African feminism pumps the heart of Benin’s debut at Venice Biennale

By Ollia Horton - RFI
Benin Jacopo La Forgia
@Jacopo La Forgia

For the first time since its inception in 1895, the Venice Biennale contemporary art fair has invited the West African nation of Benin to host a pavilion. Curator Azu Nwagbogu and his team of four artists have created a warm, homely space where visitors are encouraged to slow down, reconnect with what unites humanity and explore the roots of African feminism.

Originally from Lagos, Nigeria, Nwagbogu is one of the art world's most sought-after curators. He was asked personally by the President of Benin, Patrice Talon, to head up the team dedicated to making the national pavilion come to life.

“I really hope there will be a reflection around Benin's history and feminism … something that we can all relate to and brings us back to the thing that makes us all feel human,” Nwagbogu told RFI ahead of the opening of the Venice Biennale which runs from 20 April until 24 November.

According to Nwagbogu, the momentum of getting Benin into the international spotlight began with a political turn of events in 2021: the identification and final restitution of 26 precious traditional objects to Benin from Paris's Quai Branly Museum.

Nwagbogu was present at the historic exhibition that took place in 2022 at the presidential palace in Cotonou. People of all walks of life came and queued up to see the artefacts, he says, underlining the symbolic importance of this event.

Hope on the horizon

“The remarkable thing was that it was curated to present the work of contemporary artists in the same space.

"It was easy to see the genetic connection between the work of these contemporary artists and the work of our forebears that were made 200 or 500 years ago.

“I believe that exhibition really created a general sense of purpose, hope and positive anticipation for what was to come next.”

The artistic team was commissioned to explore several themes for the Benin pavilion at the Venice Biennale: spirituality, Vodun, the figure of the Amazon, and the slave trade.

Nwagbogu says he carried out extensive research, travelling around the country to meet “the custodians of Benin's culture”, referring to the representatives of the Vodun religion and the King of Dahomey.

All of them reinforced the idea that “nature is fecund, the earth is fecund. That life and nature are feminine,” he explains.

“The reason the world is out of kilter is because we've embraced this other sort of rootlessness that is lacking in care.”

The final result is an exhibition called “Everything Precious is Fragile” – a chance to come back to the essential and “reflect on the way we treat the things that are most important to us,” Nwagbogu says.

The title is in fact the literal translation of the term Gelede, one of Benin's key cultural traditions.

The Gelede is a ceremony performed by the Yoruba-Nago community that is spread over Benin, Nigeria and Togo and pays tribute to the primordial mother Iya Nla and to the role women play in society.

Moving forward

“I'd settled on working on the idea of African feminism, something that was tangible and real and was manifest especially before colonial times,” he says, underlining the need to reach back into the past to move forward.

Nwagbogu and his team – co-curator Yassine Lassissi and scenographer Franck Houndégla – selected four major artists to provide works for the pavilion: Chloé Quenum, Moufouli Bello, Ishola Akpo, and Romuald Hazoumè.

He says each artist was chosen “not only for their individual artistic prowess but also for the unique ways in which their works and methodologies complement each other” within the themes explored.

“We didn't want to get into the debate over the Western logic around feminism, instead we wanted to stay with what we knew was real and what really connects humanity and everyone can relate to it,” he says.

The strength of women throughout Benin's history is contrasted with the fragility of life and vulnerability, a state of being that Nwagbogu insists must be embraced, not feared.

“I think the thematic approach allows us to deal with a lot of the urgent issues of the world today: ecology, economy, loss of biodiversity, memory, restitution. All of these things are super fragile but are fading away from us.”

He describes a central dome which makes the pavilion feel like a sacred space. He says he hopes the atmosphere will provide a counterbalance to the frenetic pace of our daily lives and reinstate the importance of the word “care”.

“I'm hoping people will come to the Benin pavilion and really slow down and say to themselves, I want to hang out here because there is knowledge here,“ Nwagbogu says.

“I want it to feel homely, I want people to feel like this is an ideal or a vision for the museum of the 21st century.”