Written by Valentina Gioia Levy
There is a saying in Côte d’Ivoire intriguing to many foreigners. According to local tradition, when someone is ready to leave the home of a friend, one has to ask for permission to leave, the most common reply from the host being: ‘I can take you home, but only halfway.’ Beneath the lines, this means that while you have permission to leave, your host is only willing to accompany you halfway back, in the hopes that you will one day return.
After a 3-week research trip to Abidjan, the economic capital of Côte d’Ivoire in Western Africa, I learned about this local tradition through hands-on experience, barely having experienced even half of what the city has to offer. Though not the political capital of Côte d’Ivoire, a title which belongs to Yamoussoukro, Abidjan is the largest and richest city in the country. In less than a century, it has grown from a tiny village to a city of almost 5 million inhabitants, and where today it is one of the most populated urban centers in all of continental Africa. During my visit to the Musée des Civilisations, conservator and curator Baba Oumar Gbane explained to me that in Côte d’Ivoir there are four main ethnic clusters—Akan, Gour, Mandé and Krou—and each one of them is divided into several smaller ethnic groups, almost seventy in total each of which have their own traditions and beliefs, languages, stories, cosmologies and artistic styles. Before modern times, these were ethnic groups that had a static geographic localization, that often goes beyond current national borders. Nevertheless, after a number of internal and regional migrations over the last century, there are people from all Ivorian regions in Abidjan, who cohabitate the city alongside immigrants from other African countries and foreigners from beyond the indomitable continent.
Despite the city’s multicultural dimensions public and cultural spaces and museums remain scarce. Cultural life in the city is founded mostly on the basis of private initiatives. Some galleries like LouiSimone Guirandou and Cecile Fakhoury offer exemplary shows of regional art. The first one, LouiSimone Guirandou was founded by an indomitable female figure in the city’s art scene. For nearly 30 years, Simone Guirandou-N’Diaye has been promoting Ivorian visual arts and creativity in Abidjan. The second art space, Cecile Fakhoury, opened in 2012 with a focus on showcasing the artistic diversity of a pan African perspective. At the moment, the gallery features Kings of the New Cities, the first solo show of Senegalese artist Kassou Seydou in Abidjan. The exhibition includes 13 work on canvas that has been specifically realized for the show. Each of these paintings reveal the distinctive stylized treatment of the human figure. Despite their flatness, Seydou’s characters are deeply expressive, with eyes soulful, neither inert nor static, suspended on a colorful backdrop which has been filled with esoteric symbols such as animals skulls, fetishes, and other motifs.
I saw Seydou’s work as investigating how feelings dissatisfaction, frustration, and conflict persist in many West African societies, directly associated with ongoing structural inequalities and exploitation of natural resources all over the continent as well as centuries of European colonization. The artist seems critical of how contemporary African society has developed, as well as how processes of urbanization and the extensive exploitation of Africa’s natural resources has occurred over the last several years. Seydou looks at traditional African agrarian societies almost romantically, seeming to posit them as harmonious and sustainable models of social organization. His paintings seem to claim that land and exploitation of natural resources remains at the heart of Africa’s societal woes. In a way, I saw in them references to pre-capitalist values like protection over the commons and the shared values of living in harmony with nature.
Similar concerns are also at the core of Sadikou Oukpedjo’s work, rarely exhibited outside Africa. Born in Kétao (Togo), Sadikou Oukpedjo first moved to Bamako (Mali) before arriving in Abidjan, where he has lived and worked since 2013. His work challenges boundaries between the physical and metaphysical, between the body and soul, natural and unnatural, human and animal worlds. Using different media from sculpture to painting, photography, illustration, and installation, Oukpedjo’s work explores notions of violence and domination within society, exposing them for their qualities. In his last solo show at Cecile Fakhoury, Anima, the artist explored the question of the soul (Anima, in Latin) that, according to the three main monotheistic religions, remains just a human prerogative. In past centuries, the concept of the soul was not the same for all human beings. The idea of a distinction and eventually a hierarchy made on the basis of physical appearance in contrast to the soul was considered a reflection of the spirit. Often, this idea was used in order to justify racism human slavery and, in general, the domination of the white male over black people, women and other religious minorities. Starting from these considerations by keeping in mind the fact that biologically humans are also animals, Oukpedjo investigates the common points between them, both physically and metaphysically. Subjects like transmutation, exodus, metamorphosis, and transfer factor heavily into Oukpedjo’s work, but in a way that is inscribed onto the bodies of his subjects. “There is only one thing separating us from animals,” Oukpedjo claimed in out interview, “our form.” The appearance of the fragmented body, in all its permutations, is also the places in which humans exercise agency and separation from other animals.
