“There is an earthquake in your mind when you see the art”
Interview with the President of the Fondation Zinsou Marie-Cécile Zinsou
The Fondation Zinsou is the most important collection of contemporary African art in Benin. Its first president is the collector herself, Marie-Cécile Zinsou. The foundation is based in Cotonou and holds a museum space in Ouidah. The Museum and the Fondation Zinsou display works by contemporary artists such as Romuald Hazoumé, Cyprien Tokoudagba, Sofia Aguiar, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The Foundation particually engages in the education of children and youth in its museum spaces in Cotonou and Ouidah, as well as in a number of mini libraries in various districts. On March 21, 2015, Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices visited the Fondation Zinsou in Cotonou. The interview was conducetd by Suzanne Blier, who had collected questions from the participants of the session.
Art Histories (Suzanne Blier): Marie-Cécile Zinsou, we saw your museum in Ouidah a few days ago and we had a look into the museum in Cotonou today. With both of them, you set up amazing spaces of art and education and I was wondering if there were other museum models for you that you were drawing on when you started the foundation. And also, since you have been so successful with what you are doing — I’m not only talking about the ten year anniversary, but also the impact here and elsewhere –, do you see other museums, other contexts in Africa that are looking at you and that are thinking about the kinds of things you’re doing, bringing to life African art in a broader context?
Marie-Cécile Zinsou: Thank you Suzanne, I will come to your question, but maybe I have to say a couple of words about my context because it is not that classical and important if you want to understand what we are doing. I started when I was 20. I was just beginning my art history studies. And I had just arrived here to take one year off, working in an orphanage. I had promised my students that we would go to the museums at the end of the year to see some artists from Benin and from Africa. And then I realized that my promise was quite ridiculous. Because it was just not possible, there was no space to show them anything. The nearest place at that time was Düsseldorf in Germany, where they were presenting African artists. So that was the nearest place from here where we could see African art being exhibited. That was just crazy. So I decided to stay and open a place. That’s how I started. I don’t have a very heavy educational background. People often think that maybe I came with museum experience. But that wasn’t the case: I went to the museums quite often during my studies, but that‘s it. That was my museum experience. When I started my museum, the questions were very practical: How do you open a museum? Where do you find the lights? I didn’t know what questions I was meant to ask myself. At first, I thought: You need a space, then you need to employ someone to open the door and to ask for entry fees — you have to decide: Is it free or not free, and then you decide on what to show. I had very basic questions. So we constructed the museum and we thought: Ok, let’s do it quick and bad. And then afterwards, we had all the incredible professionals coming to Benin and giving us advice. I met you, Suzanne, for example, and you wrote a part in one of our first publications. So, really, we started and then things got better, we had museum and professional people coming in and helping us with the presentation and over time, the whole project changed.
When we opened, there was no space for contemporary art. So that’s why we didn’t copy any next-door neighbors. So we started by asking the artists for help and to understand how to present their pieces. Today the situation has changed a lot, because there are plenty of spaces. When I say spaces, I am relating to the fact that there is not one kind of project that has emerged on the continent. You have one contemporary museum in Rabat in Morocco, you have galleries and auction houses in Nigeria, you have private foundations in Ivory Coast, in Ghana, and in Angola, and you have Biennales and Triennales. You have plenty of cultural offerings on the continent today. So that’s one of the things that has changed a lot. The other day I read an article about a private foundation in Ivory Coast, in Abidjan, and the girl was saying: We are trying to be the Zinsou Foundation of Ivory Coast. Later, I discovered that our grandfathers were best friends, so maybe there is a reason for it.
Also, more and more people come to us and ask if they can stay for three or four months, to understand how we work everyday. This is mainly because of the fact that in the projects, we have a lot of children coming. We had to create programs for children, who are four years old and so you see that we are working with quite a young audience, which is quite a challenge. I feel that this is an important development to work with younger audiences but here it is also a logical development because half the population is in in their teens. We received about 4.5 to 5 million visitors during the last ten years and 80% of them were under 18. These figures would be incredible in Italy or Germany, for example, but here it is mirroring the numbers within the country population.
