The photography of Angèle Etoundi has garnered international acclaim. In this wide-ranging interview for New African, she explains to Femi Akomolafe something of her childhood in Cameroon before moving to live in France, and what currently motivates her amazing work.
With over 200 exhibitions in more than 100 countries, and more than 50 publications in international journals and magazines, Angèle Etoundi Essamba is undoubtedly one of the most-accomplished woman photographers working today. Cameroon-born, Essamba’s work has been exhibited in museums, institutions, art fairs and galleries in Africa, Europe, the US, Latin America, the UAE and Asia. Women constitute her main theme: strong, autonomous individuals exuding supreme confidence, as elegant as they are beautiful.
New African interviewed her at her studio in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Here are excerpts:
NA: Can you to introduce yourself; who is Angèle Etoundi Essamba?
AEE: I was born in Cameroon. My mother is from the commercial capital, Douala, and my father is from the capital, Yaoundé.
I actually grew up in my grandfather’s big house in Yaoundé in a very
big, extended family of uncles, aunties, nieces, brothers, cousins, sisters with everyone living in complete harmony devoid of strife.
Grandfather was a well-respected patriarch who looked after the entire family. No one dared to fight in the presence of grandfather. My memory of him is that of a strict, very disciplined person; but he was always fair.
I still recollect those days with huge fondness. It was a life of no worries as grandfather was always there to take care of things.
My father moved to France when I was quite young, and I was the first of his children to join him. I was then not even 10 years old, and I felt so lonely. I arrived in Paris with a face full of dried tears. My father’s presence at the airport helped somewhat as I was glad to see a familiar face. I arrived in January 1972 in a biting winter. No one had prepared me psychologically for what to expect in this strange land!
NA: What can you tell us about your professional life?
AEE: It started in 1985 with my first exhibitions. As a professional artist-photographer, people need to see your work, otherwise there is no point in your taking photographs.
But I will tell you, it is hard work that involves lots of travelling and preparations. Apart from exhibitions, I also spend time training. I give a lot of lectures and workshops as I am very passionate about giving something back, imparting knowledge so that people can benefit from my own experience. With other forms of art like painting, you need to learn, but photography is easier because you already have your main tool, the camera. The only thing you need do is develop the way you look at things and capture the essence in it. And now digital cameras have even simplified things further; it is now easy to make wonderful pictures.
NA: Your CV says that the keywords to your work are “pride, strength and awareness”, can you explain?
AEE: My work is about breaking down the stereotypes of the African woman being oppressed, weak, and dependent; and being passive. That was not the African woman that I knew. The African woman I know is strong with inner and outerrstrength that is impossible to define.
I try, through my photographs, to captures the essence of the African woman in the gestures, the look, the sheer elegance and also their emotions.
NA: You have travelled the world. Which is your favourite country and why?
AEE: Honestly, I do not have a favourite as every country is unique. Each country I have visited has its own special place in my heart.
NA: Who are some of the most important people you have met?
AEE: I have met so many amazing people all over the place. I do not talk about the famous or the celebrity types; but ordinary human beings doing ordinary human things – people I have learned from and who tremendously enriched me. It is incredible how people can inspire you.
NA: Can you tell us what a typical day in your studio is like?
AEE: Oh my God! There is always so much to do here, especially when there is an exhibition to prepare for. You would not believe the amount of work we have to put into each exhibition – research, writing the concept, submitting proposals, follow-up, organising the logistics, more follow-up …
NA: From where did you get your inspiration?
AEE: Inspiration comes from the most unlikely places. I would say, however, that mine comes mainly from my own life. I draw inspirations from my dreams, my aspirations.
I get it from how I see things, and I how imagine the world to be. In Tanzania and Zambia for example, I did not set out to photograph, but suddenly from my interactions with women, I got huge inspiration.
The same thing happened in Benin. I went there and saw all these beautiful and amazing women make their living on water. I was instantly wowed and that gave me the inspiration for my current project.
NA: Thematically, you choose women in most of your photographs, is there a reason for this?
AEE: Of course. Women deserve to be celebrated. Women are the carriers and transmitters of life.
NA: Most of your work has a Pan-African spirit. Is that deliberate?
AEE: Yes, it is very deliberate. I try, through my work, to create my own consciousness. African women are neither weak nor passive! African women are not only beautiful; they are strong, elegant and very graceful.
I try to portray African women as realistically as possible.
NA: The art world is very competitive; how do you survive, especially in these tough economic times?
AEE: It is not easy, but we get by. You must remember that apart from exhibiting my works, I give lectures and I organise workshops. I consult on communications as well. So I supplement my income but I don’t set out looking for commercial success in the types of projects I undertake.
NA: You are a very big name in the European art scene, do you also have some projects in Africa?
AEE: Yes, yes. Actually my next big project is on women and water in Benin Republic. The project will commence fully in September this year. My photo-book will be ready by the end of this year, and the travelling exhibition will start in 2014.
NA: You were involved in helping young women in Cameroon, South Africa and Colombia. Can you explain what these initiatives were about?
AEE: It is part of an effort to give something back to society; to share ideas and knowledge. It is also to empower these young women and mentor them so that they can realise their full potential. I organise workshops for them on photography. There I teach them to how create their own identity through their photographic works. The Foundation Essamba Home is all about helping young women to regain their self-esteem. We do this not only through photography, but we organise other forms of art – singing, dancing, painting etc.
NA: What plans do you have for the future?
AEE: The plans are to keep on going. To keep on getting more inspiration in order to keep creating more beautiful, powerful and meaningful things that people love and, in turn, will inspire them.
I plan to keep doing what I do best; that is, to photograph beautiful, strong black women. However, what is more important to me today is to share more. Through teaching, shows and exhibitions, I would like to share my knowledge and my experience.
NA: As one great African success story, what is your vision for Africa?
AEE: I am more than confident that the future of Africa is very bright. It cannot be otherwise because the positive energy and vibration emanating from the continent is just too great. Africa is a continent with matchless opportunities and where everything is possible. Our own children might not take us to the Promised Land, but their children definitely will.