From Cameroon to Paris: Mousgoum Architecture In and Out of Africa

Overview

The kind of extraordinary domed house constructed by Chad and Cameroon’s Mousgoum peoples has long held sway over the Western imagination. In fact, as Steven Nelson shows here, this prototypical beehive-shaped structure known as the teleuk has been cast as everything from a sign of authenticity to a tourist destination to a perfect fusion of form and function in an unselfconscious culture. And in this multifaceted history of the teleuk, thought of by the Mousgoum themselves as a three-dimensional symbol of their ...

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Overview

The kind of extraordinary domed house constructed by Chad and Cameroon’s Mousgoum peoples has long held sway over the Western imagination. In fact, as Steven Nelson shows here, this prototypical beehive-shaped structure known as the teleuk has been cast as everything from a sign of authenticity to a tourist destination to a perfect fusion of form and function in an unselfconscious culture. And in this multifaceted history of the teleuk, thought of by the Mousgoum themselves as a three-dimensional symbol of their culture, Nelson charts how a singular building’s meaning has the capacity to change over time and in different places.

Drawing on fieldwork in Cameroon and Japan as well as archival research in Africa, the United States, and Europe, Nelson explores how the teleuk has been understood by groups ranging from contemporary tourists to the Cameroonian government and—most importantly—today’s Mousgoum people. In doing so, he moves in and out of Africa to provide a window into a changing Mousgoum culture and to show how both African and Western peoples use the built environment to advance their own needs and desires. Highlighting the global impact of African architecture, From Cameroon to Paris will appeal to scholars and students of African art history and architectural history, as well as those interested in Western interactions with Africa.

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Editorial Reviews

Art Libraries Society of North America Reviews

"Nelson’s great strength is that he can provide a close reading of the images, as well as examine the teleuk within the established canon of architectural history . . . . [His] scholarship is informed by post-structuralism, feminism, and psychoanalytic theory; however, his writing remains refreshingly free from obfuscatory rhetoric and accessible to upper division undergraduates. In addition to Africanists and architectural historians, this book also will appeal to students of gender studies, popular culture, and post-colonial studies."

— Karen Mason

African History

"[Nelson's work] can be read as a case study of the ways in which architecture funcitons as a template for the representation of self and non-self. With this appealing new way of looking at the built environment . . . Nelson makes a substantial contribution to the long neglected field of architectural anthropology."—Kerstin Pinther, African History

— Kerstin Pinther

International Journal of African Historical Studies

"A valuable contribution toward correcting the paucity of scholarly attention to such an extraordinary architectural tradition. It is noteworthy in its approach, recognizing the multiple meanings that can be ascribed to the same architectural creation depending on the viewer and context."—Mark D. Delancey, International Journal of African Historical Studies

— Mark D. Delancey

African Studies Review

"The book makes a convincing argument that architecture has the capacity not only to reinvent its own meanings, but also to act as a repository for all the large ideas flowing through postcolonial and cultural studies: modernity, the primitive, the colonial subject, agency, memory."—Sidney Littlefield Kasfir, African Studies Review

— Sidney Littlefield Kasfir

Art Libraries Society of North America Reviews - Karen Mason

"Nelson’s great strength is that he can provide a close reading of the images, as well as examine the teleuk within the established canon of architectural history . . . . [His] scholarship is informed by post-structuralism, feminism, and psychoanalytic theory; however, his writing remains refreshingly free from obfuscatory rhetoric and accessible to upper division undergraduates. In addition to Africanists and architectural historians, this book also will appeal to students of gender studies, popular culture, and post-colonial studies."
African History - Kerstin Pinther

"[Nelson's work] can be read as a case study of the ways in which architecture funcitons as a template for the representation of self and non-self. With this appealing new way of looking at the built environment . . . Nelson makes a substantial contribution to the long neglected field of architectural anthropology."
International Journal of African Historical Studies - Mark D. Delancey

"A valuable contribution toward correcting the paucity of scholarly attention to such an extraordinary architectural tradition. It is noteworthy in its approach, recognizing the multiple meanings that can be ascribed to the same architectural creation depending on the viewer and context."
African Studies Review - Sidney Littlefield Kasfir

"The book makes a convincing argument that architecture has the capacity not only to reinvent its own meanings, but also to act as a repository for all the large ideas flowing through postcolonial and cultural studies: modernity, the primitive, the colonial subject, agency, memory."
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226571836
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2007
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 10.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven Nelson is assistant professor of African and African American art history at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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Read an Excerpt

