Former slave trade town to become African art hub

Updated 01 March 2014
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Former slave trade town to become African art hub

Until last year, the few tourists who visited the small west African town of Ouidah were likely headed to the Gateway of No Return, a massive monument to the area’s bleak history as a slave trading hub.
But the town may soon become known for an attraction of an entirely different sort: The first sub-Saharan Africa museum dedicated exclusively to contemporary African art.
The Zinsou Museum, installed in an ornate 100-year-old villa, has attracted 13,000 visitors since its launch in November — an impressive tally for an out-of-the-way town in the sparsely visited nation of Benin.
The reputation — and monetary value — of contemporary African art has steadily risen in recent years. Curators and collectors from North America and Europe frequently fly in to artistic hubs like Lagos, Nigeria seeking new talent and new work by established names.
But for Marie-Celine Zinsou, who spearheaded the creation of the museum, better notoriety for African artists abroad was not enough.
While on a trip to Benin with a French based children’s charity in 2005 she wanted to take a group of youths to an art museum.
“I found that there wasn’t any structure to show the children work from their own continent,” she told AFP.
Zinsou, the grandniece of one of Benin’s first presidents, secured an investment from her father Lionel, a businessmen with duel French and Benin nationality who previously worked for France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
The Zinsou foundation opened in 2005 at a building in Benin’s largest city of Cotonou, where access was free to view both African and foreign art.
The foundation attracted four million visitors in eight years, mostly students under the age of 15.
As it became more established, the Zinsou Foundation began acquiring a diverse collection of contemporary African art, with the goal of opening a permanent museum.
The Villa Ajavon, an expansive cream-colored home built in 1922 by a Togolese trader, drew Zinsou to Ouidah, a town of 60,000 people some 40 kilometers from Cotonou.
“When we found out this sublime building was available, we jumped at the chance,” said Zinsou.
“Its style is very symbolic, very specific to this region,” she said.
The slave trade monument in Ouidah is a massive archway with two long lines of chained men in bas-relief along the top, to suggest the group is being marched into the Atlantic Ocean.
Hundreds of thousands of Africans were believed to have been condemned to slavery from the beach below the archway.
The Villa Ajavon in a sense defies that history, having been built by the descendants of slaves who returned from the Brazilian city of Bahia in a style influenced by both Brazilian and African architecture, said Zinsou.
The villa falls along a quiet dirt road lined with run-down bungalows and is just a few hundred meters from the Temple of Pythons, a major center of voodoo worship which retains powerful influence in Benin.
While the villa needed to be renovated to host a museum, Zinsou said the priority was to preserve its original structure.
Air conditioning in main hall was therefore forbidden so as to not disfigure the exterior, so those who wants to see the museum’s collection must be prepared to sweat.
Air circulates through sunlight corridors where the works of leading African artists are on display, including: Ethiopia’s Mickael Bethe-Selassie, Frederic Bruly-Bouabre of Ivory Coast and Cheri Samba of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Like in Cotonou, the entrance in Ouidah is free and the visitors are typically very young.
Eight-year-old Achmine Atindehou said she was on her second visit to the Zinsou Museum and had already grown very confident in her arguably peculiar tastes.
“I like the drawing ‘Living Memory’ because it is nice. It is about death,” she said.
Museum director Claude Aktome said often children come with their school classes and then persuade their parents to bring them back.
Romuald Hazoume has exhibited his paintings, sculptures and photographs in London and New York, but became emotional when recalling his first showing in Benin, the country of his birth.
“It was the first time that I saw young people from Benin coming to admire my work,” he told AFP. “I cried that day. I was so moved.”


Middle Eastern art exhibition celebrates life and work of Kahlil Gibran

Updated 16 August 2018
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Middle Eastern art exhibition celebrates life and work of Kahlil Gibran

