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Art From Africa's Cameroons

February 05, 1986|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

"I don't think there is another private collection in the world like this," Valerie Franklin said--with all due immodesty--as she happily surveyed her astonishing cache of Cameroon art, at the Natural History Museum through May 25.

There are reasons to believe her:

First, consider her lineage. The daughter of Ruth and the late Harry Franklin, she grew up with African art. Her parents began collecting it in 1938, long before it was considered a good investment. They turned their home into a salon for pioneering scholars of so-called primitive art. The Franklins' passion became a business 30 years ago when they opened the highly respected Franklin Gallery, with the unbusinesslike aim of selling as little as possible.

Second, Valerie Franklin is an effervescent collector and dealer, but she has a degree in art history and a scholar's respect for accuracy. She shies away from such adjectives as unique, though some items in the family collection are accorded that label by others.

Third, 27 of the 76 pieces in the current show were in the Smithsonian Institution's recent traveling presentation "The Art of the Cameroon," and some of the Franklin sculptures have been on loan to museums for so long that the local exhibition amounts to a family reunion.

One world-famous piece that has returned to the fold is the "Bangwa Queen Figure." This wood sculpture (about 2 feet tall), depicting a woman in the dual role of priestess of the earth cult and mother of twins, has been cited by prominent scholars as "the most powerful example of the art of Cameroon" and "the finest expression of movement in all African sculpture."

Fourth, as Franklin says, "The art speaks on its own." Dynamic, expressive, fierce and energetically human, the striking assembly of wood masks, figures, bowls, stools, drums, gongs and royal regalia fills the Director's Gallery with undeniable beauty and power.

Photographs of Cameroon art and people place the art in context, as do two slide shows and sound recordings made in the field by Cameroon scholar Tamara Northern. Curator of ethnographic art at Dartmouth College's Hood Museum, Northern organized the Smithsonian's Cameroon exhibition and was guest curator for the current show of the Franklin collection.

The exhibited art comes from a West African nation with a long colonial history. Discovered by the Portuguese in 1472, Cameroon became a German colony in 1884, a divided British-French territory in 1922, and in 1961 the United Republic of Cameroon was formed. Though the country is not as well known as some of its neighbors, its art manifests the fearsome power and muscular grace associated with the best of African art, and it encompasses a rich variety of forms and expressions.

"This is a personal collection," Franklin said. "It doesn't represent every single kind of Cameroon art. There are some beaded figures that are simply not available, and there are beaded elephants that I don't like, so I don't have them. We have concentrated on masks and figures.

"The masks range from naturalistic faces to very aggressive, almost Cubistic forms. There are masks with open-work coiffures, frog motifs, very rare Janus faces, and there's one from the western area of Cameroon with half of its face plain, the other half pockmarked. We also have a whole series of animals, including almost every type of buffalo mask."

The Franklins began acquiring Cameroon art along with that from other parts of Africa. "At first, it was a matter of just being fortuitous and buying what we liked," Valerie Franklin said. "But when the Helena Rubinstein collection came up for auction in 1966, my father decided he could not live without the 'Bangwa Queen.' " He bought the figure, but not without hearing it called "Franklin's Folly."

"It was a watershed period for African art, when people began to pay attention to it," she continued. "Later, the Rockefeller wing (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) provided the validation people had been waiting for. Finally people began to see that this is not a folk art by savage, pagan people but something that ranks with the art of the world."

The quality of the Rubinstein collection "opened our eyes," she said. "I looked at the art and said to Dad, 'We should not be selling any of this Cameroon material. We should just collect it.' It would be impossible to compile this collection today, or even 10 years ago."

Walking through the gallery, she pointed out one striking example after another: a "Royal Memorial Ancestor Figure," regarded as the "Bangwa Queen's" male partner; an enormous "Conceptualized Human Face" mask, with patterned eyebrows rising like giant scallops and cheekbones protruding like shelves; carved stools bearing the royal Cameroon iconography of frogs, spiders, lizards and triangles.

"We forget that there were other people who were successful in a Pretechnological Age," she observed.

"The advances that brought us modern medicine also brought us alienation. In the African jungle, everyone belonged; there were no orphanages."

"Spiritual values" attract Franklin to African art, the same values that she senses in contemporary art such as Mark Rothko's painting. "This art isn't about banalities; it's about life and death and people's relationship to God. It has a beauty that makes superficial beauty just pale."

Though Cameroon art can be absorbed "on many levels--aesthetic-formal, anthropological-ethnological or just in terms of what other cultures and people are doing"--she hopes that casual museum visitors will discover something "magical" in it. "I'd like it to be a little revelation. We can't hope for big revelations in the 20th Century."

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