We also have very good relationships with schoolteachers and directors. We have always been working very hard on that and we try to keep the relationship to these institutions and the children up by a lot of activities, for example with our open workshops for children that are taking place every Wednesday and Saturday. Schools can just come in any day of the week for workshops. We have been working on our audience and now, we see a lot of African institutions coming in and asking us about our experiences of how to deal with the students and how to work with them.
Art Histories (Suzanne Blier): We saw that your Cotonou museum and the institution in general works fabulously and you opened a new center in Ouidah in a fantastic old Afro-Brazilian house — what is behind the institution there, why Ouidah?
Marie-Cécile Zinsou: We have many reasons for being in Ouidah. Firstly, it is kind of my family’s town, so we have quite a strong attachment to the city. Secondly, I wanted to start in Ouidah in the very beginning, when I began my activities in Benin because I wanted to be in a heritage building and save heritage at the same time as giving a vision of the future with art and through archives. I was however struck by the fact that in Cotonou, you have 1.2 million inhabitants and in Ouidah, there are only 80.000. So, obviously, starting there would have never had the same impact in the beginning. But in Cotonou, we’ve had so many people coming and most of them have seen all of the collection through the years. So, I thought it would be a good decision to now move to Ouidah, even if we would not have as many visitors as here. A lot of people are coming to Ouidah from all over Benin and Nigeria, but you will never achieve the same numbers of visitors as in Cotonou.
At the same time, Ouidah is a city that signifies so much: It is a city of slavery, of the slave port, where about one million people left on slave boats. So, this city was really the center of the world at a certain time, where many different people met: people from abroad were there, strangers, and they met people from Benin. Then you had one million people who left from Ouidah and today, you have people coming back to the town. There is 75% of unemployment and you find a history that is simply disappearing. When I arrived and started living here in 2003, I took pictures and when I look at these photos today, I see that maybe 40 or 45% of the buildings disappeared. I think it is very important to have something going on in that city and importantly, not just something about slavery and the past because a lot of people who are visiting tend to think of Africa only in terms of the past, or maybe as ancient cultures and don’t really see what is happening today. So it is really important to construct new spaces like a contemporary art museum in an old city that is stuck in the past. And that is the main reason why we choose Ouidah. I think it is important to have this also for the children there because in Cotonou, we have a nice space for kids and they can come to the museum and learn about art, but in Ouidah, a visit like this can change your life. It is the only place where you can think differently. Of course, we could have done it in Abomey or Porto Novo, but then, we found the house and it was so beautiful and yet about to disappear because the roof was just breaking — and we were allowed to use the space right away. We had given ourselves ten years to create the museum and after seven years, we found the house, so we decided to start.
Art Histories (Suzanne Blier): The pieces that we saw on view in Ouidah are part of your permanent collection and it is going to be rotating over time. I am wondering about your acquisition policy and how you are deciding on certain artists, how and who you are selecting and how that has changed over time.
Marie-Cécile Zinsou: Firstly, let me say something about the space there: The pieces are shown in an Afro-Brazilian and seemingly quite perfect building, which is really quite the worst structure for a museum ever. You have windows and doors everywhere in the building, you have to choose art works by the size because you might have a wonderful painting, but you don’t have a wall that is big enough for it. So, it is probably the worst choice we made.
Concerning the exhibition, it has been working quick and bad in the beginning and is hasn’t really changed (laughs) — we acquire a lot of works from artists who come and work in residence or specifically for exhibitions and usually, we buy the works. It depends mostly on the exhibitions we plan and that’s how we acquire. We have kind of a list of artists whose works we want to buy and then of course, it’s depending on the budget. I am doing all the acquisitions personally, we don’t do it with foundation money. That relates to a fear I have with politics in this country. My great-uncle (Èmile Derlin Zinsou, editor’s note) was a president of this country. A coup happened and everybody had to leave everything behind. I am always quite frightened because politics here can be special, so if we had to leave the country quickly, we would have to leave the collection to a foundation that has the same goals as we have — but there is none. So we didn’t transfer the collection to the foundation. There is the idea to do so, but only in the future, when we have more stable political structures and lawyers can help you when you have a problem. Right now it is complicated and you have no choice. For the moment, the collection is personal and the foundation can use it as much as it wants, but it is not the foundation’s property. We don’t have a collection committee in the foundation and we don’t ask the foundation for money for the collection. We try to spend the foundation’s money on our activities, but we never acquire artworks with that money.
