Issue #42, 2012

Inventing The World: The Artist As Citizen
Dóra Hegyi

Inventing the World: The Artist as Citizen

Dóra Hegyi


2nd Benin Biennial, Cotonou – Porto Novo – Abomey

8 November 2012 – 13 January 2013

Artistic Director: Abdellah Karroum


On the Place Lenine in Cotonou, which name refers to the West African country’s communist period between 1975 and 1990, at the empty base left behind by the long ago removed Lenin statue, a wooden, pyramid-shaped sculpture was erected. The site-specific installation by Moroccan artist Karim Rafi functioned as a sound box: whenever the wind turned the small wind indicator structure on the top of the sculpture, it emitted a subtle sound. The title of this fragile pseudo monument refers to the Gnawa, an ethnic group from North and West Africa, from which smaller groups became part of the Sufi order in Morocco, and members of which play the traditional Gnawi music that is part of today’s Moroccan culture. The work thus alludes to intercultural roots and movements, in this case between North and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Besides the inter-continental ințuence from West Africa and within Benin, this region was also historically known as a crossroads for trans-continental exchanges. Benin – formerly the Kingdom of Dahomey – was one of the centers of slave trade. For three centuries beginning in the 17th century, masses of slaves were transported from the Slave Coast (including Benin, Togo and Western Nigeria) to the Americas. With slavery, the tradition of the Vodun religion – still alive and of importance today – was spread to different parts of the world. In the colonial period, Benin, then known as French Dahomey, was part of French West Africa. This was a time of economic exploitation, during which French administration and educational systems were also established. In the first years of independence, the country was riddled by ethnic conțicts, followed by almost two decades of communist governance, when the state gained increasing ințuence. Structural and economic problems remained unsolved, however, driving the country into deep dept. After 1990, Benin entered the globalized economic system still carrying its previously accumulated loans, thus experiencing a re-colonisation, in the economic sense and beyond. This phenomenon is typical, as Achille Mmembe1 points out, but not only in countries of Africa.

What is the context and what are the conditions of production for an international art biennial in places with idiosyncratic local traditions, and where public cultural life is determined by a bureaucratic and conservative cultural administration? The first biennial in 2010 was organized by the Ministry of Culture on the occasion of Benin’s 50 years of independence, with support from France. For the second edition, a consortium was founded, which organizationally included local artist initiatives and was realized with financial support from local cultural foundations and the French state. The format of large festivals, exhibitions, and returning events serves to connect local cultures with the international art world, often putting previously unknown sites on the map of contemporary art production. In a globalized world, events combining local manifestations of contemporary culture with international art production and discourse are highly important in order to maintain a connection to the world, while also keeping in mind the relevance of local cultures. Larger cultural events can direct attention to activities at the grassroots, self-initiated level of organization, which can then be discovered and supported, or swallowed, by these larger structures.

“Hacking into“ the organizational system of biennials is often a necessary strategy taken by curators. Biennial organizations can often be overly bureaucratic and non-transparent. Abdellah Karroum, artistic director of the 2012 edition of the biennial is an experienced curator of biennials in contexts where large-scale contemporary art events are newly adopted structures, such as in Dakar (2006), Gwangju (2008), Marrakech (2009), and now in Benin. As he recently stated at a seminar held at the Free School for Art Theory and Practice in Budapest, he is always open for negotiating the ideal conditions for production and programs. In places where the institutional structure of contemporary art is not autonomous, but interwoven with politics and corruption, the curator has to find his/her own way. Karroum, for instance, uses his own channels for communication and discussion. He is usually accompanied by a “curatorial delegation“, a changing group of experts and co-curators who are involved in the development of the concept and programs. R22, the online radio station (basically consisting of Karroum with his sound-recorder and microphone) developed at L’Appartement 22 (the self-organized institution he founded ten years ago in Rabat), follows him to wherever his projects take him. Interviews, discussions, life reportages, and local music are collected on, which also functions as the home site for project web pages that are developed in parallel to the official pages of his projects.

