Sub-Saharan Africa’s first contemporary art museum opens in Benin

Zinsou Foundation’s new museum is the latest in a trend of growing infrastructural support for art in Africa.

The first museum dedicated to contemporary art in Sub-Saharan Africa (outside of South Africa) opened in November 2013 in Ouidah, Benin. This initiative by the Zinsou Foundation aims to make contemporary arts and culture accessible to the Beninese public.

The Zinsou Foundation Museum in Ouidah, Benin. Photo by Jean Dominique Burton. Image courtesy Zinsou Foundation.

The Zinsou Foundation Museum in Ouidah, Benin. Photo by Jean Dominique Burton. Image courtesy Zinsou Foundation.

Benin’s first contemporary museum

In November 2013, the Zinsou Foundation opened a contemporary museum in the Beninese city of Ouidah, making Benin the first Sub-Saharan country with a dedicated contemporary art space outside of South Africa. Housed in the historical building of Villa Ajavon, built in 1922, the museum is, according to a press release, an attempt to engage the Beninese public by

…creating a shared space anchored in everyday life […] and writing artistic culture from the perspective of the development of our society in the world.

The museum’s location in Ouidah a main slave-trading point during colonial rule, indicates that the institution “embodies the idea that Africa is looking to the future, but in doing so does not deny its past”, says The Art Newspaper.

Sub-Sahara’s biggest art names on show

The museum’s inaugural exhibition “Masterpieces of the Collection” (November 2013) featured thirteen African artists, such as Romuald Hazoumé and Cyprien Tokoudagba from Benin, George Lilanga from Tanzania and Samuel Fosso from Cameroon. Many of the works in the exhibition were drawn from the Zinsou Foundation’s permanent collection. Artists commissioned for the exhibition included Aston and Kifouli Dossou.

The museum will also display archival documents to contextualise the works and encourage research and familiarity with the history of art in Africa.

The Zinsou Foundation

The Zinsou Foundation is a family-run enterprise founded in 2005 and based in Cotonou, Benin. As an exhibition space for contemporary artists, the Foundation has created a permanent collection over the past eight years, in addition to developing a strong network with artists and the media. According to the Foundation’s profile on the Global Art and the Museum website, the Foundation has maintained an international standard despite the virtually non-existent art market in many African countries and receives its funding mainly from the Zinsou family’s private income.

Yinka Shonibare's sculpture at Frieze Art Fair 2013. Photo by Linda Nyland. Image courtesy Frieze.

Frieze Art Fair 2013. Photo by Linda Nyland. Image courtesy Frieze.

Growing international awareness of African art

The international spotlight is shifting to African art with the Tate Modern’s two-year Africa programme launched in November 2012, Art Dubai 2013’s “Marker” exhibition focusing on five West African countries, and the first African contemporary art fair, 1:54, at London’s Somerset House. Angola became the first African country to win a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2013, and auction houses such as Sotheby’s are expanding their African departments.

Home support for Africa’s artists

Africa, in turn, is demonstrating increased interest in its art and heritage, and infrastructural support for the arts is growing steadily. Galleries devoted to contemporary art, like the Centre for Contemporary Art in Nigeria, Raw Material Company in Senegal and L’appartement 22 in Morocco are gaining prominence. Art fairs and biennales such as the Joburg Art Fair, Senegal’s Dak’Art biennale and the East Africa Art Biennale in Tanzania are recognised as internationally competent events. Director of the Joburg Art Fair, Ross Douglas, told ArtTactic that six years since the fair was first organised,

…we suddenly see a number of South African artists who have broken internationally. We’ve seen the art market transform quite a lot: six years ago it was predominantly white, both in terms of buyers and artists, and now that’s changed; […] There’s now a sense that Africa has a contemporary art movement.

Kriti Bajaj


Related Topics: Foundations, museums, African artists, venues in Africa

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