From Cameroon to Paris: Mousgoum Architecture in and out of Africa

Article excerpt

Steven Nelson. From Cameroon to Paris: Mousgoum Architecture In and Out of Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. xiv + 247 pp. Photographs. Map. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $50.00. Cloth.

In this study of the widely disseminated inscriptions of an African architectural form, the distinctive Mousgoum teleuk, or dome-shaped house of the Cameroon-Chad border area, Steven Nelson speaks in three distinct voices. The introduction and chapter 2 are framed as an informal travelogue; the author laments that an approach based on the observation that "one of these things is not like the other" appears to describe the Sesame Street generation's narrow perception of exotic travel (50). Later in the same chapter he explores the position of the nineteenth-century traveler Heinrich Barth regarding the teleuk and otherness; to do this Nelson switches personae and adopts Freud's interpretation of ego and society from Civilization and Its Discontents (55-56). He also calls into service Mary Louise Pratt's updated reading of this ego-centered stance in her essay in Henry Louis Gates's "Race," Writing and Difference (Chicago, 1986). These three approaches appear throughout the book, creating a kind of triple reading of both the teleuk dome and its spectators: one informal and journalistic, the second and third, old-school and new-school academic exegesis.

In a parallel way African architectural historiography has moved through its own successive explanatory regimes. Environmental determinism, leavened by cultural factors such as polygyny, has been the default mode for explaining Africa's architectural diversity during the long dominance of the adaptation model in social anthropology. In the 1970s, Douglas Fraser introduced formalist structuralism to his students; one of them, Suzanne Preston Blier, published her dissertation in 1987 on Batammaliba architecture using house/body symbolism to explain its parts and their significance. As her student, Nelson, in his turn, devotes chapter 1 to a similar exegesis of the Mousgoum house. But this is not the real thrust of the book's argument, which is less about architecture than about its reception and representation, bringing into focus a third approach to African architecture through critical reading rather than either structural analysis or, to quote Shirley Ardener, "social maps and ground rules." Steering away from traditional history and ethnography (which are disposed of in the introduction) , he says relatively little about either the internal workings of Mousgoum culture or its place in the region. What interests him more is the way the teleuk as a design and habitation was apprehended by precolonial travelers and later by French colonial administrators and intellectuals as a cultural representation of "primitive genius"-but also as unmeasurable "otherness."

With chapter 2, the book's real theme is introduced by means of a long engagement with travelers' visits-from Barth in 1852 to Olive MacLeod in 1911 to Andre Gide and Marc Allegret in 1926-which sets up the opportunity for close critical reading. …