Thursday, November 12, 2015

ESSACA: an architecture school for Cameroon

Since Cameroon’s independence in 1960, the country’s architects have all been educated abroad: many in France, as the country was a French Protectorate after World War I, but also in Germany, Greece, the United States and in neighboring Nigeria.
Jean-Jacques Kotto, a Cameroonian

architect, former President of the ONAC (Ordre National des Architectes du Cameroun, the Cameroon architects’ association, which manages architectural registration) and current President of the Union of African Architects, decided to take the leap and created ESSACA in 2009. ESSACA stands for Ecole Supérieure Spéciale d’Architecture du Cameroun – translated literally, “Superior Special School of Architecture of Cameroon” which, in French, does not sound incongruous! In practice, it is a private architecture school, offering B.Arch, M.Arch and doctoral degrees.

The school started out with all of seven students. Five years later, in 2015, there are 45 students, and the school is celebrating its first class of graduates with an Open House week, November 16-20. Many guests are expected, including from other architecture schools in Europe and in Africa.

The architecture school in Bordeaux, France, for example, has 1,000 students; at ESSACA, the smaller student population ensures for much personalized attention.

To date the most collaborative partnership is with the Architecture School of Bordeaux, France: the ensap Bordeaux (Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture et de Paysage), part of the Université Bordeaux. Students from Bordeaux can study abroad for a year at ESSACA, and select ESSACA students also go for a year to study in Bordeaux.

J.J. Kotto, founder of ESSACA
How did the school get its start? I interviewed the founder, Jean-Jacques Kotto, to find out.

The first spark was lit in 2006, when Mr. Kotto was president of the Africa Union of Architects (AUA). He traveled extensively throughout the continent and realized that, with the exception of North Africa and the country of South Africa, there was a true void in architecture schools. The African continent only has 2% of the world’s architects; however, a large percentage of architectural professional fees are generated in Africa. Upon his behest, the AUA Council convened and a task force was created.  The ensuing report’s findings, based on the economic and political realities, were that interested individuals would need to use their own personal resources to ensure that a project could become reality.
Mr. Kotto’s proposal for a school in Cameroon was approved by the AUA, as well as by the International Union of Architects (UIA). He convened a founders’ association from his personal network, many of whom were also expected to pitch in financially. While awaiting institutional approval by the Cameroonian government, they put together 30% of the funds needed to purchase a piece of land in the central Bastos neighborhood of Yaounde, the Cameroonian capital; a local bank approved a seven-year loan for the remaining 70%. ESSACA opened in 2009, on the ground floor of the unfinished building, with eight students hailing from Cameroon, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – and eight professors, so the teacher-student ratio was one to one!

The initial team included Jean-Jacques Kotto as Founder and Director, along with a Chief of Staff and an Academic Director.

Students at work in the classroom
November’s thesis projects will be: multi-family housing, a cultural complex, and a fish market.

Informal partnerships have been also forged with architects and schools in other African countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast (school to open in 2016) and Senegal. Curriculum was developed in collaboration with UNESCO.

One of ESSACA’s signature programs was the brainchild of the Academic Director, the architect Caroline Barla, and inaugurated in 2013. AIRA (Atelier d’Initiation à la Restructuration et à l’Aménagement des Quartiers Aléatoires – Workshop: initiation to restructuring and improving randomly built neighborhoods) is an ongoing workshop in which the students study a neighborhood to collect data, make note of “incidences” in the area, make recommendations and create micro-projects to improve daily life in the Tsinga neighborhood of Yaounde. Tsinga is not a slum, far from it; most buildings are built with concrete block; the inhabitants are working people, including civil servants; but urban amenities and infrastructure are sorely lacking. ESSACA also collaborates with the mayoral agency working in this neighborhood.
ESSACA students working alongside City staff in Tsinga

ESSACA aims to continue growing its student body, and to offer a sustainable answer to the need for African professionals, trained in the continent, closer to the problems they will encounter in their working lives.

