Togo’s First Major Art Park Is Helping the Country Reclaim Its Heritage: ‘This Place Is Now Ours’ - The World News

Togo’s First Major Art Park Is Helping the Country Reclaim Its Heritage: ‘This Place Is Now Ours’

If the former colonizers of Togo saw the Palais de Lomé, the country’s first major art and culture park, they might have found it a “nightmare,” said Sonia Lawson, the center’s founding director.

The 26-acre grounds include a sprawling building that recalls the European palaces that once hosted kings and queens. When construction was completed in 1905, the building symbolized colonial power and exclusion under the German empire. Today, however, the building is open to the public.

 “Transforming this narrative into something else and opening a new chapter was very important and symbolic for us,” Lawson told ARTnews. “People are proud to have such a place that is now ours.”

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A wide open brick entrance hall from which hang four giant clusters of translucent glass bubbles.

Its presentations would have been unthinkable to the Germans, the British, and the French who colonized Togo before it gained independence in 1960.

Right now, on the ground floor of the Palais de Lomé is a solo show for Kossi Aguessy, a designer born in Lomé, Togo, who was of Togolese, Beninese, and Brazilian descent. His works are found in the collections of museums across the globe, from the Museum of Modern Art to the Centre Pompidou, but not typically in the galleries of Togolese art spaces. Aguessy had expressed interest in showing his work in Africa before his death at 40 in 2017, and the show functions as a posthumous tribute. The response to the show has been positive.

Four other shows devoted to Togo’s history and Pan-Africanism went on view in 2019, when the Palais de Lomé opened, and have gained the general public’s attention.

A gallery with a stone chair on a pedestal.

Among the exhibitions on view at the Palais de Lomé is a survey of work by Kossi Aguessy, a Togolese-born designer whose work has rarely been shown in his home country.

©Nicholas Robert

For Lawson, the Palais de Lomé is more than an art center. She thought hard about how the palace, once a private residence for German, English, and French governors, could be embraced by Togo. In thinking about this, she ensured that Togolese firms were involved in its renovation as a “means to reclaim our inheritance, so to say this place is now ours.”

The mansion has gone through many transformations. Once Togo gained independence, it was the seat of the presidency of the Togolese Republic until 1970, then was later used as a residence by the country’s Prime Minister, Joseph Kokou Koffigoh. But amid a period of social and political unrest, including attacks by the country’s military and citizens in the early 1990s, the building fell into disrepair. It was uninhabited for about 20 years until the president of the Republic of Togo intervened in the early 2010s.

In 2014, President Faure Gnassingbe’s government appointed Lawson to restore the space, which is now home to exhibition spaces, a library, a bookstore, an auditorium, a botanical garden, and restaurants hosting workshops, talks, cultural and live events.

In addition, the center also commissions creatives on projects like “Togo Yeye” (“A New Togo”), a collective cofounded by Togolese photographer Delali Ayivi and artist and curator Malaika Nabillah that highlights Togolese creatives.

Even though the space has become a hotbed for events and tourism, the Palais de Lomé’s newest transformation was initially met with skepticism, Lawson said—but added that it is a “very satisfying moment to see that they were wrong in their projection.”

As well as partnering with external organizations on shows, the Palais de Lomé prioritizes working with Togolese ironworkers, potters, weavers, and carpenters who are brought on board to assist with events held in the space. The aim is to highlight their importance in a society where they are not always respected and to build on that sense of community.

A group of people staring at a photograph of a person in a market wearing machine parts that have been painted gold.

“Dig Where You Stand,” an exhibition now on view at the Palais de Lomé, was designed by its curator Rosemary Esinam Damalie as “an African community project.”

