Venice Biennale | Presenting the Inaugural Pavilion of the Republic of Benin

Featuring‍ Ishola Akpov, Chloé Quenum, Moufouli Bello, Romuald Hazoumè

Written by

Bennett DiDonna

Photographed by

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Styled by

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As we reflect on the growth and opportunity that springtime affords us, it’s easy to slip into questions of identity, of who or where we are and what we would like to become in our perpetual blossoming. This Spring marks the 60th Edition of the Venice Biennale, which signifies a century plus of the international community coming together through the arts. Encountering the sites, sounds and individuals amidst Venice’s Pavilions, installations and history can be like emerging from a sort of psychological hibernation—tantamount to rebirth.

It is with this in mind that we direct your attention to the country of Benin, which will birth its first ever Pavilion in Venice, under the curatorial direction of Azu Nwagbogu. Here, a few quick questions about Nwagbogu and Director of Global Partnerships Joanna Gong’s fresh vision, alongside Benin’s featured artists: Ishola Akpov, Chloé Quenum, Moufouli Bello, Romuald Hazoumè.

Azu Nwagbogu - Curator

What do you hope visitors take away from the exhibition?

While there’s a distinct thematic underpinning to our exhibition, Everything Precious is Fragile, I try to avoid didactic presentations. The intention is not to prescribe a specific interpretation, but rather to encourage visitors to navigate and discover their own meaning through their experience of the exhibition. Secretly, I can confide that, I aspire for viewers to grasp the essence of African/ Benin feminism, rooted in histories that precede contemporary Western feminist trends. Moreover, I aim to offer a glimpse into the potential future of museums, particularly in an African context. My deeper aspiration is that visitors come away with a profound understanding of the fragility inherent in all that we cherish, beginning with our relationships as inhabitants of this planet. Ultimately, the exhibition serves as a catalyst for contributing to the reversal of centuries of epistemic injustice and violence perpetrated against Mother Earth, mothers, women, and young girls globally.

In light of the Biennale’s theme “Foreigners Everywhere,” how do you think about diaspora and repatriation in your curatorial practice?

The central tenet of my curatorial practice revolves around establishing a platform for dialogical engagement and fostering the growth of knowledge. I firmly believe that every individual is, in essence, a foreigner on this planet. Embracing this fundamental concept, intrinsic to many indigenous cultures, enhances our collective wisdom. The path to consensus lies in recognizing the shared humanity in each person. This journey begins with the pursuit of justice and rectifying the injustices of the past whilst working with kindness to build a better future.

How did you come to the exhibition’s title, Everything Precious is Fragile?

I paid careful attention. It is the cornerstone of curatorial practice. During my conclusive research journey across Benin, I engaged with the custodians of Gelede culture. In the course of our interactions, they shared a captivating story, perhaps apocryphal, about the genesis of Gelede philosophy. Surprisingly, the etymology of Gelede resonates poetically as Everything Precious is Fragile, expressed as Gue-ele-de in Yoruba. This revelation resonated deeply with me, and in that transformative moment, I recognized that we had discovered the essence of our exhibition!

Moufouli Bello. "BLACK BIRD" (2021). Acrylic on canvas. 62.99 x 59.06 inches.

Joanna Gong - Member of Curatorial Team

Since you last spoke with Flaunt, you’ve spent time in Benin and abroad with the Beninese creative community. How do you feel this experience has impacted the way you think about your own identity?

It has been a whirlwind of a ride. Despite the modern republic of Benin only being established in the late 20th century, the cultural heritage of the country is thousands of years old. As the birthplace of voodoo and an ancient culture revered for its matriarchy, spending time understanding the cultural fabric of Benin has only further proven my belief that we are all truly threads to the same tapestry of humanity. One cannot claim to be interested in the well being of the world without being willing to learn about where much of its roots originate from.

I have been challenged continuously during this project with cultural and political differences–but what is has ultimately taught me is the power of problem solving through a genuine lens of empathy.

We cannot just understand people in the most convenient way for ourselves.

Rediscovering both my entrepreneurial and empathic self has been a core takeaway from this project.

Tell us about your experience with the curatorial team. How do you approach working with artists? What do you hope visitors takeaway from the exhibition?