(Full disclosure: This blog post was planned months ago, but in the meantime I have been asked to assist ESSACA in their social media outreach for the Open House Nov. 16-20.)

Links: ESSACA on Facebook

On Twitter: @Essaca_Yaounde 
Wall painting at ESSACA made by the students
under the guidance of their art teacher,
showing Yaounde architectural landmarks

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Back to Africa – Douala first impressions

Douala is not the same as when I left it over twenty years ago. The city has sprawled, rather than grown upwards; what used to be almost countryside, is now covered with construction, unfortunately mostly without any design process. Architects are perceived to be expensive, so any neighborhood, sometimes self-proclaimed draftsperson, will do the job of drawing up a building and finding a way to obtain a building permit (or not).

Almost every square inch of sidewalk is taken up by tiny businesses. There is so much unemployment that it is totally understandable, and I salute the young person with a technical degree in electronics selling peanuts from a wheelbarrow. He is trying to make a living on his own, rather than sit home and ask for funds.
Motorcycle rider with bags of bread

Motorcycles are everywhere, and beware when you cross the street. The bus agency closed years ago, and now motorcycles are many people's preferred mode of public transportation: inexpensive, and they can squeeze through traffic jams. Of course there is, it seems, a section of the hospital, just for motorcycle injuries. You'll find mom, dad, and two kids on a motorcycle; a vendor juggling a basket of wares on their head; another with two large bags of bread, one on each shoulder. 

A colorful note of whimsy
On the other hand, some things don’t change – friendship bonds first and foremost. I rang someone’s bell at 9:30 pm – I hadn’t been in touch with this person in 20 years – as
Douala's favorite dish: N'dole
soon as he realized who it was, joy and bear hugs ensued! (And the next day, a wonderful lunch...)

As the spouse of a Duala, himself born and raised here, and having lived here for over a decade, I am happy to return, despite the challenges and the ever-tenacious insects (especially the mosquitoes). It is not easy to be the lone pale face; everyone notices you, and little kids stare. Fortunately, you can also make a crying child smile, just by waving to them, as they are not expecting it!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Back to Africa

It's been a long silence. My spouse and I moved back to Cameroon - myself just recently. It's a big transition from New York, USA! We will continue to be involved in art and culture, business and education on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Next post: the first architecture school in Cameroon, ESSACA, based in the capital, Yaounde, celebrates its first architecture graduates in November 2015! Please stay tuned.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Pefura at Skoto Gallery

Pefura is an artist trained as an architect, of Cameroonian origin but born and raised in Paris, France, and now living in Milan, Italy... and currently exhibiting at Skoto Gallery, in New York City, not for the first time.
His previous exhibit, in 2005, was reviewed in the New York Times by the art critic Holland Cotter.
In this show, "Pefura: nos voyages immobiles" ("our motionless trips"), his architectural background is still very much the backbone of his art, but these works are very different.
There are wall-size collages, made of squares; at first glance you may think that many squares are repeated, but in reality no two squares are alike, even if some resemble each other.

Another theme is small (viewed from afar) suitcase-style sculptures; one of them, however, upon closer study, is a meticulously hollowed out and reconstructed book.
Then there are the paintings, more human-centric than the architectural theme of boxes seen in perspective. And finally, a sculpture of a head, built with a multitude of tiny polyurethane masks in red, white, and black.
The artist, Pefura
Detail of "The Father of all Fears," (2015)
Detail of large installation collage
Nos Voyages Immobiles I (2015)
Interior-Exterior périphérique I (2015)
Nos Voyages Immobiles III (2015)

Hollowed out "book": "Nos Voyages Immobiles" (2014), supporting the Lettera27 nonprofit foundation.
Portrait II (2015)
The show is at Skoto Gallery until May 16, 2015: 529 West 20th Street, New York, NY, 5th floor. Gallery hours are 11am-6pm.
Pefura's biography

Saturday, January 24, 2015

African vintage necklaces

Over the years I collected many necklaces; bought in Cameroon although not necessarily made there, especially as the beads were often of European origin and used for trade purposes by the European traders. Below are images of a variety (the penny is to show scale).

