Sunday, October 24, 2010

Vickie Frémont, New York - Africa: artist and designer

Vickie Frémont
Vickie Frémont has been designing and creating since she was 8 years old, drawing and painting without having ever been taught. At the age of 12 she began to sew, making dolls for her little sister. She was rather shy and spent most of her time as a child alone, reading, writing or knitting, beading… Vickie was born in Cameroon, but left at an early age. With her parents, she lived in Morocco, and many years in the Ivory Coast and in France. She obtained a Bachelor’s degree, in France, and planned to teach Spanish. She also studied anthropology and economics. However, at one point she was working in the neighborhood of the

Beaux Arts (fine arts) school and started studying Arts techniques, realizing that there was her calling.
She operated a knit textile company for several years, employing 10 people, creating knit designs for such well-known brands as Georges Picaud, Anny Blatt, Pingouin, Phildar, Sonia Rykiel, Torrente, Dorothée Bis, Daniel Hetcher and Issey Miyake. She created and sold jewelry in her shop located in the fashionable Marais neighborhood (Paris).
Ten years ago, at a crossroad in her life, she made the momentous decision to move to New York City to further her dream of being engaged in art on a full-time basis. Her first position in the United States was as store manager and buyer for the Museum for African Art, which was at the time located in Soho.
Basket made with bottle caps
Puppets of Cameroon

Currently, she designs and makes jewelry and other items, which were also sold at the Soho Museum Store, and can be currently found at the Brooklyn Museum store. She focuses on what she loves: jewelry, bracelets, necklaces, earrings with recycled materials but also with beads, African materials, stones, brass beads etc..; sculptures, puppets, baskets that include beads, textiles, and different kinds of recycled materials such as hangers, cardboard, plastic baskets (for example, strawberry containers).  She works with anything that’s easy to carry, to cut or to adjust, clean materials, such as toilet paper rolls that she uses to create dolls or jewelry. Since her position at the Museum for African Art, she has participated in many cultural programs. She participated at Beads, Body and Soul, a Yoruba-theme exhibition; the Hair exhibition; the Baoulé pottery exhibit... In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Cameroon’s independence, she created a series of puppets representing the ten main regions of Cameroon. She has been featured in the media: in Amina, the most popular African women’s magazine; in television documentaries; the well-known singer, Kaïssa, wears her jewelry.
Amina Magazine, Cameroon edition
Kaïssa wearing Vickie's beaded bracelet
(photo: Maciek Schejbal)
Her life philosophy is that beauty can be found everywhere.  It is a challenge to give a new life to what people call trash. As an educator, she thinks that the progressive transformation of objects is like a miracle, a “re-creation”. She also notices that the activity, for many people helps to restore self-esteem, as it opens a door into the unlimited world of creativity.
Her guiding emotion? “To keep a part of my childhood, and to center myself.”
Young student with doll

Vickie provides educational programs: The Recycling Art Program. As a young girl, Vickie did not own manufactured toys, but she was happy with her own “made by myself” toys, made with all kinds of materials (stones, wooden sticks, scraps of fabric). She says: “Creating something from ‘nothing’, art from what many would consider trash, is not only a worthwhile undertaking but one that brings personal and mutual pleasure and understanding.”

The program can be adapted for primary school children, high school and college students, teachers, parents, and seniors, people working in stressful occupations. It can be considered a distraction or a recreational activity, but also as training for work with young people.  It has been of particular interest to those involved in the fields of education and health.

Her website is and she can be reached by e-mail. She is available to give workshops.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Traditional and Contemporary Dress from Africa

