Biennials were non-existant in the tiny West African country of Benin, but now, not one but two separate international art festivals are taking place on the same dates, and in the same cities. This embarrassment of riches is not the product of coincidence, but the result of a bitter political soap opera that is threatening to overshadow the art itself.
The publicly funded Biennale Benin and Biennale Regard Benin both grew out of a 2010 exhibition celebrating 50 years of independence from French rule called “Regard Benin”. In 2011, the director of the Regard Benin Association, Ousmane Alédji, accused a fellow board member of unethical behaviour, specifically, of using his position as a representative to the Ministry of Culture to obtain certain “privileges and favours”. Humiliated, the board member resigned in a storm of controversy, taking with him a handful of colleagues. This breakaway group founded its own biennial, Biennale Benin. For Alédji, the reasons behind the founding of this second biennial are simple: “It’s because of money,” he told a Beninese journalist. “They formed their ‘consortium’ of resigners simply to bring disorder.” Furthermore, Alédji is outraged by Biennale Benin’s actions, accusing them of stealing his concept: “I call this a hold-up. It’s a robbery worthy of the mafia.”
Biennale Benin’s French-Moroccan curator, Abdellah Karroum, is keen to avoid the politics of the situation and bring attention back to the art. He wants people to concentrate on “the artistic programme, as the polemic is a game of local power and not in the interests of local artists”. Karroum, a curator who works extensively with African art, sees the event as an opportunity to provide some much needed exhibition space for local artists. “This little country deserves deeper exploration,” he says.
Karroum’s programme is set to include one major international exhibition, which will take place in an abandoned supermarket, ten special projects and a series of “encounters”. Featured artists include the Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed, who currently has a solo show at the Centre Pompidou, Paris (until 7 January 2013), the Norwegian artist Toril Johannessen and a long list of local artists, including Georges Adéagbo and Edwige Aplogan.
Biennale Regard Benin’s programme is just as large with a host of projects taking place across the country, including works by leading artists such as Bill Viola and Harun Farocki and a workshop that will see students from Hamburg’s School of Fine Arts working with local artists.
Both biennials have the stated intention of shedding light on Benin’s artistic scene, but the turbulent nature of their endeavours has hogged the limelight. Alédji, however, still holds out hope that the two festivals can be united: “All is not lost, we can still get there, together.”
• Biennale Benin and Biennale Regard Benin, Various venues in Benin, 8 November-12 January 2012
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'West African biennials begin with bitter battles'