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213 6. The Past in the Present: Photographic Portraiture and the Evocation of Multiple Histories in the Bamum Kingdom of Cameroon C H R I S T R A U D M . G E A R Y Photographs—the actual physical objects, also referred to as image objects—are always on the move and can always be transformed. Recent photographic studies of the social uses of photographs have focused on the “entangled layers of social biographies of individual photographs and groups of photographs . . . that have active social lives beyond the bounds of the image itself.”1 Immediately upon their production, when the shapes appear on the photographic support, they enter the realm of consumption: they are sold, purchased or gifted, handled, shown to others , displayed, guarded in albums, exchanged, at times manipulated and recycled in other media, at times simply discarded or willfully destroyed, tucked away, resurrected and displayed again, and perhaps archived, to name just a few of the multiple trajectories that images may take. At every stage of their life history, images are to open to interpretations, reinterpretations, and transformations. This fluidityofmeaningas aresultoftransformationsandtravel through temporal andgeographic space and the way in which pictures operate in particular settings are two issues at the core of this contribution about portrait photography in the Bamum kingdom, located in the Cameroon Grassfields. This essay examines the trajectories in Bamum of photographic portraits of rulers and the elite produced by various European and African photographers from 1902 until around 1940.2 Part of this period coincided with the reign of King Ibrahim Njoya, who succeeded his father Nsangu in 1886 or 1887 and ruled until Christraud M. Geary 214 1924 when he was officially deposed by the French. Njoya remained in Bamum until 1931 when the French sent him into exile in Yaoundé, where he died in 1933. The essay first traces the uses of portraits by the Palace (a term that when capitalized refers to the palace organization and the king as a political force), and among the Bamum elite when King Njoya’s rule reached its apex during the German colonial period and then in the years when his influence was curtailed by the French administration.Duringthisperiodandwellintothe1940s,Bamumkingshipfaced turmoil because ancient tensions between the Palace and internal forces that challenged the ruling dynasty’s claims to legitimacy now played out on the colonial stage. The second part of the essay examines the redeployment from the 1980s onward of the very same portraits and more recent images of important Bamum, which fostered a renaissance in the reinscription of Bamum dynastic history and gave rise to alternative histories linked with important Bamum lineages.3 Bamum circa 1900: A Fertile Ground for the Introduction of Portrait Photography Nineteenth-century Bamum saw the rules of several important kings, among them King Mbuembue (ca. 1820–1840), who expanded the realm of the kingdom by subjugating many small, independent chiefdoms in its orbit. According to the 1952 Histoire et coutumes des Bamum, a chronicle of the Bamum dynasty compiled by King Njoya and several important courtiers in indigenous script during the latter years of his rule (referred to as Chronicle in the following text), Mbuembue brought artists from the defeated kingdoms to the royal court, who excelled in carving, beadworking, and bronze casting. By moving the artists to living quarters adjacent to the palace and having them work exclusively for the court, Mbuembue appropriated the means of production in the visual sphere, only one indication of the importance of the visual in the construction and maintenance of royal might.4 Although the information remains sketchy, these artists most certainly created royal portraits in sculptural form, a practice also common in other kingdoms in the region. Several nineteenth-century large-scale figurative works may well be idealized portraits, memorializing long-forgotten retainers , noble men and women, and even monarchs.5 They were part of a pervasive memory culture which to this day manifests itself in every aspect of Bamum life. The Past in the Present 215 Photographyandwithitrepresentationalportraitureintwo-dimensionalform arrived in Foumban around the turn of the twentieth century when Kamerun was a German colony.6 It fell on fertile ground and soon found its place in the Palace ’s instrumentarium of visualizing, legitimizing, and asserting royal power vis- à-vis the populace of the kingdom and the new players on the local and regional stage—the colonials and Africans from other parts of Kamerun and from more distant West and Central African colonies. At the end of the nineteenth...


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