In May 2010, there was a photo in the media of South African President Zuma wearing leopard skin at a wedding. The photo prompted a discussion on whether Africans should show the rest of the world themselves in traditional dress, or wearing European clothes in order to "blend in" with the rest of the world, as many Westerners have an unfavorable idea of African tradition.
In my view, this would be an error. The problems in Africa do not have anything to do with their traditional ways of dressing. As a matter of fact, some of the leaders one only sees wearing suits and ties are in fact the worst and the  most corrupt.
Photo courtesy Sakina M'sa
To be frank, some ways of dressing may not be the most practical for going to the office; and I have nothing against anyone wearing the latest designs, especially as nowadays there are also many designers of African descent, albeit more in the realm of women's clothing than men's attire. To cite a few: Alphadi, Sakina M'sa, Lola Faturoti (if you are an African designer and you'd like to be added to this list, please send a note!). That's without counting the African diaspora, now all over the world: a few talented African-American designers are Eric Gaskins, Patrick Robinson, Edward Wilkerson...
However, traditional dress also has its place and time, and it would be a shame to lose it. There are so many styles all over the African continent that I can only show a few, from my own photos, from Cameroon.
Bamenda ceremonial robe
The following shows a ceremonial outfit from Bamenda, Northwest Cameroon (near Nigeria). On top is the cap that is worn with it, and a couple of necklaces (from other regions).
There are many varieties on this theme, all beautifully done.

Here our cousin is wearing an African-style outfit as office wear: it works in a city such as Douala, without a winter and no commuting by subway!

Men from Deido, including my father-in-law, Ellong Njoh,
wearing the traditional black velvet Sandja with a scarf around
the waist and the neck.

The "official" Duala traditional clothing (since colonial days) is more adapted to ceremonial outings than for work, whether for men or women.

Knotted headscarf
Malian cap

Women's head scarves are often knotted in elaborate ways. Men of course also have their head coverings, such as a variety of skull caps, and the European hat.

Duala women wear the kaba since the arrival of Christian missionaries. Missionaries in Hawaii created a similar garment for local women, as the original garments offended their religion--I found out about this when reading Mitchener's opus "Hawaii".
Duala women in a procession in matching kabas

At a funeral or another ceremonial occasion, Duala women of a specific group (neighborhood, political party, family group) will wear kabas in the same fabric.

My online friend Boukary Konaté*, whose efforts to teach the use of the Internet in Mali was described in this entry, sent a few images of traditional and contemporary outfits in Mali. Note the indigo dye in the lady's outfit, typical of West Africa. Mali is especially well-known for its expertise in indigo dye.
Mali man in a traditional outfit (photo from Boukary Konaté)
Mali young lady wearing indigo-dye outfit
(photo from Boukary Konaté)

Mali young man wearing "Western" clothing -
(photo from Boukary Konaté)

Africa is a large continent, and I'll attempt to collect more images of the ways people clothe themselves, whether in traditional or contemporary style. Stay posted!

Sad note: Boukary Konaté passed away, far too young.

Additional posts: 
2016: West Cameroon Festive Traditional Dress 

2018: Made in Africa: Zuri's "One Dress"

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Jerry Vogel, Africa Veteran Extraordinaire

November 2014: Mr. Jerome Vogel passed away peacefully on September 10, 2014, of an apparent heart attack. May he rest in peace.

The below post was originally published July 25, 2014.
Jerry Vogel was getting ready to leave for Mali, to take a group of students from all over the United States on a tour. He’s been traveling throughout Sub-Saharan Africa since the 1960s. Having arrived for the first time in Cameroon fifteen years later, I was eager to hear of his impressions from those post-independence years.
Above: to the right, a Cameroonian Calebasse

Jerry Vogel is a born and bred New Yorker: he lived in the Bronx, until he left for Hamilton College. He received a Fulbright Scholarship to study for a year in France. After completing graduate studies in English Literature, he taught at Georgetown University for five years, when he applied for a teaching position at the university in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. At that point he knew nothing about Africa.

In 1966, Ivory Coast had been officially independent from France for four years. However, it seemed to be independent in name only, and may have been one of the rare countries whose French population grew after independence, instead of shrinking. There were French barbers, taxi drivers, check-out ladies in supermarkets. At the university, Jerry Vogel was the only non-French professor, and was barred from teaching American literature except in the evening, when no official classes were held. Later he was “permitted” to teach “the Victorian Novel” and conversational English, which was in itself a novelty: English was taught like Latin, with dissertations and written translations. The University did not provide him and his spouse, Susan Vogel, with housing; finally, the Department of Education (which had no relationship with the university) gave him the use of an apartment otherwise inhabited by high school teachers, and he found some furniture at the American Embassy warehouse! After much wrangling, the  French added a small supplement to the income he was receiving from the U.S. government. 