Artists as responsible subjects, commenting on contemporary life and politics stood in the center at the international exhibition involving local and international artists in the Center Cora, a former supermarket, in Cotonou. A room size-installation by local artist Aston, usually making sculptures of metal and other city trash featured a plotting board representing an active concentration camp in which human figures were made of cigarette butts. Abstract paintings by the recently deceased grand master of Beninese painting and sculpture, Cyprien Tokoudagba, were also displayed. Following a bus ride to Abomey, to the museum founded by Tokoudagba himself (now run by his family), the public could also see, his enigmatic works strongly connected to symbols of Gods from the voodoo religion, representations of an African cosmology that encompasses life, wellbeing and healing. Outside the main exhibition, special projects involving local initiatives, as open studios, exhibitions by local artist unions, organized by the Beninese art historian and curator of the youngest generation, Didier Houenoude, were also presented.
In addition, encounters and discursive events conceptualized by invited international curators were held in three cities.

One of the encounters, curated by Anne Szefer Karlsen, curator from Bergen, Norway, took up the current issue of art education in Benin today. A three-day discussion organized at the organic and self-sustainable agricultural farm Songhai in Porto Novo (started more than twenty years ago by a Nigerian priest) – the site itself being a practice based educational institution – ended in a public debate involving the local public. The current discussion concerns the idea of launching an artist education program within the History Department (also training art historians) at the University of Abomey-Calavi in Cotonou. While Benin has no higher education for artists, quite a few internationally known artists come from the country, who have developed their artistic careers abroad. The artists who have experience with the international art world  seem not to believe in the institutional art education of their country of origin, instead they found their own institutions or initiate projects that rețect local needs. Examples include the Unik Foundation, established in Abomey by artist Dominique Zinkpè, offering artist residencies and a space for lectures and gatherings; Espace Tchif, a space for art and music in Cotonou, run by local artist Tchif. Documenta 11 participant Meschac Gaba, who studied at the Rijksakademie and presently lives in Rotterdam, is best known for his project Museum for Contemporary African Art. In recent years, he has been developing a number of projects in Benin; in 2010, he founded the Musée de l’Art de la Vie Active (MAVA) an initiative active in the city. His projects, which take the form of processions and parades connecting to voodoo and religious festivities, comment on the possible relation between the traditional and contemporary uses of urban space. At the biennial a group motorcycle visit was organized to his studio, where he had installed the future library of an imagined contemporary art institution (“Bibliothèque Pilote“).

Initiatives going beyond the art world, imagining Africa as a country and culturally thinking in pan-african terms are of great importance. The Trans-African Road Trip Project,part of the initiative Invisible Bordersstarted by photographers form Nigeria, crossing the continent by artists coming from several African artists was organized already three times and its documentation presented at the biennial. Beside artists collaborations we find also young people who similarly to the young generations involved in the revolutions of the Arab world, achieve consciousness and fight for the rights of their country and continent. The initiative No Limit Generation2 is calling young people to stand for their youth, as one of their “voice“, local slam poet K-Mal (Kamal Radji) in his poem “Assume ta jeunesse“ is talking about equal right for Africans and responsibility for a global world. French artist Jean-Paul Thibeau invited this young man to read together with him a text at his performance at the opening of the exhibition, in front of his post-țuxus installation. The author of the “meta protocols“, a transdisciplinary approach in constantly seeking for new formats, in this text expressed a wish for unity of good energies, regardless of their origins:

“... Here, I call for the intrepid knights on the five continents, and particularly for the African meta-knighthood and the Moorish meta-knighthood. I also dream that the wandering meta-samurais will join us. . . . Let us take up our swords of joy, our beggar’s bowls, our bedclothes which will also be our shrouds. Let us go into exodus, let us create meta-rafts in order to cross time and oceans of indifference... We are all submerged in broken worlds – language itself
is becoming a battlefield. We must maneuver with subtlety in order to create a meta-galactic language...“3




1. ‑Achille Mbembe: “On Private Indirect Government“, in On the Postcolony, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press, 2001, pp. 66–102.

2.‑ No Limit Generation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring the youth of Africa and around the world. “We want young people to recognize their immense potential and ability and to take hold of their rights. We hope to inspire young people to make better choices and
to use their critical thinking ability. We envision a peaceful, productive Africa led by youth who have realized their leadership potential. We are interested in building civic responsibility among young people so they will be better citizens building better communities.“ (Source: About of No Limit Generation Facebook page.)

3. ‑Detail from the text of the spoken performance Meta-Raft of Exodus
by Jean-Paul Thibeau at the opening of the international exhibition at Center Cora, Cotonou, translation: Emma Chubb, with friendly permission of Jean-Paul Thibeau.