Museum director, Head of the Cameroon department of International Museums Association ICOM and board member of AFRICOM.
He lives at the service of the community and at the service of the people.
An interview by Diana Fehr / November 5th, 2020
African art is now considered one of the most stunning and diverse in the world. At the heart of downtown Yaoundé, the Blackitude Museum gathers over 2000 artworks of various collections, mainly from ethnic groups in today’s Cameroon. Founded in 1998 by Her Majesty Queen Nana Agnes, the small private museum with one of the best collections of traditional Cameroonian art, is run by Christian Nana Tschuisseu.
Museo: Is there a specific meaning behind the museum’s name „Blackitude“?
Christian: Yes of course! It is really important to me to share my little experiences and also to let people know, what’s happening in the field of museums here in Cameroon and also in Africa.
So why “Blackitude”? Blackitude is a kind of philosophy and a kind of attitude. We here in Africa have so many philosophies, like Négritude which has its root in the colonialism period and has been developed by the great African writers Aimé Césaire and his friend Léopold Sédar Senghor. Several names were proposed to us when we were thinking about a name for our museum, but non of them could really represent the philosophy of our highness and founder. She wanted to protect and represent African culture and Cameroonian identity. Until the day when a student from a primary school was asking the right question: „Is this a black collection?“ or “Is this a point of view?“. This is how the name Blackitude was born, started by the questions of this child. Blackitude is a way to defend African culture, our African heritage and our African human being, which is very important to us.
Museo: How would you describe your relationship to your artwork?
Christian: We don’t have the same relationship with our artefacts and collections as you have it with modern painters. We have a special relationship with them – they a part of us – most of them are living ritual artefacts. Those art collections, which are going to European and US museums, are part of local communities and kingdoms. Being disconnected from this part of their culture is really very difficult for them. We cannot ask them to dissociate and to replace their artefacts. They cannot replace them, as these cannot play the same ritual role.
No! We cannot reinvent spirituality of those local communities. You cannot ask someone to reinvent spirituality – not Muslims nor Christians. This is not good, it is impossible. So that’s why the museum Blackitude is on his way defending African culture and where I am coming back to our philosophy. We can play the role of mediator, linking local communities and kingdoms with cultural professionals.
Museo: And the demands for the return of artwork that western colonial rulers took with them are getting louder. How do you tackle this problem?
Christian: These days we are talking a lot about colonialism and restitution. This is the topic that we address today in various networks and conferences. Several African countries ask museums in Europe, US and on other continents, to start the act of restitution of their African collections. So we have to work and see how we can collaborate with these museums, while being aware of our own communities and near to our streets, to make this restitution process possible. It is a process which you can’t stop.
There is a place in Africa where the artefacts are coming from. So we have to integrate those communities in every stage of negotiations, we cannot leave them out of this process – this wouldn’t be good!
We need to continue and discourse with our partners in the EU and US, and try and stay in touch with all of this different countries. Now, as I am the chair of ICOM Cameroon and regulating the museums activities, it is necessary to stay in touch with our different communities and to understand their problems. It is very important for me to know about their different points of view and sharing these with the Cameroon State and Ministry for Art and Culture.
Museo: Your museum expands also into social and humanitarian activities. Can you tell us more about it?
Christian: Yes, before COVID we had specific programs for our different communities, like for refugees who are coming from outside and other parts of Cameroon. With our small team, which is also supported by volunteers, we want to reconnect those people and immigrants with their own culture. It is a city program of our museums, where we are working closely with associations and the civil society. We try to keep in touch with the embassies, NGOs and other international organizations, so that we exactly know what kind of programs we need to develop, so that they are really interesting for these people.
We live at the service of the community and at the service of the people. This is a mission, which museums should have. These days we have to take care of peace and democracy. If it’s easy or not, we have to talk about civil topics.
Museo: What is the current situation of your museum?
Christian: Blacktitude is not a big museums like you can find in Europe, it’s a small place. We have an exhibition room, but also other rooms where we organize temporary exhibitions and different activities. Since one month we have reopened again, after being closed for more than six months. But because of the COVID pandemic we have a lot of problems here and it is not very easy to work and to have activities. It’s a very sad time for us, especially in the field of culture. Nevertheless, we try to find partners and try to stay connected with other museums, to see how we can collaborate and how can we continue to work.
Museo: Also here in the Europe many museums had to close again their doors and they have to deal with the new uncertainties. Many institutions have lost their revenue and it is one of their challenges to stay in touch with their audience. Are you sharing the same problems?
Christian: Yes of course! But we have to deal also with many other problems. The first step which we have to take is, in close collaboration with the other Cameroonian museums, to set up a database of all collections. We need an inventory and documentation, an ID for our objects, so that we can stop the trafficking of our artwork. The second problem is the professionalization of our sector. We need real professionals, who have a good knowledge about the museums, the history of the collections and of explaining and story telling. And the third challenge is to develop our digital programs, so that we can stay connected with our audience. For this, we need a digital infrastructure. This is given here in Yaoundé and in Douala, but outside our two main cities, we don’t have the necessary connection and communication infrastructure. Therefore, museums outside these cities cannot develop their digital path. But we need high speed connection to develop also virtual exhibitions.
Museo: But how do you stay connected with the people in this particular time?
Christian: For staying close to our public and our visitors we had partners who supported us with flyers and prospectuses, which we could bring to schools, offices and other places. Now, we don’t have any financial support. Before COVID it was not easy, but now it is really hard. Our museums are in need of “respiratory assistance”. We continue to fight, and we strengthen and foster advocacy, networking and dialogue, for promoting our cultural heritage.
Museo: What would be the best help for you?
Christian: We especially need help with our digital transformation, building up our hardware and software capabilities. Having a website and having a high speed connection would enable us to inform and staying connected with our visitors. Having a database of all our collections would enable us to protect our artwork and artefacts. Nevertheless, we need to update our knowledge and to educate our staff, such that we can professionalize different aspects, like restoration, conservation and communication.
I hope that very soon we can restart to work again. We are developing programs together with other people all over the world – in Europe, the US, in Africa or Asia and we can bring them to different places. Human civilization is connected.
Museo: Many thanks for this interview and all the best for the future!
Images: Christian Nana