The strangely hybrid title of the Biennale Regard Benin 2012 already implied the compromise between two different platforms – the Benin Biennale and Regard Benin – that yielded this dual show. Both originated from the grassroots artists’ initiative called Regard Benin, which was organized in 2010. During the planning of a second edition, however, there was a schism over the question of whether the exhibition should have a central curator. The dispute yielded two different platforms, one organized by the Regard Benin Foundation and the other – the Benin Biennale – by its offshoot, which was backed by funding from the European Community and the French Institute.
The latter employed Abdellah Karroum as curator, and took the former department store Centre Kora in the city of Cotonou as its central venue. This stunning, monumental space helped Karroum focus his concept for the biennale in a single exhibition comprising works by 36 artists and artist groups – just large enough to function as a solid core. Karroum also gave the biennale its title, ‘Inventing the World: The Artist as Citizen’. The proposition that artists have a civil responsibility – illustrated by Karroum with a selection of works by artists from Benin as well as several international artists – was taken metaphorically rather than as an activist gesture, and worked quite elegantly in relation to the show’s West African context.
The display at Centre Kora opened with Adel Abdessemed’s neon sign at the entrance reading Thanks Facebook (2012), hinting at the recent and ongoing revolutions in several countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Considerable space was occupied by the large-scale installation by the Benin-based artist Aston, who assembled a giant landscape from scrap materials and thousands of cigarette butts to create a work resembling something between a sprawling shanty town and a concentration camp (The Final Solution, 2012). In Africa Arrives (2012), Dominique Zinkpè carved various vehicles out of thousands of miniature vodou statuettes. These massive installations combined to portray a provocative image of Africa as a chaotic region and its people as suppressed, wanting migrants.
But this somewhat familiar sculptural rhetoric soon made way for a more intellectually engaged aesthetics that invoked the power of the individual gesture. Ebtisam Abdul Aziz’s large-scale drawing, Re-mapping the Continent of Africa (2012), for example, perverted the oppressive, colonial logic of the map of Africa into an individualist’s statement against that logic. The story of the engaged citizen found an apotheosis in Camille Henrot’s Is it possible to be a revolutionary and like flowers? (2012), which combined intimate and ephemeral Japanese ikebana floral arrangements with quotations referencing the work of historic figures, including Claude Lévi-Strauss and Aimé Césaire.
Karroum’s ideal of artistic empowerment also extended outside Centre Kora. Coinciding with the opening of the first Benin Biennale in 2010, Beninese artist Meschac Gaba established his Museum of Art of the Active Life (MAVA) in the Fidjrossé quarter. This project can be considered a successor of his Museum of Contemporary African Art (1997–2002), which Tate Modern recently acquired in its entirety. MAVA features a library, containing books collected by Gaba over the years, and residency spaces as well. As a temporary addition, MAVA produced Bibliothèque roulante (Travelling Library), for which Gaba gathered quotes from 60 international curators and printed them as small license plates, then placed them on many of the city’s motorcycle taxis. Here, Gaba activated the public sphere by mobilizing the one-liners of the global art community around the city’s urban space.
Georges Adéagbo, probably the most internationally renowned artist living in Benin, together with Stephan Köhler, organized a number of site-specific presentations – Köhler described this as an alternative to the ‘top-down curating’ and ‘curatorial branding’ of the biennial. Their beachside studio compound was one of the sites for which a handful of artists were invited to contribute works. These were combined with a series of paintings by Adéagbo, in which he responded to the kind of cultural colonialism underlying the biennale’s raison d’être. Tellingly, a shop window elsewhere in Cotonou was embellished with Alfredo Jaar’s neon sign Culture = Capital (2010/12), for this occasion spelled out in the handwriting of Adéagbo, who again displayed his dismissal of the ‘other’ biennial’s business-as-usual approach. Another venue was the former National Printing Shop in the capital Porto Novo. It featured, among others, Carlos Garaicoa’s site-specific installation The Dark Room (2012), consisting of hundreds of partly over-painted international newspapers, alongside Isaac Julien’s compelling early video Territories (1984), which could easily have served as one of the missing art-historical components in Karroum’s concept of artistic activism.
Though Karroum’s exhibition was the most curatorially convincing, Adéagbo’s gesture of turning the studio into a site for exhibitions and interventions seemed the more truly civilian act – not only because infrastructure for contemporary art is scarce in Benin, but also because he used this platform to host genuine acts of agitation. Ultimately the 2012 edition was a public manifestation of the inner disputes and manipulations underlying a biennial; yet it was also a welcome deviation from the more typical politically correct biennial format.