LONDON: What is it about the work of the famed Lebanese poet, writer and artist Kahlil Gibran that touches the hearts of so many people across the world today, decades on from his death in 1931? An exhibition of art inspired by his writings held this month at Sotheby’s in London provided an opportunity to consider that question
“Kahlil Gibran: A Guide for our Times” was organized by the peace building movement, Caravan, and co-curated by Janet Rady and Marion Fromlet Baecker. It featured work by 38 artists from across the Middle East. The vision for the exhibition grew out of a recent book on Gibran titled “In Search of a Prophet: A Spiritual Journey with Kahlil Gibran” by the Rev. Canon Paul-Gordon Chandler, Caravan’s founding president.
Chandler is committed to breaking down cultural, racial and religious barriers. Through the Caravan initiative he has hosted numerous exhibitions using art to build bridges between the Middle East and the West. He sees the message contained in Gibran’s 1923 book “The Prophet” as profoundly relevant today.
Speaking to Arab News at the packed-out event, he said: “All the artists in this exhibition are trying to express how they have been inspired, challenged and encouraged by Gibran’s themes of peace, love and harmony for all of humanity. The thread running through all the work is the unique role that Gibran plays in reminding us that we are one family.
“The idea of the Caravan movement is that we are all journeying together, regardless of background, tradition or religion,” he continued. “The arts have a unique role in peace-building between the Middle East and the West.”
Lebanese-Syrian artist Rana Chalabi, who was raised in Lebanon, said she first read “The Prophet” at school, but made a point of re-reading it several times before starting work on her contribution to the piece, “On Giving.”
Her painting shows a throng of people gazing upwards at a transcendent figure — the Prophet — who seems to shimmer above the multitude in hues of gold.
“To me, Gibran’s Prophet represents an enlightened mystic,” she explained. “He was so ahead of his time and such a spiritual person.”
For Chalabi, Gibran’s work continues to resonate. “The wisdom of Gibran is very much needed today,” she said. “He could explain his ideas in a simple way to people. In his day he was misunderstood and branded a heretic by those who missed the essence of what he was saying and took his teachings at a very superficial level.”
Chalabi was clearly pleased to have been invited to submit work to Caravan’s exhibition.
“I believe in what Rev. Chandler is trying to do,” she said. “We have to bridge the differences in the world and try to understand each other’s religions, cultures and perspectives.”
Bahraini artist Lulwa Al-Khalifa showed a striking painting of a woman, titled
“Blind Faith.” The starkly expressive figure looks perplexed and stares out from the painting with an abstract and tense expression.
Al-Khalifa said: “There are a lot of emotions I wanted to convey through this work. I was exploring the concept of faith and how sometimes people have to abandon some of the ideas that give them their own sense of identity and take a leap of faith. I consider the question ‘How much of you are you prepared to surrender for your faith?’ Faith is surrender with cause but without proof. Sometimes people have to face ambivalence, fear and anxiety on this journey.”
Al-Khalifa also stressed how relevant Gibran outlook remains today.
“I love how Gibran explored many aspects of many themes. His thought process is very fresh and modern — even today,” she said. “It is not rigid, but very hopeful and expresses love and acceptance.
“I really believe that all people are united as human beings. But we try so hard to separate from each other, even though in reality we all have the same concerns and loves and hates. We should come together,” she continued.
Lebanese artist Christine Saleh Jamil echoed Al-Khalifa’s sentiments. “Gibran means so much to me. Reading his book ‘The Prophet’ taught me a lot about life, how to live peacefully and accept things in a harmonious way,” she said. “His message is very important today.”
Jamil created “The Wanderer,” a captivating image of Gibran as a child, for the exhibition. Her work, she said, was based on a photograph and inspired by Chandler’s book, which, she said, “took me back to my childhood in Beirut.”
“That’s why I chose to represent Gibran as a child and in this image you see his face set among birch trees, as he loved nature,” she explained.
Lebanon’s ambassador to the UK, Rami Mortada — a special guest at the event — spoke to Arab News about Gibran’s legacy.
“The interest shown here tonight and the big turnout is an indication of how the message he stands for is relevant, badly needed and timely in our world today,” Mortada said. “It is a message of harmony and peace, of removing barriers between nations and cultures, and of interfaith dialogue. This is what Gibran encapsulated. If I had to sum up his work up in one word, I would say (it is) inspirational.”
Another ambassador, Dr. Alisher Shaykhov from Uzbekistan, stressed that Gibran’s work is of truly global significance.
“Gibran’s fame extends far beyond the Middle East. He is a person who has succeeded in transferring the spirit of the Islamic people in a harmonious way,” he observed. “One of his most important messages is that of the unifying elements, rather than the differences, between religions. He has a gift of being able to express the feelings of the people. The artists here, imbued with his spirit, have transferred his message through their artworks in their own personal way.”
Art enthusiast Mira Takla said she had attended a number of ‘Caravan’ art events and always found their message very persuasive.
“As far as I am concerned these events do more for interracial understanding and comprehension and tolerance of different cultures than many other such initiatives,” she said.
Another guest. Anthony Wynn, gave a good example of Gibran’s cross-cultural appeal, pointing out that he had often heard Gibran quoted at weddings in the UK — particularly a verse from “On Marriage” from “The Prophet”:
“Love one another, but make not a bond of love/Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls/Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup/Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf/Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone/Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.”