On a Saturday morning in March, the road that runs along the stunning sandy beach in the Beninese city of Cotonou is filled with young men on mopeds, sharply dressed in slim-fitting, brightly printed tunics and trousers. For much of their two-wheeled promenade they have an unbroken view of the Atlantic ocean, but that could soon change with the pace of development.

Cotonou is the major port city of the Republic of Benin, a country of 14mn people that sits between Nigeria and Togo. Its ambitious president, the wealthy businessman Patrice Talon, is changing the country’s economy and image with a $2.1bn investment in tourism, arts and heritage; a large Sofitel hotel has already appeared nearer to the city and, flagging its intentions of becoming a cultural destination, Benin is about to make its first appearance at the Venice Biennale.

“Venice is part of the journey, a soft-power political move to show the international stage that we have something to say in the context of the broader culture universe,” says Babalola Jean-Michel Hervé Abimbola, Benin’s minister of culture, tourism and the arts, when we meet in his capacious office in Cotonou. He is smartly attired in a brown print ensemble and a gobi — a soft cap, flipped on one side, that bears a family insignia. “Other countries have natural resources, which we lack. Talon wants to diversify the economy and put culture and tourism as major pillars of development next to agriculture.”

A middle-aged man wearing a linen tunic with geometric motifs and a matching cap hints a smile
Romuald Hazoumè: ‘Benin discovered a piece of heritage, and pride. We lost a lot and now it’s coming back’ © Photo: Jonathan Greet
A photograph shows two masks, one shaped out of a red watering can and feathers; the other, realised with a green plastic tank and green, red and black objects
‘Carpe Rouge’ (2019), left, and ‘Djé-Bébénon’ (2022) by Romuald Hazoumè © Courtesy Galerie Magnin-A. Photo: Romuald Hazoumè

Benin is one of 13 African countries with a presentation at the Biennale, and it’s a big commitment for any small state. But for Benin, it’s a small part of a bigger initiative, which includes building four museums and a cultural quarter, which Abimbola declares will be completed by 2026. The Museum of Contemporary Art and the cultural quarter will be in Cotonou, while the museums dedicated to royal history and voudou will be in Abomey and Porto-Novo respectively. The town of Ouidah, where more than a million captured African people were put on to ships, will have the International Museum of Memory and Slavery.

The country has also had a recent success with the restitution of 26 major works of art from the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. Their return was celebrated in 2022 with an exhibition at Benin’s presidential palace, which paired the stolen ancient works with those of 34 contemporary Beninois artists. “It was pivotal moment,” says Romuald Hazoumè, who is one of those representing Benin in Venice. “Benin discovered a piece of heritage, and pride. We lost a lot and now it’s coming back.” A version of the exhibition has toured to Martinique and Morocco and will most likely go to Paris, from where more objects will also be returned. According to Abimbola, the Musée du Quai Branly has “3,000 and we get to choose”.

The horrors of the slave trade and the deep roots of voudou are two of the themes that four artists will explore in Benin’s pavilion, alongside the importance of Benin’s female Amazon warriors and the Gelede — a masked spectacle performed by the men of the Yoruba community to celebrate the spiritual power of women. It was this that gave the curator Azu Nwagbogu the title of the presentation: Everything Precious is Fragile.

An installation features masks carved out of plastic oil tanks as its round base and a totemic wooden boat as its centre
‘Rat Singer: Second Only to God!’ (2013) by Romuald Hazoumè © Jonathan Greet

“I went to Ketu, three hours east of Cotonou, where Gelede is performed,” says Nwagbogu, “and discovered this idea of care and fragility and nurture. The title comes directly from the etymology of the word ‘gelede’ itself. I think it is important to look at the vulnerable things in life in order to protect them.”

Nwagbogu, who is the founder of the African Artists’ Association and the LagosPhoto Festival, is not from Benin, but Nigeria. He tells me on the phone from Venice that he was invited directly by Talon, an odd choice, perhaps, for an event intended to celebrate both women and the Beninois identity. (There are several curators in Benin itself, including the respected Nadine Hounkpatin.) “I believe in pan-Africanism,” says Nwagbogu, in terms of his suitability. “But I visited the country four or five times, to pay real attention to what the locals and cultural custodians are saying and thinking.”

He says he was given the themes by the committee, ADAC, which runs Benin’s arts and cultural development agency, but got to choose the artists. “There is a tendency [in Africa] to reduce everything to an abstraction of spirituality and the idea of the slave trade,” he says. “But that wasn’t a constriction. It just made the choice of artists important.” Of the four, Ishola Akpo and Romuald Hazoumè live in Benin. Chloé Quenum, who was born in France to a Beninois father, lives and works in Paris, and Moufouli Bello is currently in Brussels.

Hazoumè, 62, is perhaps the best-known — a superstar in his hometown of Porto-Novo (Benin’s capital) who attracts attention as he makes his way around the place. His stock-in-trade is plastic petrol cans which he makes into masks to talk of petrol smuggling across the Nigerian border, as well as the residual pains of slavery. At Venice he will fill a cavelike structure with more than 500 of them, a sinister eyeless mass of faces.

A young woman wearing large golden earrings and a black top stares straight into the camera
Moufouli Bello: ‘My work is always circumscribed by the power of Benin women’ © Courtesy Moufouli Bello
A young man wearing a grey wool beanie, black glasses and a black T-shirt stands with his arms crossed in front of a green building
Ishola Akpo, whose monumental tapestry at the Venice Biennale pays homage to Beninois women’s interconnectedness © Patty van den Elshout

Bello’s stark paintings of blue-skinned women dressed in brilliant graphic prints (“My work is always circumscribed by the power of Benin women,” she says) may already be familiar to European audiences.

Women are also central to the work of Ishola Akpo, 41, their images montaged into prints and maps, with representations of objects that speak of lives lived. At Venice he is showing a tapestry at a heroic scale, the woven threads representing the tightness of female bonds. Quenum, who often works with artisans, will be asking visitors to look through a freestanding window whose panes are made of verre Colonial (or Colonial glass). “It was used in colonial architecture and as currency,” explains Quenum. “It distorts vision, it is not transparent.”

Benin shook off France, its colonial occupier, in 1960 and is determined to forge its reputation as the artistic heart of west Africa, braving a Biennale where the haze of colonialism still hangs in the air with its national pavilions. Benin’s hope, unlike Quenum’s foggy glass, is to offer a clear vision of its huge cultural ambitions.

April 20-November 24, labiennale.org

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