Indifferent African states have enabled Western elites to define the continent’s artistic production, says Cameroonian art historian Paul-Henri S. Assako Assako
C&: How would you describe your professional path in terms of your interest in artistic expression?
Paul-Henri S. Assako Assako: My interest in art, particularly visual arts, was born out of an opportunity the late Sister Anne-Marie Hamon gave me in 1995: to practice drawing and painting during vacations and on the weekends. That interest progressively strengthened over the course of my schooling beginning in 1997, when I decided to enroll in the Institut de Formation Artistique (IFA, the Institute of Artistic Education) at Mbalmayo, which is still the only high school for artistic education in Cameroon. After obtaining my AF2 baccalaureate (in painting) at the Institute, I studied visual art and art history at the University of Yaoundé I. It was at the same university’s Section of Visual Arts and Art History of the Department of Arts and Archeology that I completed my PhD in art history.
[Thinking back to the IFA,] I remember a few essential elements that motivated me: first, my admiration for one of my art history teachers, an Italian architect with whom, in our first year, we conducted a research project about artistic production in Cameroon; and second, my regret on realizing that our program at IFA did not provide any courses about art in Africa.
C&: As a professor, researcher and Head of the Art History and Fine Art Section at the University of Yaoundé I, how do you foresee the educational program’s future? To what extent do you plan to revise it?
PHSAA: The contents of the Section’s educational programming are fairly open, allowing students to grasp art from different complementary viewpoints: those of history, critical theory, anthropology, philosophy, biography, practice, and experimentation, among others. It provides knowledge of the arts worldwide, the arts in Africa, and (prehistoric and contemporary) art in Cameroon. However, bearing in mind that the visual arts’ frame of reference is in perpetual flux, the Section’s program must take up those transformations and ask new educational and research questions. That is the perspective I envision, which could be considered a revision of the program. It is more about encouraging my colleagues and the students not to become isolated in an exclusively academic reality, but to take a transverse approach to artistic expression: learning to explore various alternative programs of production and dissemination – the market, the biennales, and academic research – and to integrate them into teaching. In short, it’s about broadening one’s culture in terms of the historical and everyday currency of artistic experience by examining the professional and the academic realities.
C&: What sorts of approaches and systems (educational, theoretical, artistic, and otherwise) are you planning for your students?
PHSAA: The idea I’m excited about is turning the Section into a real incubator for visual art professionals, drawing on theoretical research and bold, original, and creative experiments that the students and teachers are urged to carry out. That is how the Section, the students, and the teachers can become part of a network of local and global artistic professionals. That said, in an environment without material and financial resources and with few specialized teachers, the main approach seeks to reinforce the students’ and teachers’ capabilities by inviting the experienced input of professionals from the art world in our programs’ development. That means opening up the Section to types of partnerships that will allow our colleagues to organize their teaching by incorporating applications in the form of professional projects that can gradually introduce our students to the world of professional art.
C&: The world of contemporary art in African contexts has been receiving a great deal of popularity and visibility in the West. When you hear the phrase “global art and education,” what does that bring to mind, particularly in relation to artists’ training and careers?
PHSAA: The visibility of art by artists of African origin and its appreciation in the West ought to taken as an opportunity, not only for artists but also for governments in Africa. It testifies to the many incentives those governments have for creating policies of subsidizing cultural activities in general and specific players in that realm.
One of the major changes brought about the artistic reformation of the latter half of the twentieth century in the West is that it has removed Western cultural inhibitions towards foreign aesthetics and revealed their relevance. The notion of global art, in contrast, does not seem to fit such a reading. The majority of what is today called “African contemporary art” on the “global” stage has been selected as such, directly or indirectly, by a certain Western elite in the face of many African countries’ indifference to art.
The global context is open to exchanging experiences and having lateral cultural encounters. On that basis, it poses multiple advantages in terms of references that may serve as critical, methodological, and experimental bases for artistic education, but also in terms of professional profiles and the potential academic curricula in this area.
C&: And how do you see the role of the diasporas as conduits of communication between local and global realities?
PHSAA: In my opinion, the diasporas bear a great responsibility. By the nature of the positions they occupy in respect to their varying countries of origin, they have a considerable effect on peoples’ perception of artistic practice in African countries. The relevance of the diasporas lies in the nature of the interventions they create and in their capacity to take actions inspired by local necessities and consistent with international ones. However, the risk posed by the diasporas is of literally taking home the Western position to their original context or of confining that context to stereotypical references while glossing over new dynamics that are evident there…
C&: How do you view the role of independent spaces in artists’ informal training in Cameroon? Can you give us some examples along the lines of Doual’art and Art Bakery?
PHSAA: Independent spaces such as doual’art, Art Bakery, and various others have played and continue to play a very important role in the life of the arts in Cameroon, even more so in artistic training and education. These spaces originated as artistic initiatives – such as exhibitions, artist residencies, festivals such as the Salon Urbain de Douala, SUD, and conferences, to name a few examples – that allowed people to discover and get to know artists from Cameroon and abroad and established a number of exchanges between the different players of the Cameroonian art world and their international counterparts. For a long time, these spaces have also been the primary channels of mediation, dissemination, and mobility for Cameroonian artists and their work.
Interview by Aïcha Diallo
This Interview was first published in the latest C& Print Issue #7. Read the full magazine here.