Azu Nwagbogu and I’s convergence for this project was a product of kismet forces no doubt. We can often be found providing perspectives that the other would not have otherwise seen. While Azu monitors the artist’s creative and conceptual process, I look for opportunities with institutions and private donors to expand their reach and make sure they have the resources they need to achieve creative freedom.

We hope visitors come out feeling more connected to each other and to the indigenous philosophies of the world. In a history of cyclical events, some questions we have today can be answered if we put down our egos and truly look to the past for advice.

In an increasingly interconnected but polarized world, what do you feel is the role of the Venice Biennale in 2024?

Through my experience on the organizing side, Venice is a platform that serves to effectively amplify a nation’s political soft power agenda, addressing the pressing state of affairs in their respective countries- be it in the realms of ecology, religion, or humanitarianism.

Art, as a distinctive medium, grants creators the freedom to convey messages through artistic expressions that are generally untethered from the immediate scrutiny of direct diplomacy or the constraints of moral high ground, enabling a more empathetic and compelling discourse.

From an attender’s perspective, the biennale is akin to the world expo in the sense that visitors can immerse themselves in the current creative zeitgeist of over 80 nations, all within a few days time. Opportunities like this are what help facilitate conversations that define our global artistic landscape.

What does it mean to you to be part of Benin’s first pavilion at the Biennale?

As mentioned in our first interview a year ago, my participation was a complete series of serendipitous events. Since then, this pavilion has taught me invaluable skills in negotiation, big picture diplomacy, and management across different cultures. As our grand opening date rapidly approaches, I feel like I will be emerging on the other side bullet proof.

Ishola Akpo. “Erou Kékéré I” (2022). Painting on enamelled dishes. Variable dimensions. Courtesy of the artist and Sabrina Amrani. 

Ishola Akpo - Artist

How do you think about memory and memorialization as it relates to your practice?

Memory, archives, identity and heritage are themes that have been very present in my work for several years and I have obviously expressed through my Agbara Women project.

In my series “Traces of a Queen” I made several collages of photographs and archive images, which reveal the power of queens in Africa. I opposed the needle, materializing the resistance of the queens, to the fragility of their power embodied by paper. I link archives and contemporary perspectives thus allowing to connect, to weld disparate elements between them to create a new history.

On some of my collages, I deliberately substituted the heads of the sovereigns by that of queens, thus showcasing archives to the glory of the latter. I propose another version of History in rehabilitating these women. In my artistic practice, I construct, deconstruct the background and form, drawing inspiration from my Yoruba culture and its traditions.

What does the typical day in the studio look like for you?

It’s a lot of reflection and research around other projects parallel to that of the Venice Biennale, but also I agree short breaks to keep me informed of current events or communicate on social networks. One of the advantages of working as an artist is not having to Typical Day.

How does the Biennale’s theme, Foreigners Everywhere resonate with you?

Strangers exist everywhere! The theme of the Venice Biennale highlights from the outset on the program the relationships between us and others / the world and its citizens. For my part, this theme concerns me also, as a human. The foreigner is thus not an isolated figure.

Chloé Quenum. “Le Sceau de Salomon” (2018). Installation consisting of 5 videos (3 with sound and 2 mute) and fresh flowers and fruits. Variable dimensions. Exhibition view, The Engine Room, Wellington, New Zealand, 2018.

Chloé Quenum - Artist

How do you think about the role that design and objects has in preserving or shaping history?  

Whatever the culture, an object, a colour or a motif is always linked to a symbol and a use.

By looking at an object, even a very ordinary one, we can discover a vast world of meanings.

What material was it made from? Why this material? This reveals the environment in which the object appears. It's cold, hot, dry...

Shapes often derive from the materials used.

Wood is not carved like jade.

The colours are also clues to the flora, for example, if we think of plant dyes.

I look at an object as a fragment of history, because through these silent clues, it is possible to go back in time and trace the course of history.

Objects belong to economic, social and political contexts and are therefore made up of symbolic strata that may or may not evolve.

There's also the question of physical displacement, which generates a new reading.

Appropriation gives rise to other narratives and other ways of understanding a form.

An object is an archive of the past, present and future.

Outside of the studio, where have you been finding inspiration lately?

