, not everyone is as highbrowed as the critic Epangue or as metaphorically cultivated as the artist Sumégné. Some locals do not even know the statues name and nobody refers to it as a para-phrase of New York's Statue of Liberty as it may have been intended by the artist. On the streets the locals call it Nju-nju du Rond Point meaning Evil Spirit of The Roundabout.
The sculpture was at first alleged to have evil magic powers and the organisers and artist were threatened causing the work not to be thoroughly completed. But it still stands tall as things have cooled down. Admittedly, books can be written about this statue, but there is surely a lot more to contemporary Cameroonian art than "Nju-nju du Rond Point".
The Doual'art association's building itself is partially a white-walled exhibition space reminiscent of the Parisian galleries of France, one of Cameroon's former colonial masters besides Portugal, Germany and Great Britain.
The gallery space is currently showing an exhibition entitled Figures de réve one of three exhibitions also showing simultaneously in the cities of Yaoundé and Bandjoun courtesy of the Centre national des arts plastiques of France. The author was unable to visit Passions, the Bandjoun exhibition and therefore cannot assess it, but Douala's Figures de réve featuring large mixed media paintings by Barthelemy Toguo seemed a more entertaining show compared to Decalages the more conceptual display showing in the capital Yaounde.
It can be safe to say that Cameroon has a healthy if not vibrant, contemporary art scene with centres such as the ArtBakery providing residencies for artists from as far as France and India and where Zambia's own Zenzele Chulu spent a month this year, the Galerie MAM and Africrea being part of the driving force in the prosperity of contemporary art.
To sum things up, it can be observed that the lack of an art school, insufficient exhibition halls, lack of work space and particularly the lack of public support (despite having a ministry of culture) are common factor across the African continent, but in Cameroon these woes have provided the platform for "indomitable contemporary art" that is emerging beyond all odds. It did not take government or a municipality to beautify a city like Douala with public art pieces, creative practitioners took it upon themselves and have made a difference.
All in all, a visit to the home of the 2010 World Cup- bound "Indomitable Lions" (Cameroonian National Team) can be a delightful experience. It is easy to forget a "small misunderstanding" with an airport police officer when you sit at table in front of a hot plate of "couscous de manioc" served with "eru a la viande de boeuf" and "ndole" (casava meal nsima served with the cooked hide of a cow and bitterleaf which is a green vegetable, melon seeds and peanut) plus a cold bottle of "33" to wash it down.
And once you get used to squeezing into the yellow taxis that serve as minibuses alongside the motorcycles that in turn serve as taxis, all is well, although seeing ladies willingly spread their legs to mount this daily mode of transportation does need a little time to get accustomed to.
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