November - December 2002
Often I have an image of some kind of a country I plan visit to initiate the Hope Box projects (mostly due to the attention in the media for its culture, politics and social reality). I had no image of Cameroon, apart from - as most people have- the image of its brilliant soccer-team and its status as one of the most stabile and corrupt countries in the region. In 1982 Paul Biya, a Christian from the south, was appointed President by Cameroon's first President Ahmadou Ahidjo, a Muslim from the north. Now, twenty years later Biya is still President. Cameroon is generally seen as a benevolent dictatorship in disguise. There is hardly any information on Cameroon contemporary art in books or on the Internet. No one seems to know much or be overly interested.
It was one individual in the person of artist Goddy Leye and his enthusiastic stories of Cameroon that made me curious to go. Goddy hooked me up with Marilyn Douala-bell, Didier Schaub and Paulin Tchuenbou, the team behind the Art Centre Doual'art. I created a program for a Cameroon Hope Box Art Event which would consist of a Hope Box Preview Exhibition, Tigerpaws in the Fishglobe art-shows, Cadavre Exquis workshops and the initiation of Weather Report.
From day one I get easily attuned to the bustling, colourful and chaotic Douala street-life: people, shops and markets everywhere, bad roads with huge holes and busy traffic. Local transport does not really exist in the city. There are many yellow taxis that can be used as such which have a very practical way of working. I prefer the moped-taxi, which is quick and gives me a chance to see the town properly. On the street and across the roads you can see many police and army officers stopping cars and handing out fines for the most farfetched offences. People shrug their shoulders, they are used to it. It is explained to me that it is almost December, a month of festivities, and the army and police haven't received their salary yet. Although there are quite a number of newspapers on sale, most of them seem controlled.
Hope Box Preview Exhibition
Mounting the Hope Box Preview Exhibition in Doual'art goes smoothly. When we mount the first Hope Box body of work, the International Cadavre Exquis, there is some commotion about its context. Without knowing the concept one can easily interpret the theme as being sex. Expressing sex is still a taboo in Cameroon and soon the discussion about this taboo in relationship with aids arises. The general idea is that it is good to break this taboo since many people die of Aids in Cameroon and the relation with this taboo is obvious. Lack of proper medication and medical care as well as the lack of proper information worsens the situation needlessly.
Because I plan to present Cameroon artists in the Hope Box Preview Exhibition at the end there will be a closing-ceremony, a Finissage, of the exhibition in Doual'art.
At the informal opening, the vernissage, some twenty artists show up and after my introduction of the Hope Box a lively debate on the project and art in general follows. I am very happy with this opening with art and artists only, no drinks, no catering, and no officials. A wonderful beginning of the Hope Box Art Event in Cameroon.
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The Cameroon Artists
In many different districts of Douala and later in Yaoundé, I visit some thirty talented artists. I see their work and make a video-report of these encounters. Joe Kessy, Alvarez, Viking, Koko Komegné, Zambé, Hankson Hako, Salifou Lindou, Louisepee, Joël Mpah Dooh, Malam, Jean Emati, Emile Youmbi, Joseph Sumégné, Jean Marc Siangue, AchilleKá Komguem, Blaise Bang, Alioum Moussa, Patrice Kemplo, Hervé Yamguen, Aserkash, Alain Ekollo, Hervé Joumbi, Jombé Martin, Mboko Lagriffe, Bernard Baïfang, Guy Wouete, Eyabi Lambert, Max. See Video-report (under construction).
Most artists work in their homes and have other jobs next to painting. The conviction and endurance of the artists is striking as well as their dynamics and good-fellowship. There are a lot of talented artists and hardly any contemporary art galleries, let alone contemporary art museums in Cameroon. The government seems to have no interest in art. This mentality seems to have taken over generally and there is little recognition from the community. Shortage of material is another problem.
In their work most artists want to express the reality of life freely. Big issues like injustice, aids, pollution, crime, corruption and war are not avoided.
In a society where censorship and taboo rule, the artists have an important role to fulfil. Because of the lack of attention and exhibition-space the artists' unite in artists' initiatives like Black Train, Squat'art, Elolombe, Kapsiki, New Art, as well as creating their own exhibition-spaces like Atelier Viking and Akwa Nord. I have the feeling the artists are becoming stronger and stronger and will soon be unavoidable. The wind of change is coming!
Due to the open-heartedness of the artists I learn a lot about the social reality in Cameroon. Due to their kindness and friendship I feel very much at home.
In his workshop, a dark small place in the centre of Yaoundé, one can see the dynamic sculptures of the artist Joseph Sumengé. The sculptures are mainly made from wire, scrap-iron and other (iron/waste) material. Material which he has piled up in the corner of his workshop like an unusual palette. Difficult material to manipulate too. Sumegné however seems to master it as if it were paint or crayon. The anatomy of the bodies as well as the expression on the faces are striking, as if they are about to come alive. Sumengné is the type of artist that one encounters every five or so years. 100% Focus and little interest in the issues I discuss with the other artists. Sumengné says artists should concentrate fully on their work and when it is good enough it will find its public or visa versa anyway.
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After the informal vernissage of the Hope Box Preview Exhibition, Cadavre Exquis Cameroon is initiated in Doual'art. To start Cadavre Exquis one needs a pile of A4 paper and Bic ballpoints, inspired artists and good coordination. From the very beginning the respected artist Koko Komégné and gérante Francine Edjenguele are the driving force behind Cadavre Exquis in Doual'art. Koko also finalizes the
international Cadavre Exquis Art-kite including contributions of artists in Soweto, Alexandra, Prishtina, Pretoria, Amsterdam and New York.
