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The poetry in Jean Cocteau’s visual art celebrated in Venice exhibition
April 16, 2024

The African country of Benin is in a period of artistic renaissance. The revitalisation of its museum infrastructure—culminating in four new museum projects over the next five years—as well as investment in arts education and training and the repatriation of royal artefacts are all part of a wider mission by President Patrice Talon and his government to position the arts as a “second pillar” of the economy, after agriculture.

Indeed, the 2022 repatriation from France of 26 artefacts looted from the Kingdom of Dahomey gave the Beninese government “momentum” to revitalise the country’s cultural heritage and identity, the curator Yassine Lassissi says. This momentum will now see Benin head to the Venice Biennale for the first time.

Les Allégories (2016) by Chloé Quenum, one of the four artists in the Benin pavilion exhibition Everything Precious isFragile

The pavilion exhibition, Everything Precious is Fragile, is organised by Lassissi and the Nigerian curator Azu Nwagbogu. The storied Beninese artist Romuald Hazoumè, as well as the younger Beninese artists Moufouli Bello and Ishola Akpo and the Franco-Beninese artist Chloé Quenum will be responding to a brief that considers four central themes: the Amazon or Agojie woman, the slave trade, the Gelede philosophy, and the Vodun religion. The four themes will be brought into conversation with each other through the thread of (Beninese) feminism and eco-feminism, Nwagbogu says.

Reclaimed heritage

These themes are especially pertinent considering recent developments in the country. For example, the rehabilitation of the Indigenous Vodun religion, which has largely been considered taboo since colonisation, Hazoumè says. He credits the government’s investment in and promotion of Beninese heritage for its reclamation. This year, Benin held the first Vodun Days festival, a cultural and spiritual programme which took place in the city of Ouidah on 9 and 10 January.

Ishola Akpo’s photograph L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux 02 (2014)

Hazoumè’s work will deal directly with the religion as well as the sacred role of women in its rites. Indeed, the Amazon or Agojie is at least one woman whose role in society is being re-examined. The ancient Dahomey women warrior class was the subject of the 2022 Hollywood film The Woman King, starring Viola Davis. The same year, the government commissioned a 30m-tall sculpture of a warrior which now stands in Cotonou’s Esplanade des Amazones, a public square in the country’s largest city, Cotonou.

Blossoming in front of the camera

Moufouli Bello’s work—exploring the desires and limitations of women in Beninese society—will be set in the batik-blue the artist is best known for. For her work, Bello took photos of ordinary women who work near her studio in Cotonou, including hairdressers and tailors, as well as family members. To encourage them to relax at the shoot she first spoke with the participants about their hopes and dreams, allowing them to “blossom in front of the camera” and see that “they cannot be secondary characters in their own lives”.

Moufouli Bello’s blue-hued Little Big Sister (2022)

Her work is also influenced by the Gelede practice Bello observed growing up: a ceremony of traditional and spiritual Yuroba-Beninese dance focused on motherhood. Bello was inspired by the decision-making capacities it gave women such as her grandmother.

Ishola Akpo’s grandmother, who was a Vodun priest, also features heavily in his work. Akpo describes himself as a multimedia artist who uses photography to “question memory”. Nwagbogu describes Akpo’s work as a “archaeological excavation of history”. One of the artist’s recent projects is Agbara Women (agbara is the Yoruba word for power). In it, the artist takes archival imagery of African kings, “cuts their heads off” and reimagines them as the female royals elided from history. Work from this series remains on view at the Atlantic Art space in Ouidah alongside ceramics exploring the concept of “dowry” through his grandmother’s personal history. Akpo’s work at the Biennale will question the place and power of women in society, he says.

Finally, Chloé Quenum’s work will reflect upon the “fragility of diaspora” as the only artist in the pavilion who grew up outside Benin. Quenum started by visiting the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris to see the historic Beninese musical instruments in its collection. Her exhibition will reproduce the objects—with room for interpretation and flair—in glass. Tracing how the objects were brought to Quai Branly, their histories, their current conditions, Quenum hopes to tell the delicate story of Beninese heritage, identity, knowledge with attention to the transatlantic slave trade. She notes that the Arsenale venue—with its history as a shipyard and links to the Venetian slavery and trade routes—lends the work further significance.

Four artists’ works in conversation

Nwagbogu explains that it was essential that the pavilion feels like “one big exhibition”, rather than four separate presentations. The artists explain that their works are “in conversation” with another. The pieces are also touch upon the mood and developments of the country. It is important to the curatorial team that the pavilion deals with Benin’s present, although it takes cues from the country’s rich history too (the pavilion will exhibit some historic pre-colonial objects). “Benin is the only country [in Africa] doing the important work of creating a new relational aesthetic between the former objects and the present,” Nwagbogu says.

As for the future, the artists understand the malleability—and uncertainty—of attitudes towards Beninese contemporary art in and out of the country: “I’m just as curious as anyone to see how my work is received and what happens after the [Biennale],” Bello says. Asked if the cultural momentum will continue even after a change in administration, Hazoumè answers: “May we live long enough to see.”

Three other first-timers from Africa

The Ethiopian artist Tesfaye Urgessa addresses racial prejudice in his figurative works

Three other African countries are making their Venice debuts this year.

In the Ethiopian pavilion, Tesfaye Urgessa, whose grand figurative paintings refer to both Orthodox iconography and 20th-century German Expressionism, will explore in a group of large-scale works “the fundamental challenges of integrating into a new society or country as a foreigner”, he says, with emphasis placed on the prejudices faced by “individuals of African or Asian descent or darker complexions”.

Figures will be shown in “undefined situations”, making viewers feel as if “they’ve stumbled into a strange realm where they are under the gaze of others”. The exhibition will be curated by the author and broadcaster Lemn Sissay, who singles out the artist’s ability to suggest aspects of a body that are not physically visible in a painting. He says that Urgessa is at “the crest” of a “wave” in contemporary Ethiopian art that is also coursing through music, literature and photography.

Meanwhile, the Franco-Senegalese painter Alioune Diagne has been selected to represent Senegal for its first participation at the Biennale. The figures in Diagne’s colourful paintings are made up of small marks reminiscent of calligraphy and often depict contemporary and historic scenes from the everyday lives of Senegalese people. In the past, Diagne has used old postcards as source material, noting in an online interview that in “Senegal, history was [mostly] done in an oral fashion… We don’t have a lot of images—so I said to myself, I wanted to try to do this collection [of paintings] about the memory of Senegal”.

The first pavilion for the east African country of Tanzania will feature the artists Happy Robert, Naby, Haji Chilonga and Luke Mwaskisopile. They will take over the Factory of Seeing, an exhibition space and archive on the Calle del Forno.

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