During his stay in Abidjan, Vogel was able to perfect his knowledge of the French language, and when he returned to the United States in late 1965, he tried to find employment that would be related to Africa. He joined Operation Crossroads Africa in 1966, which was founded by James Robinson and based in New York. The organization received contracts from the American government to bring Africans to the United States for short-term stays in training programs, the “International Visitors’ Program.” Vogel would travel to Africa in interview and select applicants.

The region he started out in was Central Africa: he went to Cameroon, Central African Republic, (formerly Belgian) Congo, Nigeria, Chad... In Cameroon, in 1966, he stayed in Bafoussam (French-speaking West Cameroon) and Buea, in the English-speaking area. When James Robinson passed away in 1972, Vogel became the Executive Director of Crossroads Africa. Vogel added a program which brought volunteers to Africa from the United States. He remained at the organization until 1984; there was no endowment and even though the finances showed a surplus, it was stressful to constantly be searching for funds.

Vogel had already started a program in collaboration with the Parsons School of Design in 1983, bringing groups of students to Africa. In the 1990s the program was transferred to Drew University in New Jersey, where it remains to this day. In 1984, after leaving Crossroads Africa, he also launched a business making household and clothing items in Ivory Coast with local fabrics, selling in the United States through a trade show in NY.

In the meantime, his wife, Susan Vogel, founded the Museum for African Art on 84th Street in Manhattan. When the Museum moved to a larger location in Soho and opened a museum shop, Vogel was charged with purchasing merchandise, until 2005, when the Museum moved to temporary quarters in Long Island City, Queens, NY. Since the creation of the Museum, he has at various periods managed the store, curated at the museum, acted as Deputy Director. Currently he only works there for two days a week, coordination relations with collectors and art dealers, tours to Africa, and translating French documents as “Special Advisor to the President,” who is now Elsie McNabe-Thompson.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Talented artists in Cameroon

When we were living in Cameroon, we often worked with people from the family circle and the neighborhood, but at other times, we also had the pleasure of collaborating with talented people we met by coincidence. 
As architects, we worked on a variety of projects. One of them was the renovation of a university restaurant in West Cameroon, in the Grassland region.  
The original building was from the Soviet-era, in a rather "squarish" architectural style. Epee Ellong, a Cameroonian architect, was able to "Africanize" it by adding mosaic panels on the exterior walls. 
As for the inside, there were large empty walls, so we suggested that a modern artist come and decorate them with frescoes. We thought of Koko Komegne, whom we had met a short time before; he assured us that large-scale frescoes would not pose a problem.
As it turned out--we didn't know this before Koko won the bid--Koko is from the same area the building was located in, so he was especially invested in doing something memorable. And a wonderful job he did--several large-scale frescoes were completed in just 2 weeks! He used his favorite theme: music and jazz.
After that job, which he successfully completed in a short time, Koko started calling me "Maman" (Mom). This may seem strange to a Westerner, but in Cameroon, it was meant as a sign of affection.
I acquired a couple of Koko's paintings myself; his work is joyful, and I still have them. 

The second artist we worked with is Tjap Oum. At first, his business, as he was a trained building technician, was  a small contracting company; he borrowed a small space from our office, and we saw each other every day. However, he had a very interesting voice, in a bit of a Louis Armstrong style. After a couple of years, he launched a singing career, under the name of Tjap's, which went well--he has become a household name in Cameroon. He is currently residing in France, at last news. He usually sings in his native language, Bassa. I found this song online: "Tamboura." It seems to be rather recent--his voice has somewhat changed in all these years, it is hoarser. This is a photo of one of his older CDs, Kunde.

N.B. On another musical note: down memory lane: the 2010 World Soccer Cup song (Shakira) samples Zangelewa, which was incredibly popular about 20 years ago! 

2011: Unfortunately, in the meantime, Tjap has passed away, far too young. 