Courtesy the Palais de Lomé and African Artists’ Foundation

One of the shows currently on view at the Palais de Lomé is the second edition of the traveling exhibition “Dig Where You Stand,” titled ‘From Coast to Coast: Seke.” Organized by the African Artists Foundation (AAF), it officially opened on September 15 and is on view until March 2024. The first edition was held at Ibrahim Mahama’s Savannah Centre for Contemporary Arts (SCCA) in Tamale in the Northern Region of Ghana. The current show is curated by Rosemary Esinam Damalie, with curatorial advice from Azu Nwagbogu, the founder and director of AAF, who also curated the previous edition.

The exhibition connects Togo to other Ewe-speaking countries, building on the call for African solidarity espoused by Ghana’s first president and Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah.

“One of the reasons communities in Africa were deeply colonized was because of the language barrier between colonialists and the indigenous people,” Damalie told ARTnews.

“I thought that it was very interesting that one of the ways we could mediate issues of colonialism and the effects it has had in our communities would be that we communicate with one another through local languages.” (Ghana is an English-speaking nation bordered by Togo and Benin, two countries that both use French as their national language. All three countries are united by their Ewe-speaking communities.)

On display are over 160 works spanning mediums including painting, photography, video, sculptures, and installation from the likes of Zanele Muholi, Victor Ehikhamenor, Sika Akpalo, Joana Choumali, Dodju Efoui, Kongo Astronauts, Tessi Kodjovi, Kwami DaCosta, and Renzo Martens and the Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC).

A sculpture of a Black man's head with a radio covering his eyes. The sculpture is set within a pond covered in lily pads.

Work in “Dig Where You Stand” at the Palais de Lomé.

Photo Damilare Adeyemi/Courtesy African Artists’ Foundation

The works on view focus on the effects of colonialism on the African continent and explore issues including decolonization, migration, repatriation, restitution, and the power of the arts to positively impact communities on the continent and its diaspora.

While the Palais de Lomé is the main exhibition space, the organizers have also brought the offerings beyond its walls, hosting mobile photo exhibitions, film screenings, and workshops in local communities. The captions and wall texts are in French, English, and Ewe, a local language widely spoken in Togo.

Including the local language makes “people feel at home when they are in the space. It’s kind of restoration within the arts community where all you see is that people are speaking English or just French,” explained Damalie.  

Moreover, the “Dig Where You Stand” concept works for the continent instead of adopting the Western model of exhibitions.

“In the long term, it’d become something like an African community project [that is intentional about] using indigenous materials and including communities in the process while it is moving around the continent,” said Damalie of the show.  

Like Palais de Lomé, the LagosPhoto festival tells Africa’s story on its terms.

For the first time, the festival, also organized by the AAF and now in its 14th edition, is taking place not just in the Nigerian city but also in Cotonou, Ouidah, and Porto-Novo in Benin. Co-curated by Nwagbogu and Peggy Sue Amison, the theme of the event is “Ground State – Fellowship Within The Uncanny.” It explores issues including restitution and restoration.

Nwagbogu shared that, as part of his research as a curator for Benin’s inaugural participation in the Venice Biennale in 2024, he traveled around the country, inspiring the idea of having Benin host the festival.

“What we had done in Lagos,” he said in a recent interview with ARTnews, referring to creating a platform that nurtures and provides career opportunities, including with international publications for local photographers. “We want to do in Benin, so it’s not a gimmick. It’s not a one-off.”

The line-up for the festival, which opened in October and runs through December 31, includes exhibitions, workshops, screenings, and large-scale outdoor installations. It features works by photographers from Africa and the rest of the world, such as Zanele Muholi, Laeila Adjovi, Louis Oke-Agbo, and Carlon Idun.

Nwagbogu added that photography is “the definite medium of our time” for enabling the visibility of contemporary art and artists in Africa and its diaspora to participate actively in global conversations.

Sixteen years after the founding of the African Artists Foundation, he is confident that he and his team “want to do more,” expanding on the significant role the organization has played in building and supporting art communities in Nigeria, Africa, and globally through various initiatives like Dig Where You Stand exhibition and LagosPhoto Festival.

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