Interviewed by Walter Wilson Nana
CameroonPostline.com -- Irine Epie is a household name in Cameroonian painting and sculpture. She is a versatile artist, whose reputation cuts across Cameroon, the USA and other parts of Europe.
Irene at work
At the close of the celebrations of the 50th anniversaries of the Independence and Reunification of Cameroon, recently in Buea, this reporter discovered that the logo that makes part of the monument of the aforementioned celebrations was painted by this fine artist. In this exclusive interview, she gives an insight of how she got the job, how it was done and the way forward for Cameroon after 50 years of nationhood. Excerpts:
Not much has filtered about you for a while now in the media, where have you been?
I have been busy with my craft, doing what I have to do to survive. I paint, sculpt and do other pieces of art that I can sell and display where ever I can to make money that will enable go on with life. However, I have an ongoing exhibition at the World Bank office in Yaoundé, where I have eleven paintings. It is a joint exhibition with some other artists involved. This exhibition has been going on since May 2013.
What is the theme of the exhibition?
There is no particular theme. The artists on the exhibition are putting in their respective feelings of their paintings and pieces of sculpture.
What is it that inspires you to paint and sculpt?
The inspiration comes from my imagination, the way I see things, the environment, colours, texture and many things. But the things that interest me when it comes to paintings are mostly traditional, our African mythology, religions, the African way of life that is fast disappearing, the vibrant colours of Africa, the ideas around folkloric stories and other little things.
Your experiences as a young girl growing up, going to school and evolving in the society are also part of your inspiration?
As a child, I did not grow up in Cameroon; I did not do primary school in Cameroon. At the time I got back to Cameroon, I was here to do only two years in secondary school; form 5 and high school. The rest of my schooling years were out of Cameroon. What influenced my art are the schools I went to out of Cameroon, as a course in those schools.
With my innate talent, which is shared by many members of my family and inherited from my father, who was also a good sculptor, encouraged me and the schools I went to. It was an eye-opener for me and helped me to create a niche for myself and the future.
How are you blending your western education, your Cameroonian background and your art?
I will say my African background. I grew up seeing myself more as an African than a Cameroonian. Growing up in the Diaspora, you are identified with the continent you are coming from more than your country of origin. And all things African, you relate to. I have a thirst to understand the Cameroonian society much more than the regular Cameroonian who has grown up in the country. It still fascinates me, I am still making efforts to understand the mindset of Cameroonians.
How they look at things, because I look at things totally different from the way things operate in Cameroon. What is it in the social set up that make Cameroonians look at things the way they do? So, I want to understand the Cameroonian society; religion, mythology, believe in witchcraft and more. I look at things logically.
Do you put all these in your paintings?
I do. I use symbols that portray soothsayers, totems, which are present in our mythology and society. I try to understand how these mystical things influence the mindset of the people. And how they find it difficult to understand western concepts. Cameroonians are focussed on their age-old mythology inherited many years ago. Now, I see why I cannot understand because I did not grow in it. However, I still identify myself as a Cameroonian and being one with them. It is a constant dilemma, which I try to unfold in my paintings.
Are you convinced that your message is going through your paintings?
I do not paint so much for the Cameroonian public. I paint for the world. Cameroonians do not buy paintings. It is westerners who buy my paintings and I explain to them what my paintings are all about; the mythology, the religion, folklore and more.
Does your art put bread and butter on your table?
It does! If not I would have abandoned. How do you think I survive? I travel with my paintings; I have sold lots of paintings, sculptures in the USA, presently, I am building my studio in Yaoundé, Cameroon, with money from my paintings. I am able to take care of myself.
I do not crave for mansions, those are not the things important for me, I am interested in the quality of my life and I have been able to offer that to myself thanks to my paintings. I am happy with what I am doing because I am not under any stress, no time restrain. I paint as the inspiration catches me and as frequently as possible.
You did the painting of the logo that is part of the monument of the 50th anniversaries of Cameroon’s Independence and Reunification. How did you get that opportunity?
I will give all the praises to Madam Ama Tutu Muna, the Minister of Arts and Culture. The confidence she has shown me over the years is heart warming. I believe that she has seen my work over the past three years and thanks to her recommendation, I was given the opportunity to do that piece of work. It was a work done under a lot of pressure, for eight weeks.
The pieces of the logo were carved on wood by a laser scanner. They were sent to Buea, where we moulded them out of fibre glass, one piece after another, sealed the pieces together with fibre glass, gave it a size of 5 metre 76 by 5 metre 76, while my colleague from Yaoundé Mr Hilarion Faison, Sub director of Spectacle in the Ministry of Arts and Culture came and assisted me in the painting of the logo, which we did for three days.
Besides the recommendation from the Minister of Arts and Culture, did you compete with other people before you won the bid to paint the reunification logo?
The conception of the logo was not ours. The logo is same that was used for the 50th anniversary of the independence of then La Republique Du Cameroun some few years back. This time, the same logo was constructed in a different medium called fibre glass.
Hilarion Faison and myself are the only two people in Cameroon, now, who work in fibre glass. In the beginning, many were sceptical about our ability to do the job, but we took a commitment that we will do it and to the best of our ability. Surprisingly, we were not given invitations to be part of the inaugural by the President Paul Biya in Buea, Wednesday, February 19 2014.
However, I later on got words that we were acknowledged during the inaugural ceremony. Faison and I would have loved to be there also not for the fanfare but to get the credit as an artist. That is what interests an artist – recognised for the job done. I did the job as a Cameroonian, in honour of my people, with all the energy and the zeal. Interestingly, it was planted in Buea, capital of the Southwest Region, my region of origin.
How durable is that logo?
It is going to last for a long time. But in the future, it can be taken down and some refurbishment done on it. It can be cleaned. Fibre glass is durable and strong. Fibre glass is used in the making of car bumpers. It is a tough material but light and translucent. You see how beautiful it looks with light focussed on it. It is car paint that was used on it. That will last for a long time.
When it rains, what happens?
No problem with that. Like a good car, it will hold it's colour for a while.
How should the entire monument be managed now? There is some advocacy already to make the monument site a touristic area?
This is the time for the Ministries of Tourism and Leisure, Arts and Culture respectively and the Buea Council to step in and take their responsibilities. They should sit together and come out with the details on how to forge ahead with the daily management of the place.
Have you been paid for the job done?
It was a contract and we have been paid already. I have no problem with that. It might not be what people imagined it was but it was all right. The money is in my bank account. We finished the work and we were paid according to the terms of our contract.
After 50 years of nationhood, how should we tackle the next 50 years?
Honesty! Cameroonians should learn to be honest, God-fearing, love for country instead of love for self. Cameroonians should learn what other countries have learnt. Whatever you do today, should reflect what you want for tomorrow. Cameroonians should know that there are consequences for every mistake you make. These consequences can live on after you, your children and grand children.
Cameroonians should not look at Cameroon as a place that is supposed to serve them but a place they have to serve. Americans learn that a long time ago and they pay allegiance to their flag. I love my country and I will not abandon it. No Cameroonian will make me abandon Cameroon. In the next 50 years, we should work hard to change our bad habits.
First published in The Post print edition 01508