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Uncle Dibounjé, family celebrity

Uncle Dibounjé was one of the first non-immediate family members my spouse introduced me to upon my first visit to Douala. Uncle Dibounjé was otherwise known as Chief Dibounjé Cain Toukourou, the traditional chief of Bonendalé, a village about 20 km away from Douala over a bumpy road, crossing the bridge towards West Cameroon.
My spouse's relationship to him was through his paternal grandmother. Not exactly close blood ties, but my spouse and Uncle Dibounjé had been close on an intellectual level for many years. At the time, his grandchildren were all very young, but now we are in constant contact with his eldest grandson, who lives in France. When I asked him whether I could write about his grandfather, and use the photo I had available, he answered: "Why are you asking me? Do whatever you want: he's your family too."
Uncle Dibounjé was a local celebrity. In fact, he was one the the subjects of a book written by a French Jesuit priest, Père Eric de Rosny, who still lives in Cameroon.  At Présence Africaine, the publishing house and bookstore located in Paris, we were told that the book is a classic among students in ethnology.
Uncle Dibounjé  was said to possess great spiritual powers. Some went as far as to say he was a "sorcerer," which he refuted because of the evil connotations.
Being a chief doesn't pay the bills, so Uncle Dibounjé had a profession: pirogue (boat) builder, which he then rented out to local fishermen.
When I was taken to visit him, "fresh off the plane," as I was at the time, I was rather intimidated. This was the relative who had advised my spouse not to go abroad for his studies. Now, not only had he gone to France, he had also brought back a "white" wife, to top it all off. Of course, Uncle Dibounjé was charming with me, and offered me breakfast; grilled fish with boiled green plantains (one of my culinary cultural shocks: what, no bread at breakfast?).
In the year thereafterI had returned to the United States for workUncle Dibounjé fell ill. On his deathbed, he asked my spouse to prepare his will, an enormous mark of trust. He passed away soon after.
The house shown is Uncle Dibounjé's old home. 
Dibounjé Cain Toukourou's tomb

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sculpting the stool

Africans made metal tools by sharpening them with stone instruments, before they started using European-style hoes and specialized tools. Stools were mainly found in forest areas, because of the availability of large blocks of wood.  
Traditionally, a person would put in an order for a custom stool with a professional sculptor, who would make it out of a block of wood. First the wood had to be hollowed out with a hoe, called a dibao. The sculptor would use a controlled fire (using hulls of palm nuts, or banana leaves) within the wood, to soften it in order to be able to hollow it out, in a similar way as used when making a pirogue.
The sketch shows the way the stool was sculpted, along with the photo of a finished stool.

Before the stool was finalized, the client would sit on it to ensure that the height and width were comfortable. The formed stool was then sculpted with symbols, names...

Before the use of sandpaper, leaves of a plant named (in Duala) Djolossi were used to smooth the wood.
Modern stools, such as those by Padouk Design, are made from separate pieces of wood, that are sculpted and pre-sanded before assembly, and assembled by metal screws, or by tenon and mortise.

Note: There is a comprehensive German book on the subject of African seats: Afrikanische Sitze, published by Prestel.

Thanks to my husband, Epee Ellong, for the historical details.

This is a follow-up to "African Stools."

About pirogues

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Recipe: Okra stew, adapted

This is an adaptation of okra stew for Western kitchens. Okra is called "gombo" in Duala language (like "Gumbo" in the United States; the word arrived with the African slaves that were brought to the country).

Fresh raw okra
Smoked turkey (drumsticks or wings) OR beef for stew  
Onions, chopped
Canned tomatoes (crushed)
Bouillon cube
1-2 tbsp natural peanut butter (for example from health food store) with no added sugar
Okra (fresh or frozen) – chopped, cap removed
If desired, scotch bonnet hot pepper, preferably red

    Sauté chopped onions; add turkey or beef cut in pieces. Add chopped okra (part can be put in a blender with the tomatoes if preferred), crumbled bouillon cube, salt (not too much because of the bouillon cube and possibly salt in the turkey and peanut butter), pepper and some water; dilute peanut butter with some water and add to pot. Add hot pepper (whole) if desired. Cook over medium heat (after liquid boils) for about 45 mn – 60 mn, stirring regularly, and if necessary adding more water. The peanut butter has a tendency to stick to the bottom of the pot. 

