“Stop Ma Pa Ta” highlights 14 artists from Benin, whose work asks questions on immigration, national identity and exploitation.
Showing at the Villa Arson, Nice, and in collaboration with the Arts and Culture Lobozounkpa in Cotonou, the exhibition runs until 17 September 2017.
“Stop Ma Pa Ta: Ma matière première n’est pas ta matière” combines biographical, cultural and political narratives, focusing on the joint practice of a group of artists, many of whom can be characterised as cross-cultural. With most artists featured currently residing in Benin, West Africa, but also having ties with France, their craft has been honed through using both traditional and contemporary techniques, whilst economic constraints mean they retain a sharp awareness of their materials.
The exhibition at Villa Arson features works from Richard Korblah, Edwige Aplogan, Aston, Benjamin Déguénon, Daavo, Kifouli Dossou, Euloge Glèlè, Prince Toffa, Charles Placide, Psycoffi, Gérard Quenum, Julien Vignikin, Didier Viodé and Dominique Zinkpé. Following the exhibition, the two organisations plan to continue a collaboration through a joint artist-in-residence programme.
As Jean-Pierre Simon, director of Villa Arson, comments in the exhibition’s press release, the integration of tradition and modernity is crucial to this exhibition, as the work of the different artists interplay and contrast with each other, as installations living side by side:
It brings together a spirit of intergenerational dialogue, traditional religious beliefs, the inspirational role of ancestors, the visual inventiveness of craftsmen in a play of tradition and modernity, profound political reflections, hospitality and youth.
The West African country of Benin, squeezed between Nigeria and Togo, is now a peaceful place with a lively arts scene embedded into the city of Cotonou; however, with deep-seated roots connecting the city to slavery, it has a complex cultural heritage. The visually powerful works on display tackle issues of immigration, colonisation and migration, by artists who have lived in Benin or France, and travel from one continent to another regularly. As critic Elise Daubelcour comments,
(The artists) are bathed in a plural identity, an articulation that allows them to address the situation in Africa in a precise, penetrating and often ironic manner, but one that is never lacking in humour. Their works of art are an invitation to dialogue about their world view, the realities of our society and the current mechanisms of domination inherited from the colonial period. In short, a creative narration that talks of Benin, the African continent and the world as they see it today.
Indeed, as co-curator André-J. Jolly agrees, the artists’ works are characterised by the crossroad of influences where it resides, and they
possess a strength and an emotion that speak directly to our heart and feelings, whether we are African, European, Asian, North or South American. These often politically committed artworks vigorously denounce the suffering that afflicts African society and to a greater extent humankind in general.
Part of the exhibition’s title comes from a work by Benjamin Déguénon, Ma matière première n’est pas ta matière, which translates as “My Raw Material is Not Your Material”, and references how large foreign industrial firms – such as those from Russia or China – exploit African mining resources, regardless of local needs.
Déguénon uses cans, torn sheets of metal or multicoloured pieces of fabric stitched together to create his work, transforming these materials into “hybrid beings, part human, part animal” – what he calls “chimeras”. These chimeras, created from the waste of consumer society, contain a strong environmental and humanitarian message.
With Stop Ma Pa Ta, I wanted to denounce the way in which the resources of the African continent, in particular its mineral resources, are exploited by foreign companies in total disregard for the population. When will someone put an end to this manipulation of Africans, who are treated as if they were puppets? For me, this installation is also an opportunity to pay tribute to the victims of slavery in the past, which explains the presence of cane sugar that represents forced labour on plantations in the Americas.
Déguénon learned his sculptural trade alongside Dominique Zinkpé, an influential Beninese artist whose work bears parallels with Déguénon through its use of found objects. Zinkpé enabled the careers of many of these artists through the establishment of “Boulev’art, artistes dans la rue” in 1999, which sought to share contemporary Beninese art with a wider public through regular events. In 2012, he opened UNIK, a place for creating art and hosting residencies in his home town, Abomey, and since 2014 he has worked as the Head of the Centre Arts et Cultures de Lobozounkpa.
Using reclaimed or salvaged items is important to Zinkpé’s work, seen in his 2015 piece Voyage, made primarily of flip flops. “Salvaging is a deliberate act that leads to the elaboration of a work of art,” Zinkpé explains. “It is a means of telling a story.”
His work explores themes of slavery, journeys and travel by making light but multilayered pieces that stir people’s consciences, and reflect on wider social and political issues. Using well-known motifs – such as a canoe – he asks questions about the refugee crisis and migration:
The dugout canoe that I am exhibiting here symbolises travel, which is usually the result of a personal choice, a pleasant and amusing project. But there are journeys we do not choose, which are imposed upon us. The subject of slavery is often treated by using chains and showing people suffering. I wanted to treat it in a somewhat lighter and more poetic manner using characters who are standing and wearing clothes. In our contemporary lives, travelling supposes digitised passports and sophisticated means of transport, but in this work it is the opposite: the travellers have been dispossessed of their identity, they are heading for an unknown destination and have lost their bearings.
Similar themes are at work in the practice of Gérard Quenum, a central figure in Beninese contemporary art, and whose sculpture entitled Femmes Peulh (Fula women) was recently purchased by the British Museum. Also using the theme of dispossession and immigration, Quenum began his artistic practice making unusual assemblages from found objects, including old dolls. These figures continue to populate his work, in both his canvases, sculptures and installations. Quenum burns the heads of the dolls with a blow torch, a nod to the weight of the influence of Vodun symbols and religious rituals of Beninese society. These provocative, often chilling works are designed to horrify the viewer whilst asking crucial questions about childhood and loss of innocence.
As the artist explains:
I denounce what is inacceptable, the innocent victims. Children are not responsible for war and yet they are its first victims. How can a generation that has been left on the sidelines be tomorrow’s future?
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- African women first: “Lucy’s Iris” at Musée Départmental d’Art Contemporain, Rochechouart – August 2016 – “Lucy’s Iris” considers Lucy’s view of her prodigal daughters who are shaping the landscape of contemporary art practice on the African continent
- 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair London gains momentum each year – round-up – October 2016 – 1:54 Contemporary Art Fair demonstrates the rising interest in contemporary art from Africa
- “I must first apologise…”: Lebanese artist duo investigates internet fraud – in pictures – August 2014 – “I Must First Apologise…” is a thought-provoking multimedia exhibition
- Sub-Saharan Africa’s first contemporary art museum opens in Benin – January 2014 – Zinsou Foundation’s new museum is the latest in a trend of growing infrastructural support for art in Africa
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