Speaking of the body’s relation to contemporary Abidjan art, another artist I met on my trip to the city explored similar themes, Valerie Oka. Oka is a Franco-Ivorian artist and designer whose work focuses on the sexualization of the female body, black womanhood, and the dynamics of power and gender inequality. Her installations, performances and participatory projects denounce the ways in which women are exploited and oppressed physically, psychologically, socially and economically. At the moment, in a cultural space called Villa Kaidin, Oka has started, between other projects, a series of encounters for promoting women’s empowerment in Côte d’Ivoire. I stayed for some days at Villa Kaidin, which is also the house of the Franco-Vietnamese artist Kaidin Monique Le Houeller. Kaidin was born in Hué, Vietnam, to a French father and a Vietnamese mother, which was not unusual in the first part of the 20th century, the period of French colonization. When she was very young, Kaidin moved to Africa with her family and she has never looked back. Since the end of the 1980s, Kaidin has worked on several projects with women from different communities including the Dogon from Tombouctou in Mali, and the Kassena from Burkina Faso. Besides her artistic activity, which spans over three decades, she is the founder of the Villa Kaidin cultural space, an important node in the city that hosts artists and intellectuals. In these days, the space is hosting a series of encounters with Oka. According to the two artists, there is a need for safe spaces in Abidjan, a place where women could come together to support each other and be able to raise their voices and be heard. Oka’s initiative is based on building self-confidence and self-esteem by coaching and mentoring other women, a kind of mutual support network with creativity at the center of her practice. It reminded me of what the French writer and activist Simone de Beauvoir once said: “The point is not simply taking the power out of men’s hands since that wouldn’t change anything about the world. It’s a question of destroying that notion of power.” And it was precisely this sense of agency that I saw gleaning from Oka’s work.
This point of departure also factors heavily into the work of another artist from Abidjan, Joanna Choumali, who uses photography to examine the dynamics of power in relation to women’s identity conditioned by the social, political, and economic forces in Côte d’Ivoire today. Until now, she has been the only woman to represent Côte d’Ivoire in this context, developing a series of female portraits called “Adorn” (2015-2017), which depicts Ivorian ladies of all ages using skin-whitening cosmetics. The artist installed the photos in golden frames, referencing French portraiture aesthetics of the 19th century. Choumali’s work began in 2015 when she began looking into efforts of Ivorian women considered more attractive by society. In the series rather than judging these women, she focuses on how body image is shaped by cosmetic industry in Africa, an approach I found particularly interesting. According to Professor Yacouba Konaté, artistic director of the art space La Rotonde des Arts Contemporains in Abidjan, one of the most prominent experts on Ivorian modern and contemporary art, there is a poem that reveals how Choumali’s approach is able to assess the variances of identity politics in the country and continent more broadly. In the verse, written by Ivorian poet Bernard Dadié in 1956, the idea of body and world is deconstructed on the basis of blackness: “I thank you God, / for making me black, / for making me / the sum of all pains, / putting on my head / the world. / I took the world to the Centaur / and I have carried the world since the first morning.”In this poem, the blackness has been put in relation with existential pain, and beyond that, with the weight of the entire world and consequentially with the essence of life itself. It reminded me of an Italian romantic poet, Giacomo Leopardi, and his conception of pain as the only instrument for understanding humanity. “Those who have not suffered understand nothing,” Leopardi said, humanity’s desire for infinite happiness is frustrated by this delusion.
In the same way another contemporary Abidjan artist, François Xavier Gbré, also works on revealing these tensions. His work, however, underscores an idealistic attempt to refigure the past, which the artist seems to concretize through reenacting effigies. According to Brendan Wattenberg, director of exhibitions at The Walther Collection in New York, “The past in Gbré’s work is foreign and unfinished.” But it also seems to be the starting point for the process of decoding the present that is a relevant part of his practice. In Gbré’s luminous installation, consisting of a three-dimensional Chinese calligraphic statement, which read: “I am Africa/ 我是非洲” (2016), the artist points to China’sgrowing economic and social interest in Africa. The work references China’s economic influence over the African continent where today Chinese companies have invested billions of dollars into construction and infrastructure projects, unpacking them plain for the viewer to see and contemplate. On account of these issues, Gbré’s work seems to question how new multicultural scenarios are unfolding for the continent, while also attempting to challenge the stereotypes about African and Asian identities as fixed and static. Social changes, history, and architecture, especially modernist architecture, are also recurrent matters of interest in his work, investigating the ongoing mutations of Abidjan’s landscape. Accordingly, the work aims to foreground an ideal harmonization between past and present, north and south, and maybe also between his own identity as an Afro-European citizen against the rising specter of Chinese influence over the continent.
Another artist, Franck Abd-Bakar Fanny, presents contrasting elements like absence and presence, light and dark, life and death, in a body of work I likened to Hegelian dialectics, a philosophical idea that emerged in the 19th century aiming to uncover opposition in logic, language and rhetorical modes of persuasion. In 2013, Fanny was the youngest artist ever invited to exhibit in the Ivorian pavilion at Venice Biennial, an exhibition that referenced how varying orchestrations can disorientate the viewer. In “Black Matter” (2006), for example, the artist made a series of black-and-white photos in which he transmuted lactescent seafoam into a solid dark substance. While in the series “Another Day Without You” (2013), decomposed black-and-white images of architectural interiors are reassembled into impossible forms that I saw as recalling the famous prints by M.C. Escher. Speaking about the series “My Nights are Brighter than your Days” (2016), Fanny said that the photos are trying to tell a story.
Reflecting on my journey to Abidjan, I felt a similar feeling, knowing that there were many dualities and subtexts yet to be discovered. Towards the end of my trip, I met the conservator of Musée des Civilisations, Baba Oumar Gbane, one last time, who told me: “You will be back. I will only take you back half way.”