    Taste and season. If you put in a hot pepper, it will be safer to remove it when the sauce is done. Hot pepper gets ever hotter as time goes on!
    Serve with boiled plantains (green or yellow) or cooked rice.
    Sometimes I add corn, which an African may find heretic. 

In Cameroon, this dish is sometimes made with dried fish; and Cameroonians usually like their okra sauce extra-slimy! The above recipe, however, is not slimy; don't worry!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

African Stools

 The most important piece of furniture in an African household is the seat, most often a stool or bench, as it is called in French: le banc
  The Duala of the area now known as Cameroon, for example, believed that the owner’s mystical strength lay in his seat; it was therefore dangerous for another person to sit on it. This person could be hit by lightning if he did not possess a similar mystical force. To sit on another person’s seat was to openly defy him, and nobody was surprised to find the transgressor dead the next day.
  In Ghana, an Ashanti’s seat would be tipped to one side when its owner was absent, to ensure it would not be used in his absence.
  These backless seats were also used as thrones, albeit very ornately sculpted. A throne was not sufficient to make a king: the officials of the kingdom, who had assisted at the death and the burial of the previous king, were the only ones entitled to seat the new ruler on his throne, after a series of esoteric rituals. Wars have been waged over the theft of a throne. During journeys, a servant followed the king, carrying his travel seat, lighter than his usual one. Around a king, people either sat on the ground or stood up, while he sat on his personal seat and nothing else.
  The common mortal, of course, can also own his seat, as long as the model is appropriate for his social rank. The higher the tribal rank, the more prestigious and elaborate the seat. The most talented sculptors were chosen for this type of work. The sculptor chose an appropriate tree trunk and worked on it in the same way as a canoe, by setting a fire in a hole in the middle of both sides. He then worked on the wood through the hollow made by the heat. When professions were still easy to describe, the owner’s profession or special skill would be showcased in the sculpture of the bench. In later days, the owner’s name was often sculpted into the seat.  
This photo shows a contemporary take on the stool, by Padouk Design.  

At the Deido traditional chief's home, in Douala, Cameroon, there are several traditional stools, including
 one that used to belong to his mother, who was from 
Akwa (another part of Douala), with her name sculpted on it. 

In a separate album, I put together a variety of African seats, which I will continue adding images to. 
Note: Padouk Design is a company owned by my husband and myself, currently not in activity. 

Monday, January 18, 2010

Welcome to the (African) Dollhouse

In "the olden days," in Sub-Saharan Africa, there was a larger variety of dolls than nowadays, of which I'll describe a few. They used to be made of natural materials, such as wood, earth, or even weeds.
Ashanti doll
The Ashanti doll, from Ghana, is one of the most famous worldwide: a wood circle-face on a stick-like body (photo shown to the left)

Moundang doll
The Mandara mountains Moundang doll, from Northern Cameroon, made of volcanic rock, and decorated with tiny beads. This is the one which arguably least resembles the traditional European-style doll (photo right). 

Fali dolls from northern Cameroon

 * male doll made of a corncob, decorated with cowry shells, European beads, leather strips, with a cotton skirt; 
 * "boy" doll made of wood, with cowry shells, bells, leather strips (illustrations shown below); 

The Fali-Namchi dolls have been revisited in recent years, as shown below

Senegalese doll
Ngongui doll
The easiest style to make, in coastal Cameroon: a plant called Ngongui is pulled out of the ground; the roots are cleaned and trimmed, to represent human hair; the leaves are trimmed so as to be able to "stand up" on the ground, representing the human body (shown on the left). 

From my own doll collection are a few more photos: a Senegalese rag doll, a doll with a straw head covering, and a plastic doll wearing Martinique's madras clothes (African diaspora), and an African "Raggedy Ann" style. 

Doll from Martinique

Vickie Fremont makes African puppets showing the different regions of Cameroon.
An African puppet made by Vickie Fremont