A field study on art in public space in

By   Christian Hanussek  Ars&Urbis is an initiative of Doual’art, a private art association founded by Marilyn Douala Bell and Didier Schaub in Douala, Cameroon in 1991 which focusses on initiating and organising art projects in public space. For the second edition of Ars&Urbis in March 2007, Doual’art joined forces with the Italian/Dutch NGO “iStrike”, inviting ten international guests and about 25 local artists, critics and architects to a workshop where new approaches for theoretical, artistic and urban planning interventions in Douala were developed, based on research about this city’s specific conditions. [1]


Of the works realised by Doual’art, the one with the strongest presence in the city is “Nouvelle Liberté” by Joseph Sumégné, a monumental sculpture erected in 1996 at the Deïdo roundabout. It triggered intense controversy at first, but has since proceeded to become a landmark of the city of Douala. For the international workshop Ars&Urbis, I selected the task to investigate what this statue means for the people of the city today. Public space is heavily regulated in Europe, leaving few possibilities for individual interventions. In a country such asCameroon, such regulation hardly seems to exist, and public space is always a more or less occupied space.  Symbolic occupation of public space plays a major role in cities, too, and in Douala, which is a seaport and an economic metropolis, but not the political capital of Cameroon, it is striking that, for all intents and purposes, the state does not manifest itself. The extreme lack of infrastructure is the result of the complete absence of any responsibility at all on the part of the state, of which nobody seems to expect a thing.  

One might object that the police is ever-present in Cameroon at the notorious road-blocks, but while they are indeed established by civil servants, and state-issued documents are at issue, and the inspectors’ power is legitimised as the authority of the state – the entire staging of the affair and its goal, namely to extort additional revenue for the security forces, can hardly be considered to be representation on the part of the state.  The general public occupies urban space in Douala in manifold ways, some of them merely temporary: sections of roads are blocked for dance performances or funeral ceremonies, for example; from time to time, spaces are occupied permanently, whereby they are marked out at first, then light wood structures are erected and finally solid buildings. In the course of such an occupation, people explore the possibilities and stretch the limits step by step in order to test whether they might end up encroaching on the claims of others. What may appear informal to an outside observer is actually a »process of constant forming«. [2] 

One result of the absence of the state is enormous infrastructural deficits regarding the supply of drinking water, electricity, schools and health centres in entire districts of the city. Likewise, the state neglects to protect its citizens from flooding or crime. In such a situation, they must rely on self-help and tend to draw upon traditional structures such as the “chefs du quartier” which stem from pre-colonial days, even if some of the 144 “quartiers” of this rapidly growing city were founded by migrants only a few years ago. While these “chefs”, who are addressed as »your majesty«, have no formal political power, they can attempt to encourage and organise citizens’ initiatives. And it is mostly at this level that Doual’art has launched its interventions in public space. Some of these projects are above all of practical importance for the districts, such as the well house and the bridge in Bessengue. Others have an educational dimension, for instance when the professional artists represented by Doual’art collaborate with local youths, creating images or installations. By now, Doual’art has initiated projects in roughly twenty “quartiers”, but only a few of them are works of art in public space in the narrow sense of the term. 

In his critical observation of Cameroon’s art scene, Zayd Minty, curator from Cape Town, noticed that most of the artists produce paintings with little regard for the current international developments in the medium. They are oriented towards a local and provincial market. At the same time, many artists view their work as political and participate in the projects in public space organised by Doual’art. However, there seems to be a discrepancy between these ambitions and their artistic practice of painting, since they rarely succeed in combining the two that is, translating the political aspirations into their painting in a reflected and convincing manner. [3] 

When Cameroonian artists talk about their work, it is striking that they usually explain the meanings their work is intended to convey and that they consider them to be a closed system of symbols, in other words, a kind of code. Above all, it is a number of artists of the older generation who confront their works directly with the urban space, such as Koko Komégné with his triptych »Musiki«, meanwhile demolished, at Rond Point 4ême, and Joseph Sumégné with »Nouvelle Liberté«. My study of how this sculpture is perceived today also asks the fundamental question of which effects art in the public space can have, what and whom it can represent. 

