Togo may be a small West African country but it has made a big impact in the world of culture by transforming a 120-year-old colonial palace into a modern centre for contemporary art. Beverly Andrews attended the opening ceremony.
African contemporary art has become perhaps the most collectable in the world at the moment. African art fairs such as 1-54 – which now takes place in three cities – or Bamako’s Photography Biennale draw blockbuster crowds.
And yet much of the art produced by African artists ultimately ends up either in Western galleries, and/or Western private collections. There are few galleries large enough on the continent to host them.
It is a fact Western museums often point to when African governments continue to lobby for the return of the continent’s artefacts. But this trend appears to be changing. 2018 saw the opening of the Museum of Black Civilisations in Senegal’s capital Dakar, with room for 18,000 works of art.
Although many of the gallery rooms remain empty, there is hope that it will eventually house many works thought lost to the continent. Apart from Senegal, Benin and Nigeria are also opening new galleries.
But perhaps the most exciting event so far has been the opening of the Palais de Lomé in Togo late last year. This is the only contemporary African art centre to be fully financed by the state.
The centre is housed in the impressive 120-year-old building constructed originally for August Kohler, the German Governor at the start of the twentieth century. The Governor’s Palace, as it was called, was meant to convey the majesty of the colonising power and to be visible from the sea.
The building was taken over by the French following Germany’s defeat in World War 1 and then by the government following independence in 1960. In the early 1990s, it housed the Prime Minister’s office but it was abandoned thereafter. During all this time, it remained closed to the public until its transformation into the country’s major art centre.
The entire project was overseen by its director, Sonia Lawson, a former consultant of L’Oréal in Paris. She says: “The objective of the project was to transform this patrimonial building, open it to the public, and show an Africa of today.”
She adds: “The centre is here to present the best of Africa, not just from Togo and the neighbouring countries in West Africa, but art and design from the rest of Africa.”
The building covers nearly 26,000 square foot and will house a permanent exhibition space, dedicated galleries for temporary shows, live performances, and exhibitions devoted to both photography and design, alongside a bookstore as well as two restaurants.
The venue will celebrate Togo’s rich and varied history, with a commitment to supporting a variety of art forms as well as having a focus on both science and technology.
The art centre will also host activities focused on environmental sustainability. With its stunning 26 acres, which stretch to the sea-front, and as home to a precious biodiverse environment, the site offers an unparalleled urban experience right in the heart of Lomé. It is an experience rare for any world capital.
The Palais currently hosts five exhibitions, including ‘Togo of the Kings’, which explores the role this tiny country has played in the history of the region as well as the part played by the kings who ruled the region’s kingdoms. Many of the artefacts displayed have been taken from the current regional king’s personal collections.
‘Infinity’ is another of the five exhibitions, and focuses on the work of the late artist and designer Kossi Aguessy. Aguessy was one of the country’s leading international artists and designers who sadly died before the Palais de Lomé’s opening. What had initially been planned as a collaboration between him and the curator for this particular exhibition has now become a retrospective of his work.
‘Three Borders’ looks at the work of six artists from six different countries and highlights how, despite the geographic boundaries these countries do have a close cultural relationship.
The artists in this group are: Kelani Abass (Nigeria), Edwige Aplogan (Benin), Tété Azankpo (Togo), Serge Clottey (Ghana), Euloge Glélé (Benin), Issah Al-Hassan (Ghana), Emmanuel Sogbadji (Togo) and Prince Toffa (Benin). Issah Al-Hassan, who is part of an arts collective in his home country of Ghana, stated at the opening that he felt the best way to ensure a future generation of African artists and collectors was to have more institutions like this one. In addition to taking art outside capital cities to local communities. “If they can see it then it will be something they themselves will either want to create or to collect.”
‘Lomé +’ takes a simultaneously historical and poetic approach to deliver an uncompromising point of view on the Togolese capital.
The exhibition allows visitors to explore Lomé, past, present, and future.
The remaining photographic exhibition is called ‘Renovations’ and chronicles the journey of the building’s renovations. One of the architects who worked on the project, Laurent Volay, stated of the process: “All the work done on the building was carried out by local crafts people and it was a journey for us both to learn to work together but we are so proud of what we achieved.”
The Palais will also host live performances alongside art workshops for local school children. There are hopes it could potentially have the international appeal of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, an art centre which transformed that previously little-known Spanish city.
But perhaps more important for now is the fact that for the Togolese, the Palais de Lomé has already become a symbol of pride. The beautifully restored Palais de Lomé stands as an open invitation to everyone to visit this tiny country. Togo looks set to welcome the world.