Art from Africa: Long Steps Never Broke a Back

The chapter on the Kom of Cameroon Grasslands opens a different but equally striking window onto African art and culture today and in the past. Drawing from the art collection, research, and photographs of the missionary Paul Gebauer, who donated part of his Cameroon corpus to the Seattle Art Museum (and the other part to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), McCluskey here introduces us to the various owners of art, among these the famed king and artist Fon Yu (b. 1830), who stood up to the Germans in the early era of missionary penetration here.

This chapter ably explores how gifting practices in Cameroon reveal the strikingly complex relationships that developed both between local elites and between Africans and colonials.

Her chapter begins with a startling accession document concerning a royal scepter originally commissioned to commemorate the victory of the Kom over northern Fulani invaders in 1830. The work later was given to Paul Gebauer as a token of thanks. The entry reads: "Presented by Fon Ndi of the Bekom nation in 1933 to Paul Gebauer for dental services, the making of an upper plate and lower bridge, which lasted the old boy until his death but did not restore to him the power of youth he had expected.... He had been told beforehand that no miracle would occur beyond the pleasure of chewing kola nut once more."

Similar gifts for personal aid (though generally not dentistry help) were also made to the Germans in the nearby Bamum kingdom. McClusky takes us from Fon Ndi's gift to the famous case of the Afo-a-Kom figural sculpture in wood that was stolen from a local royal shrine in 1966, then sold to a New York gallery before its presence in a 1973 exhibition catalog was spotted by American Peace Corps volunteers, who notified a New York Times reporter, this leading eventually to the work being flown back to its home community.
McClusky starts with these well-known details, then adroitly turns to how the situation of the theft and return were shaped from the local vantage, here narrating events from the Kom side, so to speak. It is a story replete with political interest, exposing the sometimes complex nature of national and international engagement with local African art as well as the sometimes complex nature of museum negotiations and loans for related exhibitions.

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