Art Histories (Suzanne Blier): Speaking about structures and networks, what are the local, regional, and international institutions that you are connected with?
Marie-Cécile Zinsou: We have a connection with the French Institute, right around the corner. They often ask us for artworks and we help each other out in projects; we also have been collaborating with the Biennale in Dakar, where we did some exhibitions — but we will not work again with them. Now, we are going to work with Bisi Silva at her Biennale, that’s a new project. And we will probably work with Doual’Art in Cameroon. We are working on that right now. And then we have more links with international institutions, because it is very difficult to have works travelling around Africa — they are very sensitive, but it is not very secure. So, for the moment, we are working mostly with the French Institute and some museums.
Art Histories (Suzanne Blier): You mentioned Bisi Silva, who is a curator and self-made woman, who directs the Center for Contemporary Art in Lagos and she is now the curator of the Biennale in Bamako, Mali. Marie-Cécile, much of what you are doing is about teaching children the importance of art. Your exhibitions often explore the meaning of concepts such as ‘the nation’ and of course, they always think about what art is and does. But what you have also done and what is really quite astonishing, is to build and promote mini-libraries. Is there a particular pedagogical philosophy that runs with your development of these libraries?
Marie-Cécile Zinsou: The libraries emerged spontaneously, because at first, when we had no museum structure, I was looking for small buildings all over the city of Cotonou to show the collection. And then more and more people told me okay, if you create these spaces, maybe you rather have a few books in them. So I learned that the people in place didn’t need art so urgently but that libraries were more helpful. The idea of the libraries is that they are independent. You can’t find schoolbooks inside. The idea is really to discover reading and to have it on top of the education, not as the annex of the school. Usually, it is quite near the schools because it is important to be in the area where the children are, but we are not linked to the schools. So, we don’t follow the school program, which is a very important thing. We just found that a lot of those kids didn’t like museums in the first place and so I decided for books I really liked when I was young. I tried to remember what I read when I was a student in England and in France. Now, the idea is really to read for pleasure. And how did we link the mini-libraries to the foundation, so that people understand that it is kind of the same thing — because it is culture in every aspect? We have artists doing interventions in the libraries, we also have readings in the foundation. We have plenty of activities around the exhibition program, we always order special books about the exhibitions. We try to link both activities.
Art Histories (Suzanne Blier): Do you collect only contemporary art or do you also collect African art of other kinds, of earlier or ongoing traditions?
Marie-Cécile Zinsou: My father collects ancient art, mostly from Dahomey, so he has some important pieces they show in the Quai Branly in Paris, like the last king’s throne. I decided to collect and I have a very special collection because I feel like as the history is disappearing. In Abomey, certain collections are disappearing in the stores. So, in many ways, I feel that our history is disappearing and I am looking for my history. I am looking for it in a very special way: I read all the books about the colonial conquest, and I write down all the names of the people involved in the colonial conquest. I try to find them with the help of a friend who is into genealogy or I try to find them on Facebook. And I call them to ask them specifically about the objects that they have and usually they don’t care about them and so I buy them. I find that if you call them and say: I believe in this and I have this foundation and all the children are coming, but I miss some parts of my history, so I need some of your objects and you tell them that they can come to you, you have a gallery, where we have all my great-uncle’s stuff, my great-grandfather’s stuff, it works. That way, I just bought the collection of the first governor of Dahomey. We are going to bring it all back here to Cotonou.
My intention was to link them with Cyprien Tokoudagba’s work. We want to have a link between the traditional and how Cyprien brings in the idea of tradition in the contemporary. It would be important that it works out because it is very difficult with tradition here: When children from here see the Quai Branly exhibition, don’t know what they saw — we show them their own heritage, but seeing the names and the objects children react by asking: “What is it?” So, I didn’t need a lot of ancient art originally. I am not going to galleries everywhere in the world. But I’m becoming a collector of it in a useful way.
