Not since Tamara Northern’s “The Art of Cameroon” exhibit, at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., has there been such a comprehensive show of Cameroon art. It blurs the line between fine art and utilitarian art. It challenges one to redefine categories of art and to appreciate and acknowledge all aspects of one country’s visual production – from the miniature clay pipe to the towering house post, from the tall cowrie shell encrusted royal figure to a small brass bracelet or beaded loin cloth. Cameroon art has a vitality of expression and generosity of imagination that seems to derive directly from the luxuriance of the natural surroundings and its rich and varied religions, cultures, and history.
The QCC Art Gallery is honored to present an outstanding exhibition of Cameroon art drawn from the private collection of Professor Marshall and Caroline Mount and curated by Leonard Kahan. The essay for the accompanying comprehensive hard cover catalogue is written by Donna Page.
The central African country of Cameroon is a land whose geographical and cultural diversity is equaled only by the wide variety of its dynamic art and artifacts. Over the years, Professor Mount has traveled extensively throughout Cameroon; more recently he and Caroline traveled and collected in Cameroon together. Their collection includes objects from all of Cameroon—the arid extreme northern areas, the rain forests of the south, the humid port city of Douala, and the verdant rolling hills and mountains of the Grassfields region.
The 240 piece exhibition includes religious, political, and ancestral art and artifacts, objects used in celebrations and others of utilitarian purpose. Many of the masks, figures, and stools, were once sequestered in palace royal treasuries. They were brought out for public display only for such special occasions as enthronement ceremonies, funerals, and annual festivals.
Many of the finest sculptural objects in the exhibition are from Cameroon’s Grassfields, whose exuberant, emotional art is characterized by symbols such as the elephant and leopard, icons of power, and the spider, indicator of wisdom. Grassfields art is political, reflecting the wealth, power, and prestige of its rulers, the fons, its royal families and notables.
One of the show’s highlights is an unusual display which recreates the façade of a secret society house, flanked by two large totem-posts, with a richly carved door frame in the center. Nearby is an extremely rare and powerful male and female pair of masks with metal surfacing. A group of old, large, powerful, and expressive wood figures includes an outstanding royal commemorative figure covered in cowrie shells and beads. Alongside these are smaller and miniature figures pointing to the Cameroon carver’s ability to create fine figures of varying scale appropriate to their function or the needs of a particular patron. There are also finely carved face and helmet masks and colorful, densely textured costumes, one flowing into the next, as they would in an actual masquerade in Cameroon. A royal woman’s "cape" of thousands of small beads represents a leopard skin; the craftsmanship is breathtaking. Past the costumes is a cluster of seldom seen Grassfields prestige hats—a great variety, splendid in their bright colors and rich materials.
The exhibit has one of the largest displays of Cameroon pipes ever presented. Examples from all regions include the oversized pipes of royalty, figurative pipes, and pipes with geometric and animal motifs. Other artifacts include wood, cane, terra cotta, calabash, and basketry vessels used for cooking and for serving palm wine and water. One can also walk in and around an array of stools, thrones, and beds feeling the importance, beauty, and scale of these pieces, studying the figurative and geometric motifs.
From Cameroon’s early contact with Europeans is a most unusual early 20th century miniature canoe complete with oarsmen, oars, and an elaborate carved prow. Also documenting the country’s history are four rare paintings celebrating Grassfields history and royalty. These are exhibited alongside notables’ weapons and shields whose harmonious use of color, materials, and design embody long and rich traditions.
Contemporary artifacts include an ingenious toy car made by children from northern Cameroon and a pair of figurative clothing hangers from a Douala tailor shop.
At the entry to the Gallery, the exhibit is announced by a large Kuosi Society elephant mask—a beaded cloth costume with a large, red, feather hat on top—in front of a field photo of a Kuosi Society dancer wearing such a costume.
As the title suggests, this exhibition offers a lasting vision of "A Cameroon World."
Throughout the exhibition some of the Mounts’ field photographs of dances and festivals provide a context for the objects displayed. Cultural videos made by Joseph Nwoteh Kwango bring Grassfields festivals and ceremonies to life.