In Douala a big body arises of Cadavre Exquis work made by forty-five local artists plus visiting foreign artists like J.Triolet, and Rémy Mongo-Etsion.
Right in the middle of the Hope Box Preview Exhibition I change the international Cadavre Exquis body of work with that of Cameroon.
During a Cadavre Exquis workshop in Akwa-Nord, Alioum and Malam came up with the concept of creating a Cameroon Cadavre Exquis Art- kite which starts from the middle, the heart, with art-expressions from the Douala artists and will be continued up and down over it's total length by artists in both Yaoundé and Buéa.
After the Douala-section is finalized the art-kite travels with us to Yaoundé where we have a Cadavre Exquis workshop and exhibition in the art-centre Africréa. Mal Njam, the director of Africréa generously offered us space and residency there during our stay in Yaoundé. Joe Kessy, Koko, Hankson and I travel in Hanksons car to Yaoundé. Malam, Alioum, Guy, Bernard, Joël and Louisepee are going there to mount an exhibition at the Salon and join us later. The Yaoundé artists Emile, Achilleka, Jean Marc, Majesty, Boudjeka and other locals join the workshop as well. Sumegné contributed to Cameroon Cadavre Exquis during my earlier visit to Yaoundé.
We start off the Yaoundé Cadavre Exquis with mounting the international Cadavre Exquis body of work in the exhibition-space of Africréa. While working on new Cadavre Exquis works of art, we gradually change the international exhibition into a local one. The next day in Yaoundé we work on the Art-kite and present the video-report. The last Cadavre Exquis workshop takes place in the Aliance Franco-Camerounaise in Buéa. Douala artist Zambé has just finalized a workshop and expo on the theme Aids there with two Buéan artists Lambert and Max. In Buéa they and other local artists finalize the CE Art-kite. Patrick Trueil, the director of AFC wants to exhibit the Cameroon Cadavre Exquis body of work there in the near future.
Malam and Alioum are in charge of Cadavre Exquis Cameroon and are responsible for all Cameroon Cadavre Exquis works.
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Tigerpaws in the Fishglobe
On one of my first days in Douala I visit Bessengué, one of the poorest districts in Douala. Bessengué reminds me of Alexandra in Johannesburg, its lack of the most basic facilities, the chaos and it's organic growth. I am there to find a suitable spot for the Tigerpaws in the Fishglobe show for the children in Bessengué. While walking through the narrow alleys of Bessengué I realize there is no place to perform the show or to fly the kites there. It is better to bring the children to the Doual'art gallery and to perform the show there.
The night before the first Tigerpaws in the Fishglobe Art-show for the children of Bessengué would take place there seems to be a problem with transport and there is talk about cancelling the show. "No way" I think and I call Andy Pronker, the Dutch General Manager of P&O Nedloyd, since I know he has a big four-wheel drive as do many of his expat-friends. I ask him if they could drive the children of Bessengué to and from the Doual'art gallery the next day. As it happens the next day a column of shiny four-wheel drives arrive in Bessengué to pick up the children and bring them home safely some three hours later. The show is a big success first and foremost due to the wonderful performance of the Douala storyteller Alvarez. Especially for the show Alvarez has written a story that is called Bekouloukoutou, the Monster. An adventurous and imaginative story in the theme of the show, Freedom& Safety. The children are very inspired and filled with thoughts and images, which they express during the philosophy and on the long tail of the Art-kite. Joe Kessy, a talented artist makes the video-report during the show. The same show we bring for children of the French school the next day.
The grand finale of the show, the exhibition in the sky (flying of the art-kites), takes place at the Base Elf site for all the children together. It is a harmonious and wonderful event on a spacious and windy field on the waterfront in Douala.
Afterwards in Bessengué we also present Joe's video-report of the whole show.
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Gradually the international Hope Box Preview Exhibition has become mainly local with the Cameroon Cadavre Exquis body of work, the Cameroon Tigerpaws in the Fishglobe Art-kites, and the video-report on the Cameroon artists.
At the Finissage we invite the Dutch Consul Thomas van Beekum and the Cameroon Secretary General of the ministry of Culture Thomas Kwanke Fozein. They both agree to come, but unfortunately in the end the Secretary General does not show up. Although the Finissage has an official flavour with the presence of the Dutch Consul and General Managers of several Dutch and European companies, the Hope Box Art Event was not financially supported. This wonderful Art Event came about due to the effort and creativity of the Cameroon artists, Doual'art and myself.
The big moment at the Finissage in Doual'art is the unveiling of the hottest Weather Reports with the art of the brand-new Weather Reporters from Cameroon.
I proudly present Goddy Leye, Malam(1)
and Alioum Moussa as the Cameroon Weather Reporters.
Just a couple of hours before my departure the artists, Francine, Cedric and I dismount the Hope Box Preview Exhibition.
The Cameroon Hope Box Art Event was action-packed, intensive and artistically fulfilling. Perfect almost and I have to thank my brothers and sisters in Cameroon for this! I plan to bring the Hope Box in full effect to Cameroon in December 2003.
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(1) see Spotlight
photos; Ilse Schrama
snapshots & video: Rienke Enghardt