Through A Celestial Lens: Julie Banâtre And Léa Perier Loko Discuss Reimagining Beninese Sculpture In ‘Interstellar’

Interstellaire_Hommage a la sculpture du Benin_SEPTIEME Gallery Cotonou_Copyright Carlos Sodokpa_3

‘Interstellar, A Tribute to Beninese Sculpture’ at SEPTIEME Gallery in Cotonou is a captivating exhibition running until September 21st, 2024. This curatorial journey, conceived by the gallery’s directors Julie Banâtre and Léa Perier Loko, aims to reimagine the presentation of Beninese sculptures by drawing a poetic parallel between these art forms and celestial bodies. The exhibition is a visual and conceptual journey through an ethereal space, where the energy and spirituality of Beninese art are highlighted in a contemporary context.

The exhibition features works by renowned artists such as Eliane Aïsso, Sébastien Boko, Charly D’Almeida, Marius Dansou, Euloge Glèlè, Elise Tokoudagba, and Zinkpe. Each piece in the exhibition is carefully selected to embody the theme of cosmic exploration, with materials like terracotta, wood, and metal reflecting the deep spiritual and cultural heritage of Benin. The curators have skillfully integrated traditional motifs with modern artistic techniques, creating a seamless blend of past and present that invites viewers to engage with the artworks on multiple levels.

The scenography of ‘Interstellar’ plays a crucial role in creating an immersive experience for visitors. Sculptures are arranged to mimic a spatial journey, enhanced by strategic lighting and the use of reflective and translucent materials, giving a sense of floating through the cosmos. The works are presented on sand rather than traditional plinths, symbolizing the connection between earth and spiritual energy, and further deconstructing conventional gallery spaces to evoke a sense of otherworldliness. This innovative approach allows visitors to experience the sculptures in a setting that transcends traditional boundaries, fostering a deeper appreciation for the art.

Africans Column is honored to have interviewed the curators, Julie Banâtre and Léa Perier Loko, who provided valuable insights into their creative process and the exhibition’s themes. Their thoughtful responses shed light on the profound connections between traditional Beninese art and contemporary expressions, offering a unique perspective on this exceptional showcase.

Africans Column: What was the initial inspiration behind the theme of ‘Interstellar’? How did the analogy between celestial bodies and Beninese sculpture come about?

Curators: The initial inspiration behind the theme for “Interstellar” stemmed from our desire to break away from the traditional Western modes of exhibiting Beninese sculpture, which often rely on plinths, showcases, and associations with craft. Instead, we wanted to present these works within a highly poetic, contemporary context.

Our goal was to link reflections on Beninese spirituality with an exploration of universal themes, and the theme of space became an obvious choice. Gradually, the parallel with stars emerged as a fitting and innovative analogy for Beninese sculpture, highlighting the radiant energy and profound spiritual connections inherent in these works.

As a Franco-Beninese gallery, our external perspective on Benin inspired us to offer a new viewpoint, creating a dream-like invitation to travel through this interstellar journey, merging traditional heritage with a contemporary, universal context.

Africans Column: Could you both elaborate on how you developed the curatorial vision for this exhibition? What key ideas and themes did you aim to convey?

Curators: To elaborate on how we developed the curatorial vision for this exhibition, we aimed to create an other-worldly landscape, cut off from the usual references, prejudices, and contexts, allowing us to return to the primacy of perception, sensation, and beauty. Our intention was to re-embark on a new enchantment and connect visitors with Beninese spirituality. This approach celebrates Benin’s traditions through a universal prism rather than a particular one.

Our curatorial vision was crafted to convey the idea of interconnectedness and the dynamic interplay between contemporary artistic expressions and traditional Beninese art forms. We focused on key ideas and themes such as reciprocity and mutual actions within intervals, the continuous renewal and formation of new entities, and the entanglement of individual pieces to create a greater whole. Through this exhibition, we aimed to highlight the timelessness and the deep spiritual and historical significance of Beninese sculpture.

Installation Views of Interstellar, A Tribute to Beninese Sculpture At SEPTIEME Gallery Cotonou. Copyright: Carlos Sodokpa

Africans Column: What criteria did you use in selecting the artists and their works for this exhibition? What makes their work particularly relevant to the ‘Interstellar’ theme?

