Introductory Essay – Powerful Arts of Cameroon

Notable's Neckring (Mbga Mbga) from Eastern Grassfields, Bamum: Foumban. medium: Brass, copper. date: 20th century

My love for African art evolved in a very natural way. I was born into a family of royal artists on both sides of my lineage. By the time I was seven years old, I remember being fascinated with art. I began looking at, touching, and living with thousands of different ritual objects. I started to learn about their symbolic meanings and functions.

My father’s great-grandfather, Nji Klem, born in 1842, was originally from Rifum, in the Tikar region, in what is now Sudan. He emigrated to Foumban, the capital of the Bamum Kingdom, founded in the late fourteenth century by Prince Chare Yen also from Rifum. Located in the Western province of what is presently the Republic of Cameroon, Foumban is a historic, yet vital center of the Bamum people and the cultural showpiece for traditional Cameroonian life.

When Nji Klem arrived in the late nineteenth century, he worked as an ironsmith creating swords, spears, bracelets, and necklaces for titled persons. For his work, he was honored by the reigning king (Fon) Nsangou (1863-1889) and given the title Fon Lam, meaning King of Iron and Workers in the Kingdom. His full name eventually became Nji Klem Fon Lam.

When Fon Nsangou passed away, he was succeeded by Fon Ibrahim Njoya (1889-1933, no relation). My great-grandfather became his advisor and played a major role during the construction of the famous palace in Foumban, called Dah Rouop (House of Kings), which began in 1917 and was completed in 1920.

His son, Abdou Rahman, my paternal grandfather (Figure 1), was born in 1905. He learned the family trade of working with iron from his father and continued to serve the Kingdom during the reign of Fon Nji Seidou Moluh Njoya (1933-1992). My grandfather gained renown, as his father before him and in time succeeded him, becoming known as Nji Abdou Paffessie Klem Fon Lam.

Figure 1. Amadou’s paternal grandfather, Nji Abdou Paffessie Klem Fon Lam, wearing his prestige dress with his notable white turban wrapped around his face and head, sitting on his chair with a ceremonial sword made by him in his right hand.

Figure 2. In front of the Bamum Royal Place, in Foumban (1964) during the meeting of the 18th king, Fon El-Haji Seidou Njimoluh Njoya (center right) and notables including Amadou Njoya’s paternal grandfather, Nji Abdou Paffessie Klem Fon Lam, at the King’s left.

He married Meh Zenahbou, the daughter of Nji Nbwahtou, another noted ironsmith in the same Kingdom. In 1930, my father Nji Mama Nsangou Njoya Klem was born. Growing up with his father, he too became immersed in the iron trade. I was born in 1962, two years after Cameroon’s independence. (Figure 2)

Eventually I began to work for my paternal grandfather (Figure 3) in his iron studio, not far from our family compound in Foumban. As part of my coming of age, during school holidays, I assisted many traditional ritual festivals around the Grassfields Kingdoms, seeing many sacred masks in action while helping in dances, festivals, and even enthronements.

In 1969, nine years after Cameroon’s independence, my father met with the first Western tribal art collectors in Douala and Yaound. Among them was Albert Gordon, owner of the Tribal Arts Gallery in New York City. He had the passion, vision and knowledge to understand the importance and heritage of African art. He and my father became good friends, traveling and researching together until 1985. From then, my father often accompanied Westerners around Cameroon and neighboring countries, helping them to collect art and artifacts. I began to go along with them.

In 1974, while we were in Oku Kingdom in the Northwest Grassfields, my father gave me a symbolic gift of two wooden spider motif stools. They were the first pieces I received from him and it was as if he enthroned me. In our culture, we are aware that spiders work very hard spinning and repairing their webs. So with these stools he was giving me a message: I should work hard without stopping, just as the spider does! And I have done that in my life.