Art of “recuperation”  Joseph Sumégné’s sculpture, about twelve meters high, stands at the centre of the Deïdo roundabout, an important junction especially for traffic crossing the only bridge across the Wouri to economically and culturally important West Cameroon. Before »Nouvelle Liberté« was erected in 1996, the space in the middle of the roundabout was occupied by merchants, and they have now set up shop on the opposite sides, even though a large space remained empty around the roughly two meter high base which supports the sculpture. Other comparable roundabouts in the city have been appointed with billboards – above all by mobile telephone companies – some of which are gigantic, a result of the »deregulations« which
Cameroon, too, has not been able to escape. Such billboards surround the remains of Koko Komégné’s images erected in 1992 by Doual’art at the »Rond Point 4ême« close by “Nouvelle Liberté”, blocking the view. It is all the more surprising that there are no billboards at the Rond Point de Deïdo. 
In 1994, Doual’art commissioned artist Joseph Sumégné, an artist living in Yaoundé, with a concept for a monumental sculpture for this plaza in
Douala. Sumégné built a model which was presented to various important personages of the city, such as the “chef du quartier” of Deïdo. Permission was obtained from the municipal authorities to erect the statue, and funds were raised from private sponsors and the French cultural co-operation. Sumégné assembled the sculpture in a building on the naval base located nearby Rond Point and collaborated with a structural engineer regarding its construction and the foundation which is several meters deep. 
The sculpture initially met with a positive reaction when it was erected in the summer of 1996; little by little, however, critical voices were raised, above all the polemic of a local newspaper which launched a campaign against the sculpture. In the course of events, the artist and the organisers were threatened, and the sculpture, which was alleged to have evil magic powers, could not be completed. In the mean time, tempers have cooled; the sculpture is still in place and has become a landmark of
Douala. It is featured on postcards, foreign television journalists pose in front of it when reporting from Douala, rap groups use it in their video clips, and it is one of the Guinness brewery’s advertising motifs. 

The figure stands on one leg, the other one, as well as the arms, is bent; the left hand balances a stylised globe above its head. Laughing, the small round face welcomes the drivers coming from the downtown area. The sculpture is constructed entirely from discarded parts of cars, machines, electrical appliances, etc. All the individual parts are tied and woven together with wire or cables. 

Sumégné is one of the artists who made recycling, “recuperation” their theme and medium in the 1990s. Rather than employing traditional art materials, they construct assemblages from rubbish found on the street. In a similar vein to Arte Povera, which distanced itself from the belief in progress in the Europe of the 1950s and 1960s, the African “recuperation” artists work with the dusty aesthetics of daily life on the streets of Africa. The continent developed into a rubbish dump for the richer countries’ wastes and is now practically being flooded with their discarded consumer goods. Africans have developed their own capabilities to take possession of them, and recycling or “recuperation” as a survival strategy became a central piece of African cultural life. This process of digesting foreign rubbish must therefore be considered to be leaving its mark on African identity above and beyond its practical function. Cultural studies scholar AbdouMaliq Simone considers Sumégné’s “Nouvelle Liberté” to be a reflection both of the disparate and fragmented reality of
Douala and the ability of the city’s population to master reality in their everyday life as a social community. [4] 

Sumégné conceived “Nouvelle Liberté” as a critical paraphrase of the Statue of Liberty in
New York. For him, the torch she holds in her right hand symbolises violence and destruction,[5] and he considers her a contradiction to the pretension to liberty, as this must always be free of violence, “Nouvelle Liberté” stands on one leg, a gesture of exertion, for liberty must constantly be maintained. The right hand is the hand of violence, it faces down, and the left hand, the hand of wisdom, reaches upwards. For me, violence and freedom don’t go together. It takes wisdom to respect the Other’s interests and to find oneself in the face of the Other. For that reason, the statue has mirrors in place of her face.  [6] 

The evil spirit of the roundabout “Nouvelle Liberté” is frequently criticised because of its »rubbish aesthetics«. A passer-by at Rond Point was incensed that the population is constantly reminded to keep the city clean, and then such a heap of junk is dumped in the middle of the plaza. Many would prefer something more pleasing to the eye, something clean, a bronze, for instance.  In her article “Art, Beauty and the Grammars of Resistance in Douala”[7], cultural studies scholar Dominique Malaquais interprets the sculpture between the poles represented by the concepts of beauty and ugliness, which she considers the fundamental parameters of the self-understanding of post-colonial culture and its social classes.  To Cameroonian critic Jacques Epangue, “Nouvelle Liberté” is a model for how contemporary art inscribes itself into urban space, integrating into its social milieu: »The most important thing is that it is a wonderful work, but that it is ugly at the same time, and it is just this ugliness which makes it something wonderful. It reflects the reality of
Douala precisely, and I believe that it takes a very important place in local people’s everyday life, even if they are not aware of it. [8] 

Rarely was the statue called »Nouvelle Liberté« in the conversations I had in
Douala; some people said they did not know this name, and nobody referred to its meaning as intended by the artist. In common parlance, people call the statue »›Nju-Nju‹ du Rond Point«, which means »›Evil Spirit‹ of the Roundabout«. The question arises whether this name merely goes back to the malevolent campaign mentioned above or whether it is possible to read a magical meaning into the statue itself. I believe that Sumégné’s statues do display something of fetishes: the machine aesthetic permits one to consider them roughly built robots from a doom-and-gloom work of science fiction, but beyond that, a magical dimension can be discerned in the “recuperation” approach altogether. The fragments of machines and electrical appliances, in place of the figure’s bones and organs, are laid bare without a protective skin. Produced on other continents and circulating globally, they represent a world which is out of reach for most Africans. They represent a threat which has the power to question one’s own culture and one’s own skills. 

