I imagine that life begins at a point of intersection – which is, actually, the point of this endeavour, the idea behind travelling from Lagos to other African cities. What we have struggled to do, in the last two days, is to acknowledge the presence of Others – artists and residents of Douala alike. In doing that, we have opened ourselves up to co-creative action, opened ourselves to the transformative power of collaboration, and to intercultural cooperation.
The public art piece that stood out, while I discussed with Princess Marilyn, and when I eventually caught a glimpse was the La Nouvelle Liberté, erected by Joseph-Francis Sumégné in 1996. The piece, towering 12-meters high, represented Doual’art’s finest attempt to organize a cultural project on the local level that stimulates a collective imaginary on urban development. The sculpture initially triggered fierce controversy, given that the artist was at the time based in Yaoundé – Marilyn notes it was during the time of its erection that, for the first time, ethnic questions were being raised in Douala. Yet, the aesthetic triumphed over the mundane, and the statue has, by now, become a landmark and a symbol for Douala.
A few hours later, we met with several leading artists working in Douala. We had made friends – Romuald Dikume, Boris Nzebo, Aime Moukoko, the photographer Landry Mbassi. Joined by Landry and Romuald, we headed to New Bell, at the invitation of Herve Yanjuen, where we sat in an open air bar, introduced the road trip project, were welcomed listened to music from an acoustic guitar, drank beer and malt and water, requested for interviews. Lionel Manga, who speaks excellent English, animatedly chatted with me on the importance of the slave trade, Fela’s inimitable legacy, history as a pathway to the future. I immediately asked for an interview.
Sunday evening we were hosted by Nicholas Eyidi, a photographer, whose personal collection of photograph numbers close to 23,000 photos. His house seemed imbued with a form of surreal imagery – on a table, for instance, there was an assortment of vintage cameras, a part of the sitting room was a studio. When he took us in, he showed us government historical records from the early 1950s, another studio, a library of CDs containing his work, a collection of cassettes. Because he no longer used analogue cameras, he gave Christian a pellicle pack. When I requested an interview, I was conscious of how important his words were if I was to understand how Cameroun was out-reaching to the world, how as Lesedi remarked, he was the sort of man who had been everywhere and yet retained the characteristic openness wide-travelling conferred.
Then, a few minutes’ walk away, we entered the house of Selifou Lindou, painter per excellence. I wasn’t entirely surprised by the depth of his vision, the botheration of his work, given the titles that laboured for space in his studio. I recognized Eco’s Le Pendule de Foucault, then books by Le Clezio, Rimbaud, Abdoumalique Simone, etc. etc. Lindou had participated in the public art campaign of Doual’art, creating Face A L’eau– which consists of five vertical panels made of wood, metal, and coloured plastic sheets on the bank of the river Wouri in Bonamouti. There are five single shutters, the highest of which measures 3.7 meters, and are installed in such a way that at a certain distance they give the impression of a single screen. The installation is meant to protect the boatmen and fishermen from the view of the passers-by when they wash at the end of the day’s work.
Behind Lindou’s house is another masterpiece, Jardin Sonore, created in 2010 by Lucas Grandin, which is, simply, a sound garden that offers a panoramic view of the river Wouri, and a place of contemplation. There are three levels, each of which has wooden seats. The amazing thing about the Jardin Sonore is that it is a dewdrop percussion organ – it offers urban cacophony inside its water walls. These masterpieces were created by artists at the invitation of doual’art, anchored on a triennial, SUD, Salon Urbain de Douala (The Douala Urban Salon).
We have been working the city – Lesedi and Jide have been involved in recording the work of D. Long Samuel, nicknamed Deidoboy, a fashion designer, modelisté designer. Actually Lesedi has become quite famous among the local hip-hop stars; she was asked to shoot a video. Romuald has been a fantastic guide, although often he is irritated by our slowness to respond to his arrangements.
In thinking how Douala is offering a montage of moments, I am haunted by the words of Joyce Carol Oates, who, reviewing Zadie Smith’s NW, remarked,
‘How to present, in language, the shimmering, ever-shifting life of a place? The most obvious means, the documentary film, has its limitations: the filmmaker can record hours of visual imagery, he can interview subjects, and we can overhear subjects speaking, but we cannot hear their inner voices, and we cannot see the world inside their heads. A kaleidoscope of fascinating and “authentic” images can pass before our eyes as viewers, but we can’t interpret these images through the prism of consciousness, with its myriad histories, that is the soul of a place. We are forever viewers, voyeurs. We “haven’t a clue.”’
How to go over the everyday, how to imagine a recipe for the future through art, seems to be the ‘positive trouble’ (as Lionel Manga put it) that is inevitable while in Douala, and after one leaves. For now I am – and I believe the rest of my colleagues are – content with being here.