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Douala architect: Caroline Barla

Caroline Barla
When recently in Douala, where my spouse, Epee Ellong, has returned, I got together with a good friend I hadn't seen in a very, very long time. Her name is Caroline Barla, and she is (I think) the first female Cameroonian architect (her father, Nsangue Akwa, was the first in the registry of Cameroon architects, ONAC).
Caroline has been busy in all those years in the design field, not only in architecture. We didn't have time to go into much detail, so I will mainly show you photos of her home, which is a showcase for contemporary African style.
The Barla living room--a mix of contemporary
 and traditional African style
Above: Dining Room chair;
below: Traditional Bamiléké funeral dancer's headdress
Caroline's work area 
Caroline also managed a store of original designs for a few years, Caramelle. One of her inventions was to create versions of the "kaba" (the Duala women's traditional dress since about 100 years) in denim.

Kaba as recreated by Caroline Barla
Since a few years, Caroline has been managing a new architecture school in Yaoundé, ESSACA, founded by the architect Jean-Jacques Kotto. I will be writing more about the school in an upcoming post.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Telesud interview on October 20, 2014 (in French)

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Interview with Lady Ngo Mandeng for "Lady Vous Ecoute," in Paris, France.

Lady Ngo Mang being prepped for the program

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Welcome to the New Africa Center in New York

A new cultural institution is being created in New York City: the Africa Center, at the northern tip of Museum Mile on Fifth Avenue.
Originally, New York had the Museum for African Art; its first location was in Soho. In 2007, Mayor Bloomberg announced a plan to relocate the museum to Museum Mile at 110th Street in Manhattan; during construction, the museum was moved to Long Island City in Queens. For several years, information about the new venue was scarce.
Susan Mullin Vogel founded the Museum for African Art in 1984. The institution showed very high-caliber exhibitions, including exhibitions that were shown in various museums around the United States; it had a wonderful museum store (managed for some years by Vickie Fremont, whom we have also written about in this blog); my spouse, Epee Ellong, had participated in events about African culture and design.
The project for the space at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue was enormously ambitious. In October 2012, Phil Conte joined the museum as Chief Financial Officer. Previously, Phil Conte was involved in several financial turnarounds at nonprofit organizations such as the Museum of the Moving Image, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Georgia Aquarium.
After a year of media silence, there was an article describing a party involving Mo Ibrahim, Bill Clinton and other well-known figures to launch the New Africa Center. I emailed the new organization and Phil Conte responded. He explained that the entire paradigm of the organization had changed, and that the new entity was still a work in progress.
In his words, "We are looking to the future. The Museum for African Art is being expanded to become the Africa Center, to better embrace all facets of the continent. The Center will still be about the art--both traditional and contemporary. Art will always be at the heart of the institution. However, we will incorporate more art forms, such as dance and music; and most importantly, we are planning two additions to the Center's offerings: a business forum, and a policy forum, to broaden the horizons of the Center and increase its reach."
The new Center is slated to open in 2016. In the meantime, in September, there was an open house, with African vendors, a hanging multicolored spherical piece of art named "Citoyen du Monde" (World Citizen), by Meschac Gaba (South Africa); a yellow Volkswagen bus named "Lagos State of Mind II" (Emeka Ogboh), small scale models of the Center, live music, men on stilts, and a photography booth "in the style of Malick Sidibé," a Malian photographer renowned in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s for his black and white portraits. It was all great fun, and children were treated to face-painting; there was also an "Egyptian jewelry" workshop.
Another year and a half to go--and we hope that New Yorkers will be able to enjoy the new Africa Center in a daily basis.

Photography in the style of Malick Sidibé
Lagos State of Mind II by Emeka Ogboh
Clothing vendor Wow Wow
Poster to promote the new Harlem Eat Up festival