I Fell in Love with Togo

I arrived in Lomé on Saturday night, the first moment I touched the ground while getting off the plane was magic. I immediately felt at home. The heat, the smell, the humidity, the spirits. The long visa and chaotic baggage procedures were not affecting me at all; it was part of that reality, part of the play. It felt like many years ago when I arrived for the first time in Honduras. Koudjo, a Togolese friend of an acquaintance in Los Angeles, picked me up; it was so good to be welcomed by somebody with whom you immediately connect. He dropped me off at the hotel. People were nice, the hotel room was okay, the view onto the ocean beautiful.

I decided to make this trip for personal reasons very spontaneously, but I had already set up meetings with several institutions and artists. I used the Sunday to acclimatize and get used to the environment.

The strong spirits of this country, the friendliness and overwhelming kindness of the people had embraced me immediately. Though chaotic, air polluted and shaken by poverty and a lack of infrastructure, this African country had made me fall in love with it. The crowds of moto taxis, the so-called zémidjan, performing their breaknecking races and honking fests, runners on the marina along the beach on Sunday morning to the sound of drums and tin cans transforming their workout into a rhythmic performance of solidarity, the beautiful dresses of men and women, children playing in the streets, chicken running on the powdery streets of the residential neighborhoods, workers on construction sites performing like actors, living work as a passion. Remembering all this from a not so far time distance in the context of Northern civilization, makes this week appear like a surreal dream. The beauty of Togolese people, the elegance, the respectful and loving attitude in contrast to most of the guests from the US, Europe and Libya, impacted me and will always influence me. Human dignity and humbleness, instead of arrogance and egocentrism, are such valuable codexes which many people from industrialized countries seem to have lost somehow.

Koudjo took me to the Grand Marché on Monday where I bought typical spices and ginger for my bronchitis. We went to the University afterwards where he wanted to meet some friends and play volleyball for a while. A group of young military members from the US had just arrived for a one- month-exchange in order to learn French, they were all playing together, it was a funny get- together. It was getting dark and I was starting to panic since I didn’t ́ have any vaccination or malaria prophylaxis and had to protect myself from the myriads of mosquitoes which were starting to attack. We left and picked up Koudjo’s wife Mélodie and went to have dinner at their house with their three most wonderful kids. Both parents hard workers, Mélodie working for a European NGO and Koudjo running as a partner the NGO Acteurs Réunis. A great couple managing a challenging everyday life in a positive way.

Before meeting with the institutions and artists in Lomé, I wanted to go to Cotonou, Bénin, to see the Biennale Bénin, where one of our ARTPORT artists, Meschac Gaba, is presenting his huge project MAVA (Museum of Art for the Active Life). It is very difficult to get from Lomé to Cotonou, no bus lines, no trains of course, the flights very expensive. Koudjo organized a taxi to the border where a friend of his from Cotonou was going to pick me up, but they didnt give me a visa, like they obviously used to do before. Apart from my bronchitis, I had caught it at Roissy airport in Paris on my flight to Lomé, the taxi driver was an unfriendly person, the first one I had met since my arrival. We all traveled back together to Lomé in order to get my visa at the Embassy. But when we finally arrived at 12:05 p.m., it had just closed 5 minutes earlier. I felt weak, my energies were leaving me, and I decided to drop that plan. It was such a pity, but it is still on until January, so I hope to be able to return until then. I checked in again at the Hotel Ibis and set up my meetings.

On Wednesday I went to the Village Artisanal and bought some Christmas presents for family and friends and then walked to the Grand Marché again, without any problems by the way, bought some fruit at Valérie ́s stand and her brother Ephrem took me for a tour to the fabric section in the market, a huge and great place to buy fabrics from West Africa.

I first met Hervé Lenormand, the Associate Director of the French Institute. As every French institution they are struggling against budget cuts, but they still seem to be doing a great work, not only offering a French platform for Togo, but also a platform for Togolese artists. They will have to move to a new location soon confronted with big challenges, but Hervé is a very creative and positive person and will transform the challenge into a chance. He introduced me to Rémy Akakbo, a Belgian citizen from Togolese origins who is currently reconstructing the Grand Rex Cinema into a cultural center with a huge movie theater and exhibition space. Hervé set up an appointment for me immediately for the next morning and the assistant of Rémy, Wisdom, picked me up at the Institut Français at 9 a.m. to walk over to the construction site. I was impressed, this site was an artwork itself. Every worker a performance artist, the way the works were structured and coordinated seemed a conceptual piece. And the velocity in which they were performing and accomplishing could be an example for European workers, honestly. I visited the site during three consecutive days and was extremely surprised by the efficiency and the evolution of the works. They want to finish the works on December 20 and I asked during my first visit: “Of 2013?” Rémy laughed and said: “No, next month.” Now I know that they will.