Art Histories (Suzanne Blier): Let me just add: This is what doing art historical research is like here, using Facebook, contacting people — I think, it is fabulous, what you are doing. I’ve seen a huge difference in the museums since I’ve been coming to Benin last, which is a longer period of time ago — generally an important improvement, in Abomey, but also in the North. I am wondering about what you think about the museums in Benin or in the region, how you see them change, about your perspective on them and on how this institution connects with that.
Marie-Cécile Zinsou: If I was just a visitor, who was coming from time to time and saw the museums, I would think that the Abomey museums got a bit better, Ouidah depends — there are some things, some pictures that are really good. I would tell you, that it is okay, it is getting a little better. But honestly, I have been working with the minister of culture and that makes me tell you that I am sick of the museums in Benin. I find them a cynical joke. All the money from the ministry of culture has disappeared. The collections are very badly preserved. In Abomey, you have water coming in, so that it has to be removed even from silver objects, you find holes in the walls and it has been like this for two years. Of course, you have professionals in the administration, who know their job. But the people who are coming in as ministers — we had something like eight or nine ministers of culture in ten years — just take the money and go away with it. And everything disappears, they are killing our history, and they are killing the heritage and we will be people without history in 20 years. So, the museums make me sick. I find it one of the biggest scandals and today, life conditions of the people are hard here, so people are not going to be in the streets protesting for getting their country’s history back, but in 20 years, 30 years, when we will have been a quickly emerging economy, when the situation will have changed and people of the middle class will be more numerous — then this will be one of the biggest scandals that people will think of when discussing the beginning of the 21st century. We have been working on democracy and other things, but of history or culture, you will have nothing left. So, I am worried.
Art Histories (Suzanne Blier): What do you anticipate for the Benin museums’ and your foundation’s future in 2050?
Marie-Cécile Zinsou: Well, for my foundation, I never even thought it would become ten years. I wouldn’t have believed anybody telling me that one day we would have a tenth birthday. And now, we are opening an anniversary exhibition in a few days. So, I have no idea. But for the museums, I think that things will change, especially for the national museums, because people will become more conscious of culture, especially as their lives are getting better. People will have more cultural aspirations, so in 2050, I think that people will come to see their history and they will be very careful that this history is shown in proper museums. My hope is that when people will realize the importance of cultural heritage, we will still have some heritage left. But definitely, the state has to be quick to save the things it can save. And I hope we will not only have picture museums, but also museums showing objects.
Art Histories (Suzanne Blier): Can you tell us more about your artist in residence program and your outreach activities?
Marie-Cécile Zinsou: Well, the artist in residence program didn’t officially exist, but one day, we opened our eyes and realized that we had such a program. There were many artists calling us to ask if we could organize something or if they could work here for one month. So, we said yes and in the back of the building, we have apartments and we organized that because we had so many demands of artists who wanted to come in and work with us. For the moment, we have people sending in projects asking us if we are interested in helping them — so it is not very formal. We are trying to formalize it right now and we are trying to receive more applications from artists from all over the continent. For the moment, we have a lot of people asking us who are coming from the United States and some people from Europe, but in the first three years, we only had people from Africa asking us for support. Right now, in Ouidah, we just received Thomas Colaço and Sofia Aguiar, who worked on and left installations in the museum. We had never exposed the works of the artists in residence. And now, we are asking all artists who come in to think about our institution or about a book, about a conference, or an exhibition — so we decided to speak about the artists who come and not to keep their work secret as well as to formalize the program. I cannot really speak about an overarching program because there is one specific program for Thomas Colaço, one specific program for Sofia Aguiar, one specific program for Jeremy Demeister — it is a program that is totally adaptable to the artists.
Art Histories (Suzanne Blier): We can imagine that after you’ve done so much, after many things that have happened here and in Ouidah, that you must see certain gaps — things that you would love to see happen or that you think you would do if you got the chance to do it.
