On September 2, on a lively street in Bonapriso, an upscale neighborhood of Douala, Cameroon, an eager crowd gathered outside Bwo Art Gallery. The stylish throng had come to see the gallery’s inaugural show—by Cameroonian artist Sesse Elangwe—and Central Africa’s newest platform for contemporary art.
The enthusiasm was just as palpable inside, where artists and collectors perused Elangwe’s richly detailed portraits of Cameroonians in outdoor spaces. There is an underlying sense of determination in the works. The show’s title, “The Defiant Ones,” refers to overcoming challenges the country faces, among them an armed conflict in the Anglophone regions that has raged since 2016.
“If people can begin to do things in ways different from the structures that have been put in place in Cameroon and all over the African continent,” Elangwe said at the opening, “maybe change will come.” His paintings of people with one eye bigger than the other are intended as a metaphorical representation of strength and awareness. “We must always keep an eye open to visualize what we want to achieve,” he said.
With 1,079 square feet and a ceiling height of 16 feet, Bwo Gallery is a point of pride for Douala, the largest city in Cameroon with over 5 million inhabitants, but where precious few exhibition spaces exist. There are only a handful of galleries and, besides the National Museum in the capital of Yaoundé, which sporadically hosts contemporary art exhibitions, there are no contemporary or modern art museums in the country that receive government support.
Bwo was founded by young entrepreneurs and friends Brice Yonkeu and Noelle Mukete-Elhalaby with the aim of showcasing talent from Cameroon as well as the rest of the African continent and diaspora. The gallery’s name, explained Yonkeu, is derived from Medumba, a language widely spoken by the Bangangté people in the Grassfields region of Cameroon. The word ‘bwo’ means ‘beauty’ or ‘beautiful,’ and it can also refer to fine art.
“We were very inspired by the growth of art scenes in other African countries like Ghana,” Yonkeu said, “with the rapid rise of its art scene, multiplying the number of artists in the country. Opening Bwo felt like the next step for us. We also wanted to choose a space where we could make a difference through art and Cameroon felt special. We felt it would be a great way for people to connect to the country through art.”
Three years ago, they launched the precursor to the Douala space: Bwo Art, an artist management and art advisory based in Atlanta, Georgia. Through their consultancy work there, they have placed over 150 artworks in private collections across Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America, and supported numerous exhibitions for their artists, who largely hail from the African continent.
But the pair had always wanted to foster Cameroonian art from within Cameroon. “We wanted to provide an opportunity to engage with our own national past and contemporary heritage that is lacking on the ground, depriving local populations a part of their identity,” offered Mukete-Elhalaby at the opening. Ultimately, she said, “we want Bwo to go beyond the idea of a white cube art space, to provide inspiration for young and established creatives, and offer them a way to grow their career at home and abroad.”
Both Yonkeu and Mukete-Elhalaby grew up in Cameroon but studied and worked abroad, Mukete-Elhalaby in the United States and Yonkeu in France. With their new space, they hope to add a contemporary component to Central Africa’s existing talent, artists such as Pascale Marthine Tayou, Hervé Youmbi, Maurice Pefura, Samuel Fosso, Bili Bidjocka, and Barthélémy Toguo, who’s planning to open an art museum in Yaoundé.
“The art scene in Cameroon is vibrant,” said the art writer and curator Simon Njami, telling Artnet News that he continues to visit twice a year and will take part in the SUZA Manifest biennale in 2024, organized by Douala-based Galerie MAM. “There are a lot of initiatives, collectives, and individuals trying to make a change among the youth,” he added. “I have been conducting numerous workshops these past years with artists, curators, and writers under 30 and I was impressed by their determination to exist.” Moreover, he stressed, it doesn’t stop at art. “Musicians like Blick Bassy and intellectuals like Achille Mbembe are increasingly invested in the artistic and intellectual development of the country.”
Yonkeu said that, despite seeing how contemporary African art has flourished, African artists are “still a bit in the shadows,” adding, “The global understanding and perception of contemporary artistic production from this region doesn’t adequately represent the diversity, in terms of practices and discourses. Presently, the narrative is still not in our control but I am confident that with the emergence of more galleries on the continent, the recognition of more African curators and writers, we could occupy the full spotlight, permanently.”
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