Saturday, 30 December 2006

The art scene in Cotonou is relatively small and like most African countries is conservative consisting of traditional painting and sculpture that appeal to buyers and the expatriate diplomatic community. There are no commercial galleries, and no public galleries. There are no art critics although there are one or two ‘generalist’ culture journalists for want of a better term. There is no visual art education at tiertiary level. So is this a dismal situation. Not as dismal as it could be as there are several small pockets of artists who continue to develop their art without adequate cultural infrastructure.

The French Cultural Centre constitutes the major artistic outlet whether for dance, music, theatre, crafts or the visual arts. They have consistently supported all the artforms over the decades and provided a dynamic platform for artistic development. I was given a very useful catalogue by the Deputy Director of FCC Noel Vitin entitled Harmattan 2005 Art contemporain au Benin. It contains full colour images of 24 artists with a short text and contact details accompanying each artist. The main introductory essay to contemporary art in Benin is by Art Historian Romauld Tchibozo, (Ph.D)

Pascal also recommended 2 young photographers that I should meet. African photography has produced some interesting artists and I always make it an effort to meet those who work purely in photography who use it in their overall work. I met with a young photographer called Charles Placide Tossou whose area of specialisation is in theatrical photography. He had a substantial amount of images on theatre productions that he had photographed which were quite impressive. He remarked however that he has not yet had the opportunity to work with someone who could go through them and develop an exhibition project from the images. He also had an interesting but less impressive body of work on the voodoo festivals which he has been documenting on a yearly basis for nearly 10 years. These images of religious festivals especially voodoo have been the subject of many photographers for decades from around the world. I think he needs to find an angle that differentiates his work from what has been done before.

Meeting women artists can be a difficult endeavour in a lot of African countries as there are very few who are active, but I make an active point to seek them out. I met with Esther Bigo and a hour one meeting turned into nearly 4 hrs including lunch at a very nice restaurant serving local food called Pili Pili. Esther is a young artist who started off as a singer of traditional songs and seems apparently successful at it. A few years ago she veered into photography and has been getting considerable interest in France and Belgium. Luckily for her she also has strong support from her parents who have helped her set up her own studio. Esther showed a can do, go get attitude that endeared me to her. She is trying to balance her singing and photography careers and also has time to give back to society. Her burning passion is to encourage and help the professional development of other female photographers. In January 2007 she is organising a one month long photography seminar and accompanying events. It will involve about 7-8 photographers from Benin and another 6-7 from neighbouring African countries. The photography masterclass will be led by photographers invited from Europe. Her principal objective is to highlight to her female colleagues that there is more to photographer than just subsistence living and if they develop their skill and ideas the possibilities are many. A laudable initiative considering she had to develop and fundraise for it on her own and even put in some of her personal funds.

Dominique Zinkpe, Taxi Wallaii

My next meeting was with Dominique Zinkpe a well travelled and exhibited Beninois artist. I had bumped into him a few times at exhibitions and we had greeted each other but had never interacted properly. Talking to him about his Taxi projects was high on my list especially with my interest in mobility. Dominique is also the founder and co-ordinator of the successful Boulev’art started in 1999 and organised every 2 years, I guess like their own local biennale. The next event is in the last quarter of 2007. Dominique was extremely generous with his time and we spent several hours talking about the situation of contemporary art in Africa at CCF and at his top floor apartment not far from the beach. I especially liked sitting on his vast veranda facing the sea gulping down one iced drink or another to combat the extreme heat. After 2 years of living in France, Dominique has decided to return to Benin for good. He believes he needs to be in his context of origin to create the kind of work he wants. The essence of his work comes from the inspiration he draws from his environment. Despite the opportunity to live and work in Europe it is nice to come across young artists willing to return.

Apart from his commitment to Boulev’art another passion close to his art is finding ways in which to stem the drain of contemporary African Artworks from the continent. Dominique narrated how the worrisome problem of African artists always looking towards the West results in most artists making working that never get shown or seen in Africa. Whilst during the colonial period our cultural artefacts were taken without permission in the late 20th and in the 21st century artists are taking them abroad by themselves. This voluntary expatriation is a source of concern to artists throughout Africa. A growing number are making concerted efforts to stem the tide by building with monies received through sales of their work small galleries and studio spaces usually on the outskirts of capitals. Zinkpe’s wish is to bring most if not all of his Taxi Zinkpe back to Africa for good. In Cameroon Barthelemy Toguo is completing Bandjoun Station a very ambitious self financed art center initiative. In Nigeria there is Bruce Onabrakpeya, in Ghana Ablade Glover and many others in the pipeline.