Marie-Cécile Zinsou: You know, at our foundation, for one project that exists, you have 10 projects that don’t. We have to fill many gaps. We would need a proper cater, we need programs for dance or theatre. So we have plenty of gaps, for which we try to find an answer, also for our libraries — every Friday night, we have movies on the roof and so we have people coming in, but the format is not yet properly developed and we have to work on it. We indeed have to work on so many things and have such little opportunities in here. At first, the Ouidah museum was not meant to be just one building, it was supposed to be plenty of small buildings showing all the aspects of the collection. For the moment, it is not done — we only have one house, we have not found the others yet. We want to expand the Ouidah project. We need a bigger space in Cotonou. We took this one, even though it is not so good for a museum, because we thought we had a bigger one coming in the near future, but finally it didn’t work out with the state. So we are in this very small building and we need a bigger building. We have to have an art library that is bigger, we will in fact open one in Ouidah in ten days. We are trying to fill the gaps that we find in the country and in our organization. But we are only ten years old, so we will catch up with more time to come.
Art Histories (Suzanne Blier): I am thinking about the poles of influence or poles of energies and engagement. Here you have it between Cotonou and Ouidah, between Benin and Europe, between Benin and parts of North Africa, maybe Brazil. I am wondering if there are particular poles of influence that you want to see developed more strongly?
Marie-Cécile Zinsou: I would not be as wide as you about geography. Firstly, we would like to connect with North Benin, because we hear a lot of people saying: You are really good, but you are just in the South. I think that this is one part of the evolution of the project: We have to reach more people in areas where today, you can’t reach people. We have a nice project being developed with the aim of being able to show the Ouidah museum anywhere in the world. We basically created QR codes for our art pieces that will be decoded by digital devices like a smartphone showing you the real art piece. The idea is that we need the art to travel but we cannot send every artwork to every place where we would like to have it shown. So, we worked with an engineer to recreate our collection in augmented reality. You can print out a QR code yourself, you pin it to the wall and with our app, you can then see the artwork. That is also supposed to be reaching out more to North Benin and also North Africa.
For the moment, we are not really internationally connected — even though we have been working with the Metropolitan museum — but in fact, we are very local. We have to impact on the people here. If somebody comes to visit for the first time, my biggest problem is to see how he would visit us a second and third time. Also, many of the younger artists have a quite international audience now because of the internet, but also because you can travel easily. We are really here for the population in place. So I don’t know what I could do with the foundation in North Africa. It is not the point of my foundation — it is here to reach the people across the street, which is actually quite difficult and in fact, I think it might be easier to reach people in Brazil than to those across the street. I think our role will stay like this for a while. Of course, if we can lend art to other institutions, we are always doing it, we don’t want to block access to it. The art needs to travel, but the idea is really to stay very local, so we are working on exchanging exhibitions, on inviting artists for a residence. But I think it is better that people come here than us going everywhere because we have no point to be present everywhere on the globe. We need to have people to come to us and see what they can bring and add to our project. We will not be going to other people more, I hope that people will be coming to us.
Art Histories (Suzanne Blier): We saw traditional artists, who are making works in the genre of tradition today in your exhibits in Ouidah. You display some artists working with iron and recycled materials, which are in fact part of the tradition of Benin. The theme of our travelling seminar is From the Traditional to the Contemporary, so it is really about the relationship of the two in Western Africa. What are your thoughts on that, because you’ve been involved in both?
Marie-Cécile Zinsou: I don’t know if you’ve heard about contemporary art in the 18th century in the Dahomey kingdom — I think this is a very interesting aspect of contemporary art that used to be here because we are always thinking of today’s contemporary art. But we had a kingdom with contemporary art and being a contemporary artist today is not so different from what it meant to be a contemporary artist two centuries ago. You were recognized, you had the king’s approval, money, you had a wife, you had almost everything you wanted if you were an artist. The royal collections were shown every year to the people and all the people of the kingdom were coming to the courts and the royal palace and the best works of art were shown to the population. Everybody knew what was going on and the best artists had a lot of money to be able to work. I find it very interesting that contemporary art was at the center of royal activity in the 18th and 19th century and that today, we see that heritage disappearing. I found it interesting that Cyprien Tokoudagba is a contemporary artist working on tradition, but actually, he works on the tradition of contemporary art. In general, we work with a lot of artists questioning the tradition, people like Kifouli Dossou with his contemporary masks. I was quite amazed because he won a contemporary art prize and people eventually understood what he was doing in contemporary terms — and still, people say: “Oh, he’s African with his masks, because of the shape and the colors.” So he is both relating to tradition and addressing new theories. We want to think about this relationship and this is why the museum of Ouidah is built as it is. The question of the tradition and the ancient art is a question that you can feel in the collection, I think.
