- From Cameroon to Paris: Mousgoum Architecture in and out of Africa
Steven Nelson’s From Cameroon To Paris: Mousgoum Architecture in and out of Africa is a beautifully written work based on the author’s fieldwork in Africa in 1995. This review will focus on the modernist implications of the book, since few commentators have highlighted the work’s contributions toward the postcolonial understanding of African architecture.1
The focus of Nelson’s book is the teleuk, a beehive-shaped type of traditional architecture found among the Mousgoum, an ethnic group that speaks the Munjuk language and whose homeland is in northern Cameroon, near the border with Chad. The trajectories of argument(s) on how the teleuk was encountered and disseminated in Europe starting in the middle of the nineteenth century are in themselves a challenging intellectual journey for the author to navigate, both literarily and metaphorically. The challenges lay in certain subtle ideas in the book that have broad implications for scholars studying postcolonial aspects of African cultural practices. The most salient points in the study are that, in the late nineteenth century, the teleuk was received by Europeans in an ambiguous way: both as “civilized” structures that could be appreciated according to Eurocentric aesthetic standards and at the same time as advanced primitive architectural products from Africa. Notably, this dilemma can be seen to persist in the Western imagination. Consequently, there are ruptures in popular knowledge and academic treatment—both of which ricochet upon one another and advance each other—of the relationship between tradition and modernity in different parts of the African continent. In other words, the nineteenth-century reception of teleuk structures amounted to a series of double negatives that historians must decipher and disseminate to the larger, contemporary, general public—while at the same time not confirming and institutionalizing the negative views involved.
How has Nelson gone about resolving this dilemma? In part through the organization of the book into an introduction, four chapters, and an afterword. In chapter 1, “Performing Architecture,” Nelson recognizes that the meaning of architecture derives from the social context in which a structure was conceived, built, and put into use. He also makes clear that when a building is studied within the social context of its production, certain social-spatial characteristics—tectonics, for example—can be read as embodiments of architectural form, function, materiality, technology, and aesthetics. For this reason, the first chapter “explores what can best be called historic Mousgoum architecture and serves as a foundation for better understanding the massive changes in meaning that have taken place with respect to the dome over the course of the twentieth century” (9). The beauty of Nelson’s book is that the history presented for the reader is not just a descriptive narrative about the object but also a politico-cultural study of the Mousgoum social institutions that lend themselves to the organization of space. Hence, the structure of the homestead, becoming a mason, the art of building the teleuk through the movement of the body (corporeal architecture), rhythm and dance, and the judgment of taste (beauty) are themes Nelson has explored in order to reaffirm the object’s context in history.
The need to reach back to history and excavate the teleuk stems from Nelson’s reflection that certain meanings of the object might have been lost as it traveled from Africa to Europe. Thus, chapter 2, “Parabolic Paradoxes,” is Nelson’s effort to examine “the encounters [End Page 98] between Mousgoum teleuk and the travelers Heinrich Bart, Olive MacLeod, André Gide, and Marc Allégret, exploring how such encounters force the travelers, if only momentarily, to question their preconceived notions of ‘the primitive.’” As mentioned above, Nelson views the encounters with the teleuk as experiences that “threatened to make the explorer’s perceived differences between ‘civilized Europe’ and ‘savage Africa’ collapse” (9). The explorers’ encounters with the teleuk were presented in travelogues that paved the way...