Franci Neely and The Menil Collection Celebrate Debut of Grassfields of Cameroon Exhibit

Franci Neely
5 min readApr 4, 2023

On Feb. 17, The Menil Collection debuted a collection of dazzling art on loan from the kingdoms of Cameroon for Menil’s brand-new exhibit, Art of the Cameroon Grassfields: a Living Heritage in Houston , which runs through July 9 and is free to the public. The show is made possible by donations from patrons like Franci Neely . Neely herself was traveling and had to miss the opening — but not wanting to let the occasion go un-feted, she hosted a cocktail party for featured artist Hervé Youmbi at her Houston home as soon as her bags were unpacked.

Neely became enamored with Cameroon during an early 20 22 trip to the Central African country on the Gulf of Guinea — and the delights showcased in Houston bring a taste of that rich culture to the Lone Star State. Grassfield kingdoms headdresses, masks, prestige hats, royal stools, and figural sculptures — and palace architectural elements — are some of the pieces on display. Exploring colonialism and contemporary aspects of Cameroonian art, Art of the Cameroon Grassfields: A Living Heritage in Houston is an opportunity for Houstonians to enjoy a piece of the sacred Grassfields that 200 independent monarchies identify as home.

Two galleries comprise the exhibit — one a nod to Cameroon’s past, the other to its present. As museumgoers peruse the new art, they’ll also see pieces from Menil’s collection, private collectors, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and from Douala, Cameroon-based artist Hervé Youmbi. Youmbi is showcasing five of his “Celestial Thrones” and a handpicked selection from his “Faces of Masks IV” series.

On March 13, Neely celebrated Youmbi with a cocktail party complete with thoughtfully arranged floral displays bearing the green, red, and yellow hues of the Cameroonian flag.

The party was also attended by Alvia Wardlaw, curator and director of the University Museum at Texas Southern University; Franck Kemkeng Noah, a Cameroonian artist exhibiting at the University Museum at Texas Southern University; Selven O’Keefe Jarmon, a Houston-based artist; Rebecca Rabinow, the director of The Menil Collection; and Paul R. Davis, curator of the Grassfields exhibit at The Menil Collection.

Davis told the Houston Chronicle the idea to bring the production to Houston was born after he indulged his craving for fried fish at West African eatery Chez Michelle in the city.

“What started with an ongoing, closer study of the Menil’s holdings of art from the African continent became an opportunity for the museum to engage with the different Cameroonian communities in Houston and to explore the ways in which the artistic heritage of the Grassfields circulates internationally,” Davis told seegreatart.art.

All About Hervé Youmbi’s Art

Youmbi’s art is indeed a royal affair. Thrones and masks fit for Cameroonian royalty are the cornerstones of his ornate work. He’s created around 20 masks; some of those are being used in rituals and they’re also on display at various museums.

“Our president is 90 years old and he has been president since 1982,” Youmbi told art lovers during The Menil Collection’s “Artist Talk” series on March 2. “So for many Cameroonians, we are no longer in a republic but we are in the kingdom. So that idea of the kingdom gave me the idea to think at the seat of [a] king. So I decided to be inspired by the stools that belong to king[s] at the western region of Cameroon.”

Hervé Youmbi’s “Panther” (“La Panthère”), 2019. It’s one of the five stools from the Celestial Thrones (Les Trônes Célestes) collection.

Youmbi crafted an installation with five stools. “Four of those stools represent one of the ‘Big Five’ in Africa,” Youmbi says. “That means the biggest and [most] powerful animals in Africa — you have the rhinoceros, you have the elephant, you have the panther, you have also buffalo.” The tortoise is the fifth animal that Youmbi says prompted him to fashion a royal seat.

“And under each throne, you can find a proverb,” Youmbi adds. Youmbi’s thrones sit atop a mirror. In its reflection, museumgoers can read the corresponding proverb. Reads one: “ C’est la cendre que l’on croit éteinte qui brûle la maison.” ( Translation: It’s the ashes that we thought were extinguished that burn the house “Most of those proverbs are African proverbs and we have to really listen. Each proverb was chosen because of the notion of good governance. Also, I should [note] that each proverb was directly related to a political situation in my country at that time. So to be inspired by the aesthetic of the throne of the past [rather] than with the present is to highlight the political situation of my country. So don’t insult the crocodile while your feet are still in the water.”

When The Menil Collection exhibition is over, the stools will be returned to the chiefs of the various Cameroonian villages for whom Youmbi initially created the thrones. “Paul [Davis, Menil curator] traveled to Cameroon to meet those kings to have the authorization to ship them here for this show,” Youmbi says. “And it was really a pleasure. During the encounter with each of those kings, I explained exactly what happened with the project and I showed him the proverb and we discussed it.”

Franci Neely and Menil: Bringing Cameroonian Art to Houston

Franci Neely says she’s always eager to share her inspiring travel experiences , like a visit to Cameroon. She took in Cameroon’s natural beauty, such as its stunning Ekom Nkam Waterfalls, indulged her passion for art at the National Museum of Cameroon , and bonded with artisans at the popular marketplace Marché Central in Yaoundé.

The style-savvy traveler — who says she always makes a point to purchase some local fashions on all of her journeys — recalls a memorable meeting with a smiling seamstress, also in Yaoundé .

In this bustling and colorful market, I bought some beautiful fabric and then had it made into a dress that very day — all for $50,” Franci Neely recalls. “The market also served as a local barbershop.”

Franci Neely encourages others to visit the Grassfields of Cameroon.

“You’ll find r ich tribal culture and ceremonies in the Grassland kingdoms of Cameroon ,” adds the world traveler.

The Menil Collection board member also shared her love for Cameroon during the Studio Menil Fun and Games gala by sporting a Cameroonian football team jersey (during her trip, she’d picked up jerseys for her entire table to wear). Neely has also been the driving force behind bringing more diverse art pieces to Menil and shedding a spotlight on some of the rarest corners of the world.

“[They have] unbelievable culture and traditions in Cameroon,” Franci Neely says.

Originally published at https://urbanmatter.com on April 4, 2023.

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