From Cameroon TO Paris

MOUSGOUM ARCHITECTURE IN & OUT OF AFRICA
By Steven Nelson

THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS

Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-57183-6


Chapter One

Performing Architecture

I want to suggest that the concept of home seems to be tied in some way with the notion of identity—the story we tell of ourselves and which is also the story others tell of us. (emphasis in original) MADAN SARUP, "HOME AND IDENTITY"

To build a home is to build a discrete world, a stage for all of life's phases. As Madan Sarup insists in the epigraph, home is inextricably tied to a sense of self, and it is the source of the tales that we weave and the ways in which they are retold. In this sense, home is the source of autobiography. Home also becomes a framing device not only in our orientation to the subject at hand, but also to the ways in which that subject is put into writing. Thus, much of our intellectual endeavor is, in the sense of James Clifford, "ethnographic allegory." While we interrogate, investigate, and analyze, we unconsciously tell stories of ourselves, and our work becomes, in large part, a product of the meeting between the researcher's life experiences and the world that is the intellectual project.

In the present discussion, my concerns meet with the thoughts and observations of the people I interviewed. Thus, what emerge are the voices of Mousgoum people that are mediated by my position as a Western researcher. This chapter is the explicit mixing of voices and interpretations from a number of different positions and arenas. Where I believe these strands come together is in a shared interest in the Mousgoum built environment and the ways in which it articulates a Mousgoum home.

In the space that constitutes the home, major life events such as births, marriages, and deaths are those times when the relationship between the house and its residents is most clearly articulated. The Mousgoum homestead is no different. It is the arena in which these events take place, it is the setting in which lives mature and change, it is the sphere in which one unconsciously learns one's place in the family unit and Mousgoum culture-at-large. People become socialized not through the major events, but more often through those of quotidian life, and the architectural environment constantly reinforces those social, cultural, and religious values deemed to be important and desirable by the larger world. The roles played by the microcosm defined by domestic architecture in this way subliminally amplify and buttress the more conscious forms of socialization based in a parent's teachings, a religious ceremony, or a community gathering.

This chapter considers the manner in which the teleukakay, although no longer a common feature of the Mousgoum homestead, historically took on cultural, social, and political values, constituting part of a larger architectural realm that is a reflection of and a didactic presence in different aspects of Mousgoum life. Relying heavily on local residents' respective memories of the past, oral tales, travelers' accounts, and connections found in the Munjuk language, this discussion is also an attempt to explore what the built environment may have signified in Mousgoum culture before the advent of Islam, Christianity, and European colonialism. For the better part of a century, Islamicized patterns of building and urban design have permeated homesteads and villages throughout Mousgoum country, serving as architectural expressions of cultural change. Nonetheless, plans made by past visitors, stories, dance, and recollections of Mousgoum people allow us to postulate how and what the teleuk may have meant with respect to social practices and cultural identity.

Such an explanation is by no means to suggest that the Mousgoum were an isolated culture—all the available evidence clearly indicates that they were not. It is also not to simply ask, "What is characteristically 'Mousgoum' about Mousgoum architecture?" It is, however, to learn how the teleuk and the family enclosure can teach us more about Mousgoum culture and history more generally. The combination of the little information available about the Mousgoum in tandem with local oral accounts and histories reveal those things that are retrospectively considered to be important in Mousgoum culture.

Progeniture, dance, and beauty were often the major themes that arose when Mousgoum people spoke about the home and cultural meaning. Combined with an understanding of architecture as the making of a site in which the unconscious finds expression, as a blueprint through which various kinds of relationships may be ascertained, as a map that divulges forms of socialization, and as a location that reveals vital information, what emerges through architecture is a view of the ways in which the Mousgoum have made sense of the world. In scrutinizing the Mousgoum built environment, I follow Jean-Paul Bourdier and Trinh T. Minh-ha's suggestion that "architecture" is both a noun and a verb. Thus, it is possible to look at the teleuk in particular and Mousgoum architecture more generally as product and as process; for the act of building presupposes important social, cultural, and religious concerns while also allowing for a richer understanding of the multiple ways in which the Mousgoum have historically defined domestic space.

The Structure of the Homestead

Whether located in the densely populated villages of Musgum and Mala, or in the smaller, less crowded villages of Mourlà or Gaïa, the layout of Mousgoum family enclosures, like those of neighboring cultures such as the Massa and the Toupouri, was defined by a circle. These circular family enclosures were a series of homes, the gaps between which were closed by either a thicket of thorns or an earthen wall five to six feet in height depending on the family's wealth (fig. 7). In each family enclosure stood a house for the family patriarch, one for each of his wives, and one for each of his male sons who are older than ten or fifteen. Families kept animals such as cows, goats, and sheep in the various houses of the homestead as well.

