A new museum of contemporary art opened in November 2013. This would hardly count as news in China or the United States, but this one is in Ouidah,, and it is the first museum devoted to African contemporary art to open in sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa.
These facts mean that the event takes on a different scale and significance. Artists born in Africa are finally making a name in the west, in galleries, and, more slowly, in France's museums. But until now there was no permanent venue for their exhibition in itself.
The credit for this initiative is due to the , launched in 2005 by the Franco-Beninese financier Lionel Zinsou, 59. A graduate of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and the London School of Economics, he started his career as an adviser to Laurent Fabius, then prime minister of France, subsequently becoming a partner at the Rothschild bank. Since 2008 he has headed the investment fund PAI Partners.
His foundation initially established itself in , the largest city in Benin, and turned a well-placed, modern building into an exhibition centre that soon became a lively hub of education. Over the next eight years it welcomed 4 million visitors, starting with schoolchildren and followed by their parents. At the same time the foundation built up a collection of African art, past but above all contemporary. About a 10th of this trove now occupies the museum for its inaugural show.
It is located in the historic city of . A coastal town in the Abomey kingdom, it was one of the main ports of departure for the slave trade in the 16th and 17th century, which brought prosperity to its rulers. Several European powers, including France and Portugal, built forts here to protect their commercial interests. Also a religious centre, it has long been associated with Vodun – and subsequently voodoo – beliefs. Indeed some see it as their global capital. Following the defeat of King Behanzin and colonisation by the French, the town became a seat of local government.
The past has left its mark on the landscape and architecture, including the museum, which has taken over the Villa Ajavon, a fine example of the Afro-Brazilian style built in 1922. The term refers to the return to of Brazilian descendants of slaves, who imported the idea of villas with a pagoda roof, opening on to the outside and with a very high ceiling to catch the breeze and make the heat more bearable.
It took a year to renovate the Villa Ajavon, which was in poor repair, and turn it into a museum up to contemporary standards. Works by 14 artists are currently on show, with plans for regular changes drawing on the foundation's reserves.
Two generations appear side-by-side for the opening exhibition. Among the former group, which won international recognition more than 20 years ago, are the Ivorian artist (born 1923), known for his drawings depicting myths and fables, the Malian photographer (born 1921), his colleague and compatriot (born 1935) and the Beninese painter and sculptor, (born 1939).
Tokoudagba, who died in 2012, is well represented at Ouidah, with several spectacular large, multicoloured sculptures recalling Vodun myths in the streets of the town or its sacred forest. He caught public attention in France in 1989 when he took part in the Magiciens de la Terre show at the Pompidou Centre and La Villette, the first event of this sort to assert that there were artists in places other than New York, Berlin, Paris and Tokyo. It also featured Bouabré's works. Since then all of the above have been invited to gatherings worldwide, from the Venice Biennale to its São Paulo counterpart, through Dakar. The museum has set aside a substantial amount of space for these "founding" artists.
The second generation emerged in the 1960s. Three Beninese artists – Aston, Kifouli Dossou and Romuald Hazoumé – are joined by the Congolese painter, the Cameroonian photographer and the Senegalese painter and sketcher Soly Cissé. Most are known internationally. Hazoumé's photographs and jerry-can masks have appeared in museums and books worldwide, much as Samba's canvases and Fosso's cruelly burlesque pictures. They share two key characteristics, which work together: the sharpness of their social and political criticism, and their decision to work in Africa, unlike their fellows who have opted to settle in Britain, France or Belgium.
The spectacle that confronts them day after day – crime, poverty, corruption, disease and the memory of slavery – leaves an explicit or coded mark on their work. Aston, for instance, has created an allegorical installation, Solution Finale (final solution), made of cigarette butts, matches and lighters.
Also apparent in many of the works is the complex relationship between contemporary artists and traditional art forms, giving rise to copying but also ridicule and diversion. They all know that African art was long seen as primitive in the west. Hazoumé's pseudo-masks play subtly on this idea.
Dossou's masks do too, but in a quite different way. An astoundingly gifted sculptor, he has reworked an ancient model, the Guelede mask which belongs to Yoruba and Nora tradition. The head proper is topped by an often elaborate crest, but Dossou brings in scenes from everyday life such as road accidents, gangsters settling scores and farming. The wooden figures are painted in bright colours. Seen at a distance they look pretty, but closer up they reveal their crude realism.
The foundation exhibited these sculptures in Cotonou in 2011. It is now showing paintings by , a Beninese artist born in 1971 previously known for his sculptures – assemblages made using discarded European dolls. These are remarkable works, but so are his recent paintings, taking stark black-and-white purism to new extremes.
Quenum started painting after the Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective, staged in 2008, and will feature in the museum's next show. His career sums up the important role the two establishments are playing raising awareness and disseminating contemporary art in Africa.
This article appeared in , which incorporates material from Le Monde