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.