In 1911 von Hagen described a family enclosure in Musgum:

Several houses that stand around in a circle make a farm. The man of the house occupies his own house, which distinguished from the others by size. Each wife also owns her own house, in which she lives with her young sons and unmarried daughters. Some of these houses are joined with that of the man of the house through a hallway; the latter does not always have its own entrance. The adult, unmarried sons live likewise in their own houses.

Clay granaries stand on posts in the middle of the farm. We see a braided circle made of willow twigs running around the structure. In the rainy season mats are bound onto these, preventing the rain from rinsing away the walls. The whole farm is surrounded by a high clay wall, approximately one meter-high, through which a narrow entrance runs. This is closed at night by thorns.

Von Hagen's description and accompanying image give us some idea about the structure of what may have been a typical Mousgoum family enclosure. A 1952 survey of architecture, entitled L'habitat au Cameroun, included the plan of the homestead of Lawane (chief ) Atuisingué of Gaïa (fig. 8). This plan, which is by far the best-known rendering of a Mousgoum enclosure in the West, has been published in numerous architectural studies and, in many ways, has come to be regarded as the paradigmatic Mousgoum architectural plan. Compared to von Hagen's description and those of others in the field, the illustrated plan is elaborate, an architectonic display of the wealth and prestige of the lawane. In spite of its size, however, the fundamental layout does not differ very much from von Hagen's 1912 description. The major difference is the substitution of the rectangular house of the patriarch for the granary in the middle of the court. Descriptions of the "paradigmatic" Mousgoum family compound I acquired in the field were also much in accord with von Hagen's report, including the presence of a large granary in its center. In the 1952 plan, the granary of the family head (labeled réserve à mil de la ferme), the largest in the compound, lies to the right of the center house and stands in front of a stable. Behind the compound is a small area for growing tobacco; to the right of the tobacco patch is a garden. While neither von Hagen's description nor the plan indicates cardinal directions, in the past, according to field interviews, the entrances of Mousgoum family enclosures faced south. Although many of the historic images of Mousgoum enclosures suggest that they were all comprised of teleukakay, this was not the case.

Besides von Hagen's report and images, Ernst Heims, a German artist traveling with the German Central African Expedition in 1911, made pencil sketches, watercolors and photographs of Mousgoum homesteads in Musgum. A number of these depict compounds that have rectangular homes and teleukakay (fig. 9). What dictated the type of house a patriarch might build in his enclosure? It would seem as if the choice was not based purely on whether or not one had the required kind of soil for erecting a sturdy dome. The choice seems to have had more to do with the influences on and the volition of the family patriarch. Economic resources may have been an issue as well, for to have a teleuk in an enclosure, the family head would have to hire a mason who was specially trained to build them. Other houses and granaries were—and continue to be—generally constructed by families themselves.

The Mousgoum make conscious distinctions between different types of houses. Besides the difference in the requirements for building, houses had different names. The teleuk in Munjuk is called a teleuk; other types of houses are called delemiy and fe??iy (fig. 10). When asked about the differences in these terms and the houses, people generally addressed the difference in materials. The distinguishing mark of the teleuk was that it was constructed only of clay. A delemiy and feniy refer to houses with straw roofs. Henry Tourneux, in a study of the borrowing of words in Munjuk from other languages as well as borrowings among Munjuk dialects, claims that the word teleuk originally comes from the Munjuk dialect of Pouss and was borrowed by the other three—Bigué-Palam (Cameroon), Kaykay (Cameroon), and Mogroum (Chad). He concludes that "the teleuk is effectively a foreign reality for the people of [these areas]." Tourneux's assertion reflects the fact that not all Mousgoum people built teleukakay.

Besides the types of houses in one's homestead, the placement and size of the buildings were at the discretion of the patriarch. In von Hagen's example, the house of the patriarch is set off by its large size and the presence of a front reception hall. In the lawane's compound, the ruler's house is distinguished by its rectangular shape. Many compounds, including the lawane's, had a large teleuk that was joined to a smaller, closed one. Often this type of structure would serve as the residence of the first wife; the smaller, closed dome would be her kitchen. Von Hagen identifies the one in his example as the house of the family head. It is possible that both claims are correct; conventions varied among villages. In one area, the house of the family head was distinguished by the fact that it was small; in another, the opposite was true.