Private individual initiatives are springing up and the most impressive to date in the Republic of Benin is the Fondation Zinsou founded in 2005. Run by the 24 year old scion from a wealthy and powerful Beninois family, Marie-Cecile Zinsou, the project is a trailbrazer backed by serious funding it seems. The programming philosophy is to present contemporary art from Africa and about Africa. The opening exhibition was a solo exhibition – a retrospective of sorts - of Romauld Hazoume’s work. The exhibition was accompanied by a very impressive publication. The willingness to produce high quality catalogues must be commended especially as few quality catalogues are available of contemporary artists from Africa. Since opening over a year ago the foundation has received over 250,000 visitors to its temporary gallery space. During my visit its most ambitious exhibition opened on the 16th of December 2006 to celebrate the centenary of the death of King Behanzin of Abomey. Between 250,000 and 500,000 visitors are expected during the course of the exhibiton. I visited the exhibited with the artist Edwige Aplogan after an initial visit to her studio. The exhibition is a joint project with the newly opened Musee Quai Branly, Paris who have lent some of the pieces. And the piece de resistance is the return to Benin of the original throne of King Behanzin taken by General Dodds circa 1892 after the fall of Abomey. The throne was bought in 2004 by Marie-Cecile’s father and now forms part of his private collection. This is a historic event for so many reasons and the Beninois are coming out in their droves to see the exhibition.

Cotonou threw up some pleasant surprises and I found that my 4 days visit was harldly enough. However it is a good start to build on. Artists in Benin and Nigeria forget that we are not more than two hours away from each. There is little or no contact between the countries. We allow the supposed linguistic and colonial borders continue to separate us. The interesting thing is that even though i speak French I found it almost more useful to speak Yoruba as alot of people who spoke neither french or english could communicate in Yoruba. In Porto Novo it was fantastic as people were so nice and helpful and kept greeting me in Yoruba (i think it was because of my Lagos car number plate) me as if i was a long lost sister or daughter or ressembled somebody they knew. Total strangers kept asking me if I was back and not knowning what to say I just kept saying yes. I guess i must look like somebody they know.

Sunday, 24 December 2006

Border Crossings

I just got back from an artists' research trip to the neighbouring countries of Benin and Togo. Supposedly, as an ECOWAS citizen, I am entitled to free movement across the region but the reality is the opposite. Lagos to Cotonou should in any normal situation be a one and a half to two hour journey but anybody who has made the trip will count it high amongst the most harrowing experiences of their life. I have made the trip at least 4 or 5 times in the last decade and each time has been a traumatic affair.The border control officers are unrelenting and most times vicious - psychologically - in their attempts to extract fictitious sums of money from travellers. Their power is such that any attempt to resist results in failure.

However don't despair, once you survive the border crossing Cotonou is a rapidly developing city. It has the same buzz as Lagos but in a smaller, controllable, pleasant way. With good infrastructure - roads, water and electricity - its gigantic oil rich neighbour is put to shame with its dilapidating roads, environmental pollution, incessant power cuts and deficiency in portable water and even worse, the current petrol shortage. My contact Pascal Zantou, who in a previous incarnation was a cultural journalist and who i had met in Dakar in 2005 during an art critic seminar for West African art journalists had given me a list of artists.

Roumauld in his studio
Within an hour of my arrival work started with a bang with a meeting at the Centre Culturel Francais (to become my temporary office) with Romauld Hazoume the internationally exhibited Beninois artist. It got off to an interesting start with the artist spending the first 10 minutes telling me about how extremely busy he was, the TV interview he was doing the next day and how about 40 international press members and visitors were coming to his studio on Saturday. He continued that if Pascal hadn’t called asking him to meet me he would not have bothered to take the time out. Feeling well and truly intimidated and not wanting to be considered a layabout we got talking about his work which I had been following on and off for the last 10 or so years. In a single breath he told me about how busy his year has been with nearly 50 overseas trips and how it starts with a bang in 2007 with exhibitions in London and the USA. (lucky him!!!) He didn’t miss repeating the above to all those who came to greet him without being asked much to my amusement.

His ‘impressive’ mobility stirred my curiosity. One of my research interests is in artistic mobility within the African continent. So the next time he mentioned his trips I asked how many African countries were part of his 50 odd destination. 10 seconds of silence. Then he replied hesitantly ‘1 maybe 2 countries’. I must have grimaced as he looked at me and then said ‘that’s not good’. In that fleeting moment I think many unspoken thoughts went through both our minds. As Africans we continue to discuss the underdevelopment of our countries and our cultures, but I think we really need to ask ourselves to what extent we are part of that problem. The reality is that most of the time we fly over Africa straight to Europe and the USA with little or no knowledge of artists or projects next door to us. I strongly believe that until we make a conscious attempt to interact amongst ourselves, develop and strengthen the art sector in our countries, the cultural infrastructure will remain weak and we will have to keep going to the West instead of the West coming to us.

Thursday, 21 December 2006

Welcome to artspeakafrica. This is my personal blog to share experiences about returning to live in Nigeria after 30 years of studying, living and working in Europe. I share my experiences of settling into my country and culture of origin, living in Lagos, a megacity of approximately 15 million people. But most of all musings about the visual art scene and culture in Nigeria and other African countries that I visit. Watch this space for reports on my current art research trip to the Republic of Benin and Togo.