Friday 22 January 2010
Carol Ventura explores the importance of woodcarving in the central African republic of Cameroon, and how society unifies to contribute to this valuable craft
Although most people think of equatorial Africa as being extremely hot, the 4,500ft elevation of Western Cameroon allows for an average air temperature of around 55 degrees Fahrenheit at night and 75 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. The year is divided into dry and rainy seasons, with the rainy season lasting from around March through to October. The mild climate and abundant rain supports a variety of crops including coffee, peanuts, cola nuts, bananas, oranges, mangoes, avocados, cabbages, pineapples, beans, and corn. These conditions are also good for growing many types of wood that are excellent for carving.
Woodcarving was originally not decorative, but played an important function in Cameroonian society, with objects associated with ceremonies and performances. Carvings were not only judged by how they looked, but also by the amount of power they possessed and by what they could do. Many objects were used to communicate with ancestors and other powerful spirits. Carvers were held in high esteem and worked mostly for forts (local kings). In fact, the late fon (chief of a local group) of Babungo was himself a talented carver, who descended from a royal line of carvers.
Today both tourists and fons support woodcarvers. In addition to traditional items like drums, masks, statues, house posts, doors, door frames, vessels, mortars, royal beds, thrones, and games, carvers of recent times also produce figurines, wall plaques, and contemporary furniture. Items destined for tourists are usually not as fine as items crafted for a fon or his court. Many forts, however, in an effort to earn money for their people, are selling their old carvings and commissioning new replacements. These Bamileke, Tikar, and Bamoun antiquities can be found in museums and collections around the world. Some carvings, however, have been stolen and sold to collectors, which has caused quite a hardship on the people, since these special objects are believed to possess great power and cannot be easily replaced.
Traditional carvings are often covered with symbolic motifs that represent the strength, power, authority, wisdom, and leadership of the fon. Royal animals and insects include the powerful elephant, buffalo, leopard, lion, python, scorpion and large earth spider (Heteroscodra crassipes). This spider is also associated with divination as it is believed to be the mediator between the living and the dead, linking the spiritual world with the material world.
Other animals associated with the fort are the peaceful donkey, the fertile and clever rabbit, the steadfast dove, the supernatural bat, the fertile and astute frog, the witch-defying lizard, the godlike chameleon, and the wise tortoise. Objects associated with the fon include wealth-related cowry shells (traditional money), victorious spearheads, and the unifying hunting net.
A distinct division of labour is quite common in Western Cameroon. For instance, when looking for a taxi, one person will find it for you, a bag handler will load your bags into the car, a chauffeur will drive the car, then another handler will unload the bags. With woodcarving, one person harvests the wood, another roughs out the form, a carver refines the details, a sander smooths the surface, a painter decorates it, then a merchant sells the finished item. Of course, sometimes one person may complete more than one of the steps, but this division of labour is part of the culture. Working together as a community is highly valued.
Carving is a seasonal occupation in Western Cameroon since most carvers are busy tending their fields during the rainy season. In the dry season, they can be found outside in the shade, sitting on piles of wood chips under trees or sheltered by simple coverings made of branches and palm fronds. The carvers I met in December of 2000 really seemed to enjoy their craft as they carved and joked with each other in the local tongue. Most people from this area speak a native language in addition to French and English. I suspect that some of the jokes were about the crazy white American woman with the camera!
The wood is usually carved while still green, although in some cases, it is dried before it is carved. Soft, light-weight wood is usually used for masks, while hardwood seems to be the material of choice for carving furniture.
Wood tones range from white to dark brown. Details were often blackened by touching the area with a piece of hot iron. The whole masks were traditionally blackened in smoke and/or coloured with pounded red camwood (Baphia nitida) that is mixed with palm oil and water, or white clay that is mixed with water and glue. The carvings used to be placed in the rafters above cooking fires, allowing the smoke to slowly darken the surface and to help protect the wood from insects, but today they are smoked for four hours in a metal drum that rests on a clay ring. Damp wood chips feed the fire, while rags cover the drum to keep in the smoke. In the past, carved objects probably rested several months in the rafters over the kitchen fire, but today's high demand and smokeless gas and electric stoves have brought about this new method. Paint and shoe-polish are used today along with traditional colourants.
Many stools, statues and masks are covered with cloth, then beads or cowry shells are sewn to the cloth. Some pieces are decorated with metal wire while others are covered with coins, cast metal, and cowry shells set into bees-wax.
The next time you find yourself looking at an old carved mask or figure from Africa, look at the description for the origin; it is very possible that it came from the Bamileke, Tikar, or Bamoun ethnic group of Western Cameroon, an area with a rich carving history.