Art Histories (Hannah Baader): What do you consider a good and important work of art? What is your approach to an artwork?
Marie-Cécile Zinsou: I would have to answer artwork by artwork, but I can tell you that for me a good artwork has to be answering some question or a work that questions me. Usually, my first question, before all others, is: How is it going to speak to the public? By now, I know the children. When we started, all the adults told me: Basquiat is so bad, why did you bring in Basquiat? I knew exactly why I was bringing in Basquiat and why it was changing people’s minds and what happens in your head when you see a Basquiat in a very neat place, on the wall in a museum. I know what it can create in a child’s head. I just went to the Biennale of Venice and in the Belgium pavilion, there was this incredible piece by Sammy Baloji from Congo. I didn’t know him, but now I bought it. First thing I was thinking: In Ouidah, should that work be coming in? It is scarifications on big copper sheets put together and you have a few old pictures of the end of the 19th century. And I was thinking: What is changing in your mind when you look at that for the first time? I wouldn’t say I am collector. It is very difficult for me to be with other collectors, because I don’t feel like a collector in the way I am working. When I buy the artwork, I am in a way thinking about the public. I don’t buy art for my living room, because I don’t care about that. I am thinking: How do you put it into your imagination and how you connect your life with it? There is a chance of an earthquake in your mind when you arrive in the room and see the art.
Art Histories (Gerhard Wolf): We are very impressed by the many levels you are thinking about, because you have been talking politically, sociologically, and on many more levels. Something we have not talked about is the academic world: We are researchers and for many people, there is a gap between the general public and the world of research. So I am asking myself how you see your role in this country in relation to research?
Marie-Cécile Zinsou: We absolutely need the academic world, because everything produced comes from the academic world and is transformed to be accessible to everyone.
Art Histories (Gerhard Wolf): I think what you are doing goes into both directions, doesn’t it? On the one hand, you are addressing a wider public, but on the other hand, what you do also goes back into research. So we are here to ask you also what you are doing to connect these two reciprocally?
Marie-Cécile Zinsou: We have a lot of people coming to the foundation to do research or to work with us. For the next exhibition in Ouidah, I had an idea of what I want to show, it will be about the idea of mythology, but there is no way I can bring to life the intelligent dimensions that I want to see in it. So I work with an art history professor from the university. I told him about the project, he is writing the text and then he is giving it to me to translate it into a language that people can understand — because you know, that’s the thing with researchers (laughs)… We can never do anything without him. For the music exhibition, we had somebody who did an enormous amount of research and he gave us a really good text to put on the walls, but it went over 95 pages (laughs). We are also inviting people from different museums in the world who are working on Africa to come here and to share their work with us in the form a blog article, for example — on our blog, you have diverse contributions, from normal visitors as well as from the director of the African collection of the Met. We are paying their plane tickets, they can work on whatever they like, and before they leave, they do a conference, write a blog article, or a small scientific book. So, we have a permanent relationship with researchers, but they are not allowed to write complicated texts for the exhibitions (laughs).
Art Histories: Marie-Cécile Zinsou, thank you very much for this interview.
The interview was held in English. The transcription and translation was done by Philip Geisler and Lucy Jarman.
Cite this page:
Zinsou, Marie-Cécile/Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices. “‘There is an Earthquake in Your Mind when You See the Art’.” From Traditional to Contemporary Aesthetic Practices in West Africa, Benin and Togo. The Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices Blog. Ed. Baader, Hannah. August 2016 <https://medium.com/from-traditional-to-contemporary-aesthetic/there-is-an-earthquake-in-your-mind-when-you-see-the-art-b49682d1a87b#.345n4w1k5>.