Curators: We selected artists and works for the exhibition based on their ability to embody the ‘Interstellar’ theme, focusing on coherence, diversity, and medium. We prioritized Beninese sculptors who could resonate with the cosmic exploration theme and included a minimum number of female sculptors to ensure representation. Materials like terracotta, wood, and metal, which echo the Vodoun tradition, were essential for their spiritual and cultural depth. The selected works stand out for their power, deep spiritual meanings, and their dialogue between past, present, and future, perfectly aligning with the theme of interconnectedness and cosmic exploration.

Africans Column: How do the selected works balance contemporary artistic expressions with traditional Beninese art forms? Can you provide specific examples?

Curators: The selected works balance contemporary artistic expressions with traditional Beninese art forms by integrating modern techniques and themes with ancestral motifs and materials. For example, Eliane Aïsso reinterprets the traditional asen altar to explore themes of life after death, blending traditional religious symbolism with contemporary artistic inquiry. Charly D’Almeida uses iron to evoke the powerful spirituality associated with war in Vodoun culture, merging traditional themes with modern materials and techniques.

Marius Dansou celebrates the power of women through sculptural headdresses that combine aesthetic traditions with contemporary design trends, creating a dialogue between past and present. Euloge Glèlè’s chiselled earth figures confront Benin’s spiritual heritage, showcasing how traditional craftsmanship can be infused with contemporary relevance.

The idea is to blur the distinction between traditional and contemporary, recognizing that such a separation is artificial and unnecessary. Glèlè’s work, for instance, has undeniable contemporary relevance while being deeply rooted in a living tradition in Benin. Techniques may be linked to craftsmanship, but they are also feats of artistic innovation, demonstrating how tradition and modernity can coexist and enrich each other.

Installation Views of Interstellar, A Tribute to Beninese Sculpture At SEPTIEME Gallery Cotonou. Copyright: Carlos Sodokpa

Africans Column: How did you approach the scenography to create an ethereal, celestial journey for visitors? What elements were crucial in bringing this vision to life?

Curators: The scenography was approached with the intent to create an ethereal, celestial journey for visitors, using several crucial elements to bring this vision to life. The arrangement of sculptures mimicked a spatial journey, enhanced by lighting that emphasized the radiant qualities of the works, creating an ambiance that evokes the vastness and mystery of space. Reflective and translucent materials were used to give a sense of floating and interstellar travel, heightening the immersive experience.

To create a relativity of perception and deconstruct the traditional gallery context, the works were presented on sand instead of plinths or in display cases. This sand, symbolizing earth and spiritual energy, was carefully arranged in a controlled manner, contrasting with its natural, free disposition. Additionally, neon lights, typically aligned on the ceiling, were randomly arranged as if fallen, further deconstructing the gallery space and enhancing the otherworldly atmosphere.

Africans Column: In what ways do the exhibited works engage with Benin’s spiritual and historical heritage? How important was this aspect in your curation?

Curators: The exhibited works deeply engage with Benin’s spiritual and historical heritage by drawing on traditional symbols, materials, and themes. This aspect was crucial in the curation process as it ensures that the exhibition not only showcases contemporary art but also pays homage to the rich cultural and spiritual history of Benin. Artists like Elise Tokoudagba, whose clay sculptures honor ancient Dahomey and its gods, exemplify this engagement.

Installation Views of Interstellar, A Tribute to Beninese Sculpture At SEPTIEME Gallery Cotonou. Copyright: Carlos Sodokpa

Africans Column: What key messages or themes do you hope visitors will take away from the exhibition regarding Beninese culture and its artistic legacy?

Curators: We hope visitors will take away a profound appreciation for Beninese culture and its artistic legacy, understanding how contemporary sculptures are deeply rooted in spiritual and historical contexts. The exhibition aims to convey the relativity of time, the interconnectedness of all things, and the continuous renewal of cultural and artistic expressions. By journeying through this interstellar space, visitors are invited to broaden their vision, embrace the humility taught by the vast universe, and recognize the enduring power and relevance of Beninese sculpture.

‘Interstellar, A Tribute to Beninese Sculpture’ is not just an exhibition but a transformative experience that invites viewers to reconsider the relationship between art, culture, and the cosmos. By drawing on the rich spiritual and historical heritage of Benin, the exhibition highlights the timeless relevance of these sculptures while presenting them in a contemporary, universal context. Through this interstellar journey, visitors are encouraged to broaden their vision and embrace the enduring power of Beninese art.

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