Douala. The Social, Political, and Artistic Value of Public Art

Pensa, Iolanda (2014) Douala. The Social, Political, and Artistic Value of Public Art. In: ACASA Art Council of the African Studies Association Triennial Symposium on African Art, 19-22 March 2014, Brooklyn Museum. (Unpublished)

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Since 1991 Douala in Cameroon has been at the centre of a growing number of public art productions, which have been engaging, through time, a wide network of Cameroonian and international artists, thinkers, institutions and groups. The innovative work implemented in city have targeted around twelve neighbourhoods and have created monumental large-scale installations, proximity artworks, artworks in passageways and ephemeral productions triggered by art events and workshops (among which Bessengue City, Scénographies Urbaines, Ars&Urbis and SUD Salon Urbain de Douala). This article highlights how the social, political and artistic objective of the art commissioners (doual'art, Cercle Kapsiki and ArtBakery) focusses on value and responsibility; it aims at strengthening self-esteem among the inhabitants of Douala, at building a sense of belonging to the city, and at supporting art as a "détournement", something capable of generating a system-error. The relationship with the audience drastically changes according to where the artworks are located. Large-scale sculptures and monuments tend to produce a conflictual relationship with the public in which media also play a role. Community-based artworks created deeply inside neighbourhoods tend to focus on functionality and they are acknowledged by the inhabitants more as infrastructure than for their aesthetic value. Artworks located in passageways are more clearly recognised by the public for their aesthetic value. Public art in Douala does not directly question the Cameroonian government, but it do have a very specific and precise political role. It engages in the urban planning and government, it contribute to research and – in particular within the process of land negotiation – it intervene within the formal and informal city, it activates communities and it participates in shaping the identity, image and imaginary of the city.

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