The capital of Madagascar is not widely recognised for its abundant contemporary art scene.
But, in recent years, a culture ecosystem has exploded in the city locals call ‘Tana.
This emergent scene has been buoyed by Fondation H, a new art foundation which opened in ‘Tana on 28 April. The foundation has upwards of 2,200 sq. m of exhibition space and will act as “a catalyst for the local art scene and ecosystem”, its founder Hassanein Hiridjee tells The Art Newspaper.
Hiridjee, a French-Malagasy art collector, is the chief executive of Axian, an energy, telecommunications and financial services group that is operational across the African continent. Hiridjee started his art foundation in 2016 before opening a small exhibition space in Antananarivo in 2019.
“When I launched the foundation, I realised there was an absence of institutions in terms of public infrastructure and programmes for artists,” Hiridjee says. “There was a real thirst and desire to come and encounter art and understand culture. Quite quickly we became more powerful and today we’ve reached 15,000-20,000 visitors per year.”
The new space is housed in a magnificent red-brick building dating from the early 20th century. It originally served as Antananarivo’s central post and telegraph offices during France’s colonial rule of Madagascar. The art centre is located in a district of the city known as Ambatomena, meaning the “place of red stones” due to the reddish-hued colonial edifices.
The space has been extensively renovated by the Malagasy architectural firm Otmar Dodel, who worked in collaboration with local craftsmen. The architects studied original plans in the city’s archives in order to restore the building’s facades to their former grandeur.
The foundation aims to present one major show per year, with no entry fee. “It’s a free meeting place,” Hiridjee says.
Beyond the art, Fondation H has a carefully-tended garden: “A haven of peace and oasis,” Hiridjee says. "It’s like the Champs-Elysées of Antananarivo.”
The inaugural show is dedicated to the late Madame Zo—the artist’s name of Zoarinivo Razakaratrimo (1956-2020), who devoted her practice to reinventing Madagascar’s ancestral tradition of weaving.
Madame Zo won the Prix Paritana—a prize awarded annually to a Malagasy or Madagascar-based artist by Fondation H—in 2020. The exhibition’s title, Bientôt je vous tisse tous [Soon I will weave you all], derives from a message that she wrote to the Prix Paritana’s jury shortly before dying from Covid-19.
Madame Zo’s work has been exhibited in the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris and the Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art, in Washington, D.C. But the exhibition of her work at Fondation H is personal for Hiridjee, for it was she who nurtured Hiridjee’s passion for art.
On view are works produced over two decades. They evoke the importance of lamba, a wild silk or cotton fabric, in Malagasy culture and how Madame Zo indefatigably experimented with weaving, employing a vast array of man-made and natural materials, from wood and medicinal plants to metals, newsprint, bones and food.
“There’s not a single artist in Madagascar who doesn’t know her, so it’s important to recognise her work and present it to an international public,” says Margaux Huille, the director of Fondation H.
Fondation H follows on the heels of Hakanto Contemporary—another privately run art centre founded in Antananarivo in 2020 and funded by the collector and entrepreneur Hasnaine Yavarhoussen. Hakanto’s curatorial mission is powered by its artistic director, Joël Andrianomearisoa, who represented Madagascar’s first national pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019.
But can these pioneering art foundations make a real difference to the lives of Antananarivo’s local people, many of whom live in extreme poverty? Or are they the preserve of the city’s wealthy elite? These questions are prevailing, given the economic reality. According to Unicef, more than two thirds of children in Madagascar live in “multidimensional poverty—without access to education, health, housing, nutrition, sanitation or safe water”. Meanwhile, the World Bank states that the country’s population of about 28 million (as recorded in 2020) has one of the world’s highest poverty rates.
Inevitably, Antananarivo’s city hall prioritises the social needs of its two million inhabitants over cultural investment. In an interview, Elia Ravelomanantsoa, city hall’s director of arts, culture and communities, concedes that “very little budget can be devoted to culture”. But concerted efforts are being made. “The city hall is renovating its libraries, has transferred land for artists’ residences and launched the construction of a small cultural centre in the emblematic area of Andohalo,” she says.
Madagascar’s federal government is also paying attention to culture as well, Ravelomanantsoa says, noting that Madagascar’s president, Andry Rajoelina, is constructing a national arts school, the Académie Nationale des Arts et de la Culture, as the country’s previous art schools closed a few decades ago.
But, given the limited resources at hand, Ravelomanantsoa welcomes private initiatives. “The establishment of these two foundations [Hakanto Contemporary and Fondation H] has provided a boost to contemporary art,” she says. “We’re hopeful that others will follow.”