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.