Out of Africa, Into Queens
The Art of "A Cameroon World"
In Cameroon, as in much of Africa, art is where you find it: in the engraved calabashes used for carrying milk; in tiny snuff bottles; in the pictorial game chips carved from the pits of a local tree. Players of the once-popular game, called Abbia, could lose a bag of salt, or win a palm oil plantation, depending on how the chips fell that night.
Such everyday objects, along with ceremonial masks and other special items, offer a window into "A Cameroon World," an exhibit celebrating the art of the west-central African nation at Queensborough Community College's QCC Gallery.
"A Cameroon World," which runs through February 2008, features 240 pieces from the Marshall and Caroline Mount Collection. Marshall Mount first traveled to Africa in 1961 and has returned often, visiting Cameroon five times. He teaches African art at New York University and at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
The fruit of his travels fills the sunny main room of the gallery. Curator Leonard Kahan has organized the masks, figures, costumes, and other objects into discrete groups connected by a common origin and aesthetic.
There are pipes—lots of pipes. Made from brass or terra cotta, they fill two display cases in the back room of the show. The larger brass pipes are strictly for ceremonies, the smaller ones for smoking tobacco. Some are decorated with graceful animals; others geometric patterns, floral or seashell motifs. One standout has a bowl shaped like two German colonials, accurate from their caps to their buttoned shirts. At that point, things get a little sketchy: The two have only one pair of feet.
Visitors entering the exhibit's main room are greeted by a colorful collection of prestige headdresses constructed from materials including dyed feathers and raffia. Some are small and contained; others burst forth like feathered fireworks.
Further along, powerful face and helmet masks, worn on special occasions by Cameroon elite, show an equally wide range of styles and materials. Wall texts explain their origins and use in secret societies; accompanying photographs by the Mounts show some of the items in use in dances and festivals.
One mask in particular, a five-foot-long cloth elephant mask from the Grassfields area, captures the imagination. Its round elephant ears and long trunk belie a curiously human face. Worn by Kuosi society members, elephant masks symbolize royalty. A close look at the mask's intricately-beaded surface reveals other symbols such as leopard spots (also royalty) and a spider (wisdom).
Much has been made of the influence of African art on Modernism (before the 20th century, African cultural objects were considered less art, more artifact). A stunning buffalo mask, all angular forms and flattened lines, illustrates the point perfectly. It looks like it could have leapt off of a Picasso painting.
The show's largest display recreates the reed-covered façade of a Kwifoyn secret society house. Two large wooden totem poles stand guard on either side of a door frame carved with grinning heads, male and female figures, and lizards. It also manages to incorporate a clever bit of multitasking: the high threshold not only keeps out flood waters and small animals, but also ensures that anyone entering must do so in the bent-over position of a supplicant.
Although many items in the show are linked to rank or religion, QCC Gallery Director Faustino Quintanilla explained that "A Cameroon World" makes a point of celebrating the art in everyday objects.
"While there have been exhibits of Cameroon masks and figures, things like that have never been put together with a more global exhibit including practical things like beds and hats," he said.
Cameroon was a German colony from 1884 until the end of World War I, so there's no surprise in finding references to its colonial days. Still, one can't help but wonder about the curious seven-foot-long model canoe made by the coastal Duala people. A crew of German sailors mans the oars, led by a flag man. A European-style heraldic crest flies up front. But what of the animals sharing the prow with the crest? What imaginary army or navy do they belong to, or are they just hitching a ride?
"A Cameroon World" is one of three African art shows to open in New York City this past October. "Spirit and Power in African Art," which ran through Dec. 15, at the Godwin-Ternbach Museum at Queens College (CUNY), also included pieces from the QCC permanent collection of African art. "Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary" will be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 2.