I'm constantly working in the sense that the environments through which I pass, whether real or fictional, are a source of perpetual questioning. Whether it's the timbre of a voice, a shadow, a work of art, a reading, a family name: I'm interested in its meaning in the world and also in my life.

In a way, I'm telling a story through each work, a long sentence that becomes a chapter and then another and so on, a narrative. Looking, observing, investigating and moving are gestures that are both physical and conceptual. This is my story, but it seems to me that it concerns us all: who are we? Where do we come from?

Art allows me to grasp these complexities that exist in everyday life through forms that become a language, a language that is also constantly called into question.

Things are mobile, fragile, fleeting, violent... the complexity of banality inspires me and speaks to me.

My studio is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

How does the Biennale’s theme, Foreigners Everywhere resonate with you?

We are made up of multiple identities, visible and invisible.

We are territories that meet, clash and feed off each other. Étranger partout is a powerful, contemporary way of asking the question of territories and borders.

It's based on the principle that we are diasporas, half-breeds of multiple origins. Whether this is visible or not, it should be the link that unites us and enables us to face up to history.

There is a strong resonance in my work insofar as I work on the circulation of objects, their symbolic meanings and their multiple uses: a single object is a vast world made up of multiple identities and histories. I call this the territories of objects, and there is never just one. There are many territories, creating thickness and complexity.

We are strangers everywhere and nowhere.

Moufouli Bello. “LITTLE “BIG SISTER” (2022). Acrylic on canvas. 70.9 x 66.9 inches.

Moufouli Bello - Artist

I would be curious to hear how you developed your palette and the hues of blue that appear throughout your work?

I suppose intuitively it came naturally to me and I've always used blue for as long as I can remember. It is a quiet color that is very calming to my senses, unlike other colors that I could feel were aggressive and difficult to exploit.
I only paint Black women, and blue allows me to cover all the shades of Black skin in a symbolic way.
I'm Yoruba by origin and Indigo is a spiritual color for my people.

Thinking on the themes of society and unity explored in your work, how do you feel social media has created or divided community?

The continuous online presence can allow isolated people to explore the world and opinions in virtual ways. Help them create or find a community to learn, exchange, denounce etc...
But at the same time, it takes us away from face-to-face social interactions, and from human contact and its benefits.

Social media is designed to keep users engaged and locked in, for as long as possible, ultimately for  monetary gain. But humans are cognitives creatures, with senses and emotions. And since there is a great psychology behind the design of these platforms, on the study of the brain, dopamine and the mechanisms of addiction, we are going back to them more than we should.
The algorithms of social media also crystallize opinions and we can easily become radicalized and close ourselves off to contradiction and difference. And that can only divide us further.
It is a very powerful tool and we need a healthier use of it .

How does the Biennale’s theme, Foreigners Everywhere resonate with you?

If you have traveled, you would have all experienced the feeling of being a foreigner at some point. Sometimes even in your home country. As human beings, we will all be called upon to experience  both the feeling of belonging and the one of being strangers to a community, a place, a cause or a group. Humans are desperate to belong and to find identity but this collective consciousness of being foreigners on earth should make us think of ultimately belonging to the human race. It should open us up to tolerance towards people we perceive as strangers or foreigners when we belong somewhere, and to receive tolerance and open-mindedness in situations where we are ourselves, foreigners.

Romuald Hazoumè. “Rat Singer Second Only to God!” (2013). Found objects, 157.5 x 236.2 x 236.2 inches. Photo Jonathan Greet.

Romuald Hazoumè - Artist

From economists to corporations, we spend a lot of time analyzing our consumption as a society, but far less time thinking about what we waste or throw away. What insights or takeaways do you feel working with discarded materials in your practice have provided you?

Economists and businesses talk a lot and are sometimes far from reality. This reality that we experience every day thanks to the rejects of consumer society.

By reading these rejects we can analyze the religious depth of each individual represented for their mask which betrays their religious affiliation.

What advice would you give to your 15 year old self?

Period of carelessness, I will look at things differently. Above all, do not throw it away randomly.

How does the Biennale’s theme, Foreigners Everywhere resonate with you?

I trust my work to express in a non-talkative way what the theme represents for me, the rest scares me.

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Flaunt Magazine, Issue 191, Fresh Cuts Issue, Art, Venice Biennale, Benin Pavilion, Joanna Gong,