The people of Togo have an extraordinary dedication towards their work, they love it and they are determined and happy with what they have. But they have so much more chances to improve their living conditions. I hope that politics are going to change slowly since Africa seems to be the continent of the future. But I am confident since there are so many expatriates going back to their country of origin in order to contribute for social change which is a great mixture of experiences and gives hope.
The Benin artist, based in the Netherlands and Cotonou, Meschac Gaba introduced me to some Togolese artists and I had the chance to meet with Eza Komla and El Loko who were both in Lomé at that time. I couldn’t meet with Sokey Edorh since he is living in Kpalimé which is 150 km North of Lomé and I didnt have enough time to visit. Next time.

Eza picked me up at the hotel to take me to his exhibition at the Centre Culturel Denyigba. He was quite surprised that I didnt want to take a moto taxi since it is the cheapest way of moving around. But I was sick and I had promised to my mother to be careful, so I preferred a normal taxi. We took a 20 minutes ride from the beach to the neighborhood Saint Joseph, first over asphalted roads, then only dusty streets. The rich red color of the sand, the contrast to the green of the plants and the colorful clothes of the people were im
pressive. The CCD is a small center with an outdoor auditorium and an exhibition space. Eza exhibits a selection of installations and sculptures and also showed me his large paintings, here focused onto the subject of “la marche”, the movement, deambulation and identity. He recycles material, in this exhibition the typical plastic slippers which are worn by many people in African countries and which is symbolic for his topic. Eza is a self-taught artist with a great intellectual capacity, one of many examples in Togo of persons who don’t have too much access to education, but were born with a huge talent and fight their way through to reach their objectives. Though he studied architecture. It is difficult for Eza to travel abroad, but he is always active in applying and getting residencies. He did residencies in Cameroon, Benin, Ghana and Colombia, where he realized his project “Water for Life” financed by the UNESCO-Aschberg fond at Desearte Paz. We then drove to his studio, actually the garden at his uncle ‘s house where he showed me his latest sculptures and installations, an amazing combination of recycling found material, combining African concepts with conceptual thinking. But apart from this he also does performances and video. Not only his art impressed me, so authentic, down to earth yet conceptual and up to date, but also his way of living and reflecting the world and life. Solidarity, sharing, exchanging, respect and peaceful behavior, keys for a life in Togo.

I also met El Loko, a Togolese artist who is based in Germany since the seventies who studied with Joseph Beuys. He spends some months of the year in Togo, in his birth village Pédakondji where he is dedicating a lot of his time to the development of his international cultural center fomenting exchange and to producing new work. After meeting Eza, the difference between a Togolese and an expatriate artist became very clear, one artist seriously trying with all his means to realize his objectives with near to nothing in his hands, but a conceptual and authentic way of thinking, and the other one who already made it and had adapted to the European mode of behavior. The work of El Loko, who is renown in his country, is currently focused onto creating a cosmic alphabet as a universal language. Though I find the idea which he presented at the Biennale in Dakar in 2005, “Empty headed Golliwogs” much more interesting since it relates to a very specific subject: the one of racism, misunderstandings, prejudices, still existing ideas of colonialism, and the challenges of a rich and at the same time poor continent.

At the Institut Français I attended the opening of an exhibition on Friday evening showing hand- painted billboard charts, a mixture of art and marketing material reflecting West African aesthetics and humor by several African artists. I met interesting Togolese artists, French government officials and Togolese expatriates. The artistic world of Lomé is small, of course, but the way the people treat each other and are curious, is amazing. I never, unfortunately, experienced this in the city where I am currently living, and the art world is small here as well. I think this has little to do with the size of a place, but with its human quality. And that is what I found in Lomé, in Togo, a human friendliness and authenticity, sincerity and respect, which will always guide me.

Before leaving the country on Saturday evening, I had the incredible chance to meet maybe one of the most important dealers of tribal art in the world. Rémy took me to his uncle ́s house and I was stunned: We entered the living room and I was overwhelmed by so much African art from the 15th century until today: Sculptures, paintings, jewelry, masks, doors, furniture, and so on. My eyes were overloaded, my senses overwhelmed. And in between these centuries of cultural treasures, an impressive persona was sitting on his huge couch in a beautiful green silk dress with an amazing charisma, an incredible charm and serenity, a cosmopolitan living in Lomé and dedicated in a vocational passion if not obsession to his art. We had a friendly conversation and I received an insight into his world.

I still had some hours until my departure and another friend introduced me and accompanied me to Michel Aveline, a French expatriate who runs several businesses in Lomé and serves as adviser to the President as well. I told him about a project idea I had for Togo and asked for his advice, and within the next 1,5 hours I learnt about so many new facets of this country, of how official governmental processes work, of how people function, of how you have to implement a project properly in this country, and who is important. And he showed me some of the art works in his collection, like William Wilson, Christophe Bonacorsi and others. His view from the office to the ocean, the building is based directly on the beach near to the border to Ghana, was dazzling and the perfect conclusion to my adventurous and mind opening trip to Togo.

Akpékaka, Togo (thank you very much, Togo). I will be back.

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