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This is the head of a clay ceremonial pipe. The face of a man in the typical configuration of a Bamum palace style can be recognized. A towering openwork headdress extends upwards from the top of the head, representing a spider and wisdom motif. It also displays small buffalo heads which are royal icons, as well as faces or masks. These refer to hierarchies in the society from which this object comes.
This stunning object most probably came from a workshop of the Fumban region. Enormous "pipes" are known from the region, which were never smoked, but merely used as status symbols.
Smaller elaborate pipes, like this one, were meant for the rulers and were lit by the flame of an eternal fire which was kept burning in the inner sanctum of the palace. The act of lighting pointed to a relationship between smoking and the ancestral realm (cf. Cameroon - Art and Kings, Museum Rietberg, Zurich 2008, page 151, cat.37).
Nine exceptional objects from the Cameroon Grassland
A few sentences could not suffice to explain why the nine objects from the Cameroonian Grasslands - objects from distant times and places - represent such an impressive and extraordinary offering.
But there a few simple reasons for this can be cited. Six helmet crests, one mask, a large portrait figure and a delicate insignia in the form of an elaborate pipe bowl, all of high quality, and all things from a wide and rich cultural area, are seldom seen together at a single auction.
While every one of these objects would have been a commissioned work, because this was the local, cultural practice, artists deployed their creativeness in the realization of each of them and created an image of a to some extent pre-established motif in a special and singular way. The expressiveness of these artists stood in a deep relation with the history of their culture, although that expressiveness can be universally understood. Topics relating to human existence are explored in sculptural shapes, which concern all aspects of community and of life, as well as conceptions of the afterlife.
Since artworks from the Cameroonian Grasslands have begun to be admired in the Western world, perception of them and the ways in which they are viewed have changed. Some remarkable figures and masks from the Grasslands were already featured among other African artworks in 1935 in the now paradigmatic African Negro Art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Renowned historic photographer Walker Evans took pictures of all the works exhibited for a portfolio, thus bringing them closer to a broad public. Through the two-dimensional image plane of his lens, tribal art became part of the canon of Western art history. Pictures of works from Cameroon combined with models or symbols of the Western world were further taken by photographers close to the surrealists, including Man Ray. What was revolutionary at the time is today part of the curriculum of art history classes.
Today in the area of "global" or "world" art, contemporary works from West Africa, or at least works by individual artists with a West African background, have begun to establish themselves in the art market, although most of these contemporary artists live half or full-time in the Western World. As a result of these new developments, the old and traditional "tribal art" works, from the Cameroonian Grasslands as well as from other places, have acquired a kind of nostalgic resonance and appeal in the contemporary Western world.
A Bamileke Ku'n'gan mask, a Northern Grasslands Ketam mask, Troh masks of the Western Grassland or the adjacent Highlands, an ancestor portrait and an elaborated bowl of a tobacco pipe, all of which once connected their owners to the world of their ancestors, are now witnesses to a time that has long past. In an age of ever accelerating change, their aura and their meaningfulness remains intact.
Primitivist nostalgia played a crucial role in the discovery of artworks from remote places, and physical objects play an important role in the fabric of memory. Relationships that exist between the past, the present and the future can be revealed through them. Traditional artworks from the Grasslands of Cameroon provide a means of exploring the disappearance of cultural forms as well as their creative persistence.
Geographically the Cameroonian Grasslands encompass many states with distinct identities that have been divided into three main groups according to cultural similarities, shared histories, and physical landscapes. The Bamenda area in the north comprises the kingdoms of Kom, Bafut, Babanki Tungo and many others. Kingdoms to the south, including the Fontem Bangwa, are known as Bamileke. Bamum, the largest state in the Grasslands, is located to the east and forms the third area .
Bettina von Lintig