C& Print Issue #8: Marilyn Douala Manga Bell

Giving Meaning to the City

Princess Marilyn Douala Manga Bell, the current president of doual’art, introduces SUD as the project in Douala that involves residents in creating and implementing artistic projects

Justin Ebanda, Station de la Mémoire, project for SUD2017

By Yves Makongo
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doual’art is a center for contemporary art established in Douala in 1991. It presents work by local and international artists in the field of visual arts. Its library includes more than six thousand specialist books on this subject. But doual’art is best known for its achievements in the urban space with, to date, an endowment of around sixty temporary and permanent works of art inaugurated during a festival of contemporary public art called SUD, Salon Urbain de Douala. An inventory of all these artifacts can be found in a catalogue entitled Public Art in Africa, edited by Iolanda Pensa and published by MétisPresses. Last year’s staging of the fourth edition of the SUD triennial ment that 2017 was of pivotal importance in this context.

Lucas Grandin, Bepanda, regarde-toi !, project for SUD2017

Yves Makongo: Princess Marilyn Douala Manga Bell, you are one of the founders of doual’art and its current president. Can you set out the organization’s aims for us and explain how they enhance the standing of contemporary art in Cameroon?

Marilyn Douala Manga Bell: When doual’art was founded in
1991, in the wake of the “ghost towns,”(1) it became very clear to Didier Schaub, the late artistic director of doual’art, and myself that it was necessary to reaccustom people to having peaceful relationships. Thus one of the things we have championed since the birth of doual’art is inviting residents to come and experience artistic creation — because this has always been a space in which we can share things. For doual’art, its raison d’être has always been to make sure that artists take up the challenge of creating, of being in motion, of consolidating and maturing their style, and of continually renewing their artistic, aesthetic, and political statements.

YM: doual’art seems to present SUD as its main activity … beautifying the city. Was it part of your aim to create this structure?

MDMB: SUD is one of the activities of doual’art. It is a way for us to perpetuate what we have always wanted to champion — namely, encouraging artists to leave their studios. SUD is an opportunity for us, based on an established process, to install works of art in the city and to involve residents in creating and implementing artistic projects. And for people who haven’t been able to participate in this process of implementation to be confronted with works that supply meaning and are truly in dialogue with a practice, a space, and a population.
The idea is not to make the city more beautiful. We can do that in different ways. What we want to do is to give meaning to the city, to initiate a discourse through works of art. Every piece that has appeared in the public space has a history and conveys information. It is a discussion, a door that leads into a dialogue with the city’s residents.

Joseph Francis Sumegne, La Nouvelle Liberté à Deïdo (1996), inaugurated in SUD2007

YM: Going back to this urban aspect, which is tied in with city planning, La Nouvelle Liberté (NL) by Joseph Francis Sumegne — which has become the city’s emblem — has been the subject of numerous controversies over a long period. Did the realization of this work respect the process and mechanisms that you are so keen on?

MDMB: La Nouvelle Liberté is a perfect illustration of what we have always advocated with art in the public space — it even takes it further. The process started with the artist actually being installed in the Deido district for three years (1993-96), where the NL is located. This was the first part of the process, then, where he was in contact with the people living in the surrounding area, especially with the young people who would come to meet and exchange with him, see him crossing the city, rummaging through garbage cans. Eventually, the work became an object of curiosity and a subject of discussion. The second element in the process was Sumegne’s main theme, the valorization of recycling and salvaging — a way of saving money that people were ashamed of and no one wanted to acknowledge as an integral part of the household economy. The words that people used to describe the NL make this clear: “We no longer need to feel ashamed about what we do.”

YM: You are preparing the fourth edition SUD with the overall title The Human Dimension: Does this choice of theme have an evolutionary logic in relation to previous editions?

MDMB: In 2007, we launched the first SUD. And although we didn’t yet know what exactly we wanted to do, it was clear at least that we wanted to give meaning to “doual” for the city and “art,” and that is the reason the first edition of SUD didn’t provide any specific orientation and was titled The City in a State. SUD2010 was the first edition where we defined the activities of the artists on the basis of a theme. It was a real experiment with an extremely rational and structured approach to ensure that the artistic reflections on Water and the City would take place in close collaboration with the Urban Community of Douala (CUD). This was the first time we worked from plans, from maps, conducting surveys and really documenting the theme we’d picked. SUD2013 titled Douala Metmorphoses dealt with the question of the metamorphosis of spaces and dwellings. As for SUD2017, it is far more philosophical: its theme, The Human Dimension, is focused on young people. Together with the curator Cécile Bourne-Farrell, we chose sixteen artists who have produced nineteen magnificent artistic statements.

 

Yves Makongo is a young curator with a background in geography. He was a participant at Àsìkò Art school in Addis Ababa 2016 and Accra 2017. Since 2011 he has been artistic assistant
and project manager at contemporary art center doual’art in Cameroon, where he lives and works.

Translated from French by Simon Cowper.

 

(1) Ghost towns, or the general economic blockade, began in the early 1990s with the broad movement for democratization in African countries. Pained by the prevailing situation, the young opposition parties, faced with the government of the day, condemned those in power
for failing to listen and for lacking any regard for their people. The only solution advanced by these parties was to call for a general strike among the population, characterized here by the closing of stores, services, and businesses.

 

The Festival D’Art Public SUD2017 took place between December 5–10 in Douala, Cameroon.

This Essay was first published in our latest Print Issue #8. Read the full magazin here.