Every récupération piece can therefore be regarded as a fetish which takes in the foreign, fragmented objects, thereby taming and keeping them under control. At the same time, it is also a medium which personifies potential power by the magical charge of objects cobbled together. 

Especially Sumégné’s technique of tying up all the individual parts with one another speaks for such an interpretation, for in
Cameroon, string and tying up are among the central symbols for magical charges. 

That works of art are regarded as magical objects is not unusual in
Cameroon. Artist Hervé Youmbi from
Douala told the story of how he had some of his works with him when he was travelling, and that the baggage handlers of the buses refused to touch them for fear of their alleged magical charges. [9] 

But what does it mean if “Nouvelle Liberté” is seen as “Nju-Nju”, a fetish with magical powers? The idea of supernatural phenomena is omnipresent in
Cameroon, and there is hardly a conversation in which they are not mentioned even in passing. Here, magic per se is not negative and is employed as a matter of course to heal diseases and solve problems, yet it also always entails the danger of flipping over into black magic and becoming destructive. For this reason, objects with intrinsic magical powers are always approached ambivalently; they could become dangerous, and therefore, people are more or less afraid of them. 

When Sumégné’s statue is called “Nju-Nju” and associated with magic, this expresses above all the ambivalent feelings people have towards it. But it also means that the local people have appropriated it. Cameroonian author Lionel Manga emphasised that as “Nju-Nju du Rond Point”, it was a “lieu dit”, a named place, thereby declared a part of the city.[10] Most of the Cameroonian art scene, however, considers this designation not an expression of appropriation but of ignorant hostility towards art. 

Power struggles and control of space In the polemic against the statue, the artist’s ethnicity as a Bamiléké above all was made the subject of discussion, and the statue was imputed to clone itself multiple times at night and infiltrate the city. The attributes of the figure itself cannot be associated with any particular culture. The striking semicircular breast ornaments can be found in Bamiléké culture as well as in many other ethnicities, for example in Northern Cameroon.  The Bamiléké and neighboring groups of the western region which are subsumed unter the same name may hardly be represented in the country’s government, but they constitute an economic and cultural elite and are often considered to be the dominating ethnic group. They initiated the movement for independence in the 1950s which was quelled with considerable bloodshed, and even today, they are the only serious opposition against the regime of President Biya, who has been in office since 1982. A presidential election was scheduled for 1997, and the polemic against Sumégné’s statue was to stir up resentment on the part of the Sawa, the coastal population, against the Bamiléké, thereby also discrediting the political ambitions of presidential candidate John Fru Ndi from the western region.  But here, too, the question arises whether this polemic was merely a politically guided and provoked eruption of tribalism or whether there was more behind it. Lionel Manga is convinced that the ethnic question is of the essence in
Douala, and that there would not have been any problems at all with the sculpture if it had been created by a Sawa artist. He considers the reason for the eruption of passionate confrontations which it triggered to be that different claims on space and different understandings of space collided. 
“Before spaces are divided into private and public ones, they are vernacular that means that a space belongs to a particular ethnic group. Deïdo is at the heart of Sawa territory, on Sawa soil. But at the Rond Point de Deïdo, this vernacular claim to identity, founded on the land, comes up against the urban, cosmopolitan reality, against Otherness and difference. No one has understood the dynamic of this harsh encounter at all so far; “Nouvelle Liberté” articulated the confrontation between ethnic space and public, bourgeois space clearly. The people who were born in Deïdo consider themselves the exclusive owners and stake a claim to all the rights to this space, following the motto »Deïdo is ours”. The scandal was not the work of art itself, but the artist’s background. Of course, nobody speaks openly against Bamiléké artists as it is not politically correct to be a tribalist. When the issue is
Douala itself during the consultations on such projects, people do not speak of a city, but of many different ones, for they each have their own images of the city with its virtual exclusions in mind. When Doual’art generously initiates participatory processes, it actually triggers power struggles and intrigues about controlling space. [11] 
Douala is growing very rapidly and its population numbers approximately three million today. The Sawa have become a minority; the Bamiléké account for 75 percent of the population, an overwhelming majority, and also dominate the business community. Most of the city’s 144 “quartiers” have an ethnically mixed population today. 