My first collecting trip out of my country was to Nigeria with my father in 1977. We traveled to the Benue River Valley and to the Calabar where we saw many ritual festivals performed by Mumuye, Chamba, Montol and Jukun peoples. For two months, we traveled by any means we could find: by car on roads that were sometimes very rough, by foot or by bicycle when there were no roads at all. Once, en route, we tried to swim across a river and were almost swept away by the current. We were very lucky to come back alive! My father really trained me for life’s situations. That was my initiation into manhood. He was a very strong man, and one of the best art specialists in Cameroon. My mother Nji Adja Pasma Mefire also had a good eye for art, and was his treasured advisor. I eventually made collecting trips on my own to the Congo, Gabon, Burkina Faso (among the Lobi) and other countries while also attending many rituals and festivals in Cameroon and other countries, such as Tanzania, where I traveled in 1997.

In 1979, after general study at the secondary school of the College LELE of Nkongsamba in the Littoral Province of Cameroon, I moved to Yaound, the capital city, to establish a private office and gallery. I became recognized as an expert and advisor in tribal arts. From 1979 to 1985, I helped collectors and museums in our capital city. I spoke with many collectors and dealers about their collections which also helped me to learn. I developed fluency in many languages and dialects including Bamum, Bamileke, French and English. My library of books and catalogs about African art continued to grow. Through it all, I remembered watching my grandfather and my father forging iron. I saw and was around so much African art for so many years, which reinforced my love, taste, knowledge and passion for ritual objects. In that process, I developed appreciation for the power and deep knowledge that was contained in the masks and sculpture.

On February 10, 1986, I decided to travel to the United States. At that point, I felt I had enough experience with the arts of Africa to reach out to America.  It was my first trip out of the African continent. Albert Gordon and Leonard Kahan welcomed me and introduced me to many collectors and museums around the United States.

After my father passed away in 2005, I succeeded him as the head of the family. In a special ceremony in Foumban, I also inherited his title, becoming Nji Amadou Njoya (Figure 4).  The title “Nji” is given to the royal family and to persons of importance in the Bamum Kingdom. The title carries responsibilities with it, including assisting the Fon at all times, traveling with him for cultural or political purposes, informing him of new ideas that may benefit the Kingdom and taking part in certain ceremonies. I must learn our traditions and pass them on to young people in our Kingdom. Part of that is to remember the place of the arts within our culture.

My Collection
In 1990, I began to build my own collection assembling the pieces that most fascinated me. I particularly admire objects that play some part in ritual action, that are functional as well as possess beautiful form. Door posts, masks, statues (including maternity figures), stools, vessels and ceremonial hats have all made their way into my collection. I am also drawn to works that incorporate images of wild animals: buffalo, gorillas, leopards, tigers, snakes and birds. Most of the works are highly symbolic with great cultural value. I want to pass on their hidden meanings to the Bamum youth. Hats, for instance, are not just head coverings. They are an important symbol of succession, as they are passed from one generation to the next. When I succeeded my father, I inherited his long red hat and clothing (Figure 5). 

Figure 5. Nji Amadou Njoya, wearing his father’s long red hat and traditional clothing, at his home in Yaound. December 2013.


Stools, including the one with a spider motif gifted to me by my father, also carry significance beyond their function. The form of a stool shows its owner’s place in the hierarchy of a royal kingdom. If it has been carved with a raised rim around the seat, it was created for a Fon, a prince, or other notable. A stool with human or earth spider representations (such as mine) between the rim and base would be used by a titleholder, a flat-topped stool by a male commoner, and a bamboo stool by a woman. Each form is an expression of cultural beliefs. I have several in my collection some of which can be seen in this exhibition.

When I see an important ritual object in the field, I often become visibly excited by its presence. At the moment when a powerful object is unwrapped, in that initial point of contact, something happens to me. My first reaction goes straight through my heart and mind, when I witness its eyes, its cheeks, the mouth, the whole form. I feel the spirit in the object, and it can be a breathtaking experience. In French, it’s described as coup de foudre, a thunderbolt! When I have that reaction, I know that I am in the presence of an original ritual object – it is proof of its originality. This is the best feeling in viewing ritual art! Such a response honors the work, the artist, tribal users and those who strive to preserve traditional life.

If such a piece is available for trade, I try to have it in my possession as quickly as possible, with no consultation or hesitation, but in a fair way. It is taste that is important at these times, and confidence in my initial response. All of these feelings and decisions confirm the beauty and authenticity of each piece in this collection. It is a living and deep involvement in my culture that has given me this intense awareness.