Douala gets its first photography biennial, thanks to Max Mbakop


AT the French Institute of Cameroon, the man of the moment is being chased by several journalists who have come to cover the event.

With his glasses perched on his nose, cap turned backwards and rocking a small grey beard, Max Mbakop holds a reflex camera in his hand as he repeatedly explains the motive behind “Rencontres photographiques de Douala (Repdoul)”, the photographic exhibition he’s just started.

The event is intended to “spark connections between Cameroonian photographers and the rest of the world, and to promote the art of photography to the general public,” he explained to a growing audience.

This first edition has “brought together 25 photographers from eight African countries”, said Viviane Maghela, the curator of Repdoul.

The success of this maiden edition confirms to Mbakop that the Repdoul has what it takes to become a significant African cultural event in the future.

“We have the potential to go further than the Bamako Biennial, further than the Dakar Biennial,” he said.

The existence of an enormous pool of talented local photographers is what propels his belief.

“There are more and more young people who are committed to photography, we must now educate them to be able to tell a story, to say their word on such and such a subject through photography,” he said.

Mbakop has mentored budding photographers for eight years through training workshops and courses at Kam’art, an organisation he founded. Since their inception, the Kam’art workshops have held 40 sessions and trained 120 young photographers.

One of the beneficiaries, Essomba Olivier, could not hide his pride at having seen his work selected for an exhibition in the framework of the Repdoul.

“I participated in the Kam’art workshops in 2021. I’ve been practising photography for barely two years, it’s a great honour for me to see my work exhibited. It’s the very first time,” he said.

Over the years, Mbakop has established himself as one of the driving forces behind the revival of Cameroonian photography, a worthy representative of a generation of artists who have been able to adapt to the challenges of the modern era marked by the advent of digital technology and platforms.

His artistic journey started eighteen years ago when he left a well-paid job as a computer scientist to devote himself to art.

His passion for photography goes back to the age of eight when a friend of his father gave him a disposable camera as a gift.

And although his first experience as an artist was in theatre, he later migrated to photography, seeing it as a more suitable medium to tell his stories. But one has to earn a living, and, as artistic photography was slow to generate income, he dived into commercial photography.

“I never wanted to do commercial photography, but to make a living I had to start doing wedding coverage, corporate events, birthdays, private ceremonies, and such,” he said.

Max Mbakop takes the opportunity to pay tribute to the elders who inspired him in the journey.

Max Mbakop

“Cameroon has produced great photographers, I can mention Samuel Fosso, Hugo Bebe, Samuel Nja Kwa and many others who have inspired the young generation”, he said.

Known for his poignant and powerful self-portraits, Samuel Fosso is one of the most popular and bankable contemporary Cameroonian photographers on the art market. The artist agreed to be the patron of this first edition, a support that makes the creator of Repdoul very proud:

“When you have Samuel Fosso as a sponsor for a first event, it’s no mean feat,” Mbakop said.

Mbakop’s next step is creating a cultural house in the Bonaberi neighbourhood in Douala and planning the second edition of Repdoul, scheduled for 2025.

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