Deïdo is one of the three original districts of Douala and has maintained its social structure best. Strolling around Deïdo one evening with Dou Kaya, a musician and Egyptologist who lives in the beautiful old house he inherited from his family, was akin to a leisurely promenade around the village. The social structure is highly mixed; elaborate houses epitomising wealth stand between very simple ones, as well as old between new. Between six and eight o’clock in the evening, people bustle about, and everybody seems to know everybody. When Dou knocks on the door or rings the doorbell of a house, we are asked right in, and everyone is happy to comment on »Nju-Nju«. Nobody ever mentioned feeling threatened in a real way by this »evil spirit«.  Time and again, the most important question was whether the statue represented the population. As there is no governmental representation in
Douala, it might have been the case that Sumégné’s sculpture could have become the city’s landmark as its sole post-colonial monument. But it also marks a location, thereby becoming part of a local competition for this place, and above all for the legitimation to represent it. Passers-by at Rond Point had a variety of opinions. Some see a special quality in the statue’s uniqueness and unmistakableness, which they therefore consider to be a special symbol for
Douala. For others, it is not representative enough in the conventional sense: »When people who are not familiar with Douala visit the city for the first time, and the first thing they are confronted with is this sculpture, then they must feel sent up. After all, Douala is a major city, and this is an important roundabout which would have deserved something better, for example a statue of a great Cameroonian personality like football star Roger Milla or King Manga Bell.«[12] 

A class-specific pattern in the distribution of supporters and opponents of the statue cannot be discerned. Opinions were divided among both the street merchants and the middle and upper social strata of Deïdo. However, if people had a low opinion of the statue, the latter expressed it less openly than did popular opinion at Rond Point itself, and they did not want their statements recorded.  In Europe, art and culture are currently employed as social engineering tools in an attempt to deal with social problems. For example, art is intended to help upgrade problematic neighbourhoods, and a large exhibition with artists from around the world, including above all some who are »critical of globalisation«, are to help »de-escalate« situations such as the expected protests on the occasion of the G8 summit in summer 2007 on the
Baltic Sea. The opposite seems to be the case with »Nouvelle Liberté«: the space which it opens up is laden with conflict, and latent conflicts flare up because of it. 

The questions regarding what or whom the statue represents cannot be answered conclusively, and there is a large discrepancy between the meaning intended by the artist and the way the sculpture is understood by the general public. Its appearance itself is ambiguous in many ways: its machine aesthetics make it futuristic, simultaneously bearing insignia of traditional culture; the figure’s posture conveys dance-like dynamics while also appearing rigid and immobile; its face displays a broad smile, but it is said that children are afraid of it. It is because of the fact that its own meaning is not unequivocal, but rather very complex, that the statue serves as a catalyst for claims to representation. What it actually represents is more social processes than identities. 

Translation: Sandra Lustig  1 http://istrike.net/mediawiki/index.php?title=Ars_et_Urbis_International_Workshop2 Alexander Vollebrecht, urban planner at the
University of
Technology in
Delft and participant in Ars&Urbis 2007 in an interview with the author on 7 March 2007. 
3 Zayd Minty in a conversation with the author on 12 March 2007 in
Douala within the framework of the international workshop Ars&Urbis. 
4 AbdouMaliq Simone, The Spectral, Assembling Douala, in: idem, For the City Yet to Come, Durham 2004.  5 Sumégné’s interpretation is very unconventional and contradicts the general understanding of the Statue of Liberty’s symbolism, for the torch stands for enlightenment in Western iconography. 

6 Joseph Soumégné in a conversation with the author on 11 May 2004 in
7 Dominique Malaquais, Quelle Liberté: Art, Beauty and the Grammars of Resistance in
Douala, in: Sarah Nuttall (ed.), Beautiful Ugly. African and Diaspora Aesthetics, Durham 2006. 

8 Jacques Epangue in a conversation with the author on 14 March 2007 in
Douala within the framework of the international workshop Ars&Urbis. 
9 Hervé Youmbi in a conversation with the author in the year 2000 in

10 Lionel Manga in a conversation with the author on 10 March 2007 in
Douala within the framework of the international workshop Ars&Urbis. 
11 See footnote 10. 

12 Remarks by passers-by during my interviews at the Rond Point de Deïdo. Manga Bell was king from 1910 to 1914. He was hanged in public by the German colonial administration because he resisted its policies of segregation. The founder and artistic director of Doual’art, Marilyn Douala Bell, is King Manga Bell’s granddaughter.    



Une tentative de mise en commun des contributions situées à des échelles d’expression diverses qui viennent enrichir le débat au sujet de la quête et l’affirmation d’une identité commune à des communautés éparses.

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