While many Mousgoum insist that large granaries always occupy the center of the family homestead, the lawane's compound shows the latitude that men had when designing their homes. In this way, the patriarch is a kind of architect, and as architect was able to take control of the land and his family through the manipulation of the built environment. This finds an analogy in Mousgoum conceptions of the relation between the house and the family enclosure. As feminine nouns, delemiy and feniy mean "house" or "room." However, the masculine forms of the two nouns, dalam and fen, mean "compound." In the homestead, the feminine, or diminutive, forms are defined as parts of a larger whole, a whole configured as masculine.

The term fen also sheds light on the manner in which the Mousgoum conceive of the relationship between the house, family enclosure, and other aspects of their culture. Following the idea that the house (feniy) is part of a larger family homestead (fen), the compound at the same time is part of a larger village. Hence, fen designates "compound" and "village." Such chains of relationships highlight the understanding that the enclosure is a family of houses bound together by a wall. Specifically, the enclosure is made up of a set of smaller individual units. Along these same lines, the village is also seen as a family of homesteads.

The compound provides considerable insight into Mousgoum conceptions of the family. Indeed, fen means "family." Through this link the homestead and the family are tightly bound in a metaphoric association that bespeaks not only the human element in architecture, but also space and place more generally. The head of the household is equated with these potent links as well, for in Mousgoum country he is literally known as the "father of the concession" (apin-fen). This also implies his ownership of the family compound, since the "father" (apin) is also the "proprietor." This notion was expressed by Mme. Djaoro Bara Abourgadaï in her insistence that "the father of the family is in the middle [of the compound] because all the houses belong to him." The use of the word fen in contexts relating to individuals, families, homesteads, and paradise illustrates the centrality of the built environment in Mousgoum conceptions of both familial and religious realms.

Becoming a Mason

Mousgoum family enclosures are usually built between December and February, the time of year when the weather is relatively cool and dry. Historically, the need to build a home generally occurred when a newly married man was starting a new homestead; when an existing homestead was expanded by the addition of another wife to the family; when a boy became old enough to move into his own house; or when dilapidated houses needed to be replaced. While men alone almost always built houses, both men and women built granaries. Although the construction of delemiy and granaries was relatively easy, that of a teleuk was complicated, requiring the services of a mason. Teleukakay could take anywhere from three to six months to complete.

To build a teleuk, one needed the expertise to erect domes that would not tumble to the ground. While masons were respected, and highly sought, they have no special title or designation. In Munjuk, professions, and at times attributes, are often couched in terms of a person who makes or does something. It is no different for masons. The term for them is simply "man who builds a homestead" (dif zi rigi dalam). Moreover, while masons were trained to build teleukakay, their title does not specifically link them to the Mousgoum dome.

Often a father would train his sons in masonry, but this was not always the case. As is true of builders, blacksmiths, and potters in a number of African cultures, there were neither families nor castes of masons in Mousgoum civilization. Afti Doupta, a mason from Mourlà, explained that in a family "one finds all types of people: fishers, farmers, masons, etc. It is all a mix." Doupta, who was trained by his father, compared his masonry skills to those of an engineer who has "created something miraculous."

There was neither a scripted program nor a standard process for training masons. Usually one's training began in informal ways. Gradually the student learned more about building techniques. Math Perleh, also a mason in Mourlà, described his apprenticeship:

In the homestead ... when a child sees his father in the process of constructing [a teleuk], he amuses himself by constructing a small teleuk. Another day the child could construct a larger one. At this moment, the father values his child and calls him into his service, and the child begins to put the [the outer designs on the teleuk] and progressively he grows up to build them.

As part of the process, children would also assist their fathers while they worked.

Mme. Abourgadaï, a female mason from Mourlà, was also trained by her father. While almost all the male informants said that only men build teleukakay, there are at least a few instances in which fathers trained their daughters in the profession. Mme. Abourgadaï, the only female mason in Mourlà and Pouss, knew of only one other female mason in the village of Pidi Moungaï, where she was born. Like Doupta and Perleh, Mme. Abourgadaï started to acquire her masonry skills at a young age, only gradually becoming an expert (plate 3). She explained that all the children of a mason would learn something about building; but while some excelled, others would lose interest.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from From Cameroon TO Paris by Steven Nelson Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Note on Language and Orthography
Preface
Introduction
1. Performing Architecture
2. Parabolic Paradoxes
3. A Pineapple in Paris
4. Present Tense
Afterword - Destination Cameroon
Principal People Interviewed
Notes
Bibliography
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