Kunstgeschichte der Moderne

Cameroonian objects of power in german museums. Meanings and significances from the violent colonial exploitation to postcolonial history.

Dissertationsprojekt von Mikaél Assilkinga

Germany was one of the leading western nations in the colonial race by translocating cultural artefacts from its former colonies. An important moment in that colonial race was the Berlin West Africa Conference, for “it had a decisive influence both on the history of contemporary Africa and on the course of contemporary European colonization. [The Conference] led to the establishment of the conditions for the sharing between the various European nations (mainly Germany, Great Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Italy)”1. As for the other participants, territories occupied prior to the conference by Germany were conceded: “[…] the occupation of the Southwest (Namibia) on 24th April 1884, then Togo and Cameroon on 6th and 14th July 1884”2. By that time in fact, Kamerun did not exist as nation. It was rather a territory (“Gebiet”) whose coasts were visited regularly and explored progressively by german merchants since 1860s.3 Translocation took place before, between and after the german period in Cameroon (1884-1916). Artefacts in german museums’ collections form an important part of the material Cameroonian cultural heritage. Studying that very heritage has become a crucial and fundamental issue. The focus in this study lays on objects of power. Power and art are intrinsically bound in Cameroon; the latter materializes the first one, even though power is not always material. Objects of power in their broadest sense include regalia (beside thrones, scepters, ivory-tusks, royal arm rings, drinking-horns, pipes), communication objects (drums), doorframes, weapons (swords, spears), royal dresses mainly in centralized societies, and religious objects (“amulets”) mostly in non-centralized chieftaincies. A power object refers to artefact reflecting sovereignty of a country through its leader(s) using it. It is also understood as each artefact used in daily life (thrones for instance) or occasionally (drums) in highly significant cultural practices, and that symbolizes the power of a chief in centralized societies or the one of the leading group in acephalous communities.

Public german museums databases4 and oral sources in Cameroon form the corpus of the study with a necessarily double axis: privation and custody. Which meanings do Cameroonian power artefacts have through their absence in home communities and their presence in custodian societies? It is assumed that the absence of object has provoked new paradigm of cultural practices coupled with specific remembrance forms. Moreover, the presence produced/produce new significances. Both presence and absence have contextual as well as historic meanings. In Germany particularly, meanings of “the life” of the objects evolve according to their trajectories and epochs. The cameroonian context is a certain way comparable to other African countries structure of power. Claude-Hélène Perrot who worked on Akan (people living in the actual Ivory Coast and Ghana) power objects5from the invisible to the visible: symbols of power in Akan country (West Africa) differentiate between “objects that are directly in contact with the person of the King, those carried by dignitaries at his side, and the consecrated objects, guarantors of the legitimacy of the royal power and kept apart, notably the ancestral “black seats” – blackened by the blood of sacrifice- that the king could not touch and to which he did not normally have access”6. Reverse provenance research, provenance research and object biography with their respective limits are used as methods to conduct the study which is also mainly focused on case studies. 

1 De Gemeaux, C. & Amaury, L. (eds.), L’Europe coloniale et le grand tournant de la Conférence de Berlin 1884-1885, Paris, Le Manuscrit, 2013, p, 7.
2 Op. cit., p. 76.
3 The C. Woermann company is established at Douala coast in1968.
4 The thesis is part of the DFG funded project “A Reverse History of Collections. An annotated atlas of Cameroon’s material heritage in German museums”. The project received in all 45 lists from 45 different german museums with Cameroon colonial era collections. 
5 Perrot, C-H, Op. Cit,.
6 Ibid.

Betreuung: Prof. Dr. Albert Gouaffo, Prof. Dr. Bénédicte Savoy