Akasia News

Dances of the present

Equipped only with a small video camera, a sound recorder and my dancing body I got to know new friends in Grand Popo. For me, the dances that I participated in during my time in Villa Karo was a part of a continuous, international and intercultural exchange. In this text I want to discuss dancing as a place to meet and share in between people.

I came to Villa Karo on the search for meaningful dances. I mean “meaning-full” as in full of meaning. A dance that offers something for both the spectator and for the dancer. To me, a meaningful dance does not have to mean anything in the sense of a traditional story. It only has to offer something valuable for somebody, to the spectators, and/or to its participants. This is off course a very personal taste-related opinion. For the fun of it, think a moment on what a meaningful dance would be to you. When does a dance appear meaningful to you? Does it have to do with the style of the dance? the skill of the dancer? Or does it have to do with who the person dancing is? How do you feel when dancing yourself? Do you like better to dance alone or in relation to other people? Does it feel more meaningful to dance by yourself or to watch others dance?

In my eyes there is a great meaning in seeing people move their bodies, and to me it becomes even more meaningful outside of the theatre stage, when the dance comes from a personal desire to move. In lack of better words, lets call this kind of dance a spontaneous dance. I mean the kind of dance that you start doing when you hear a good song in a party, or when you make a sudden dance move in the kitchen, it could also be the dance that happen when you are walking next to your friend and you both suddenly start playing with the rhythms of your feet. To most people it might not look like a spectacular dance, but I think there is something magical happening when a person chooses to dance spontaneously.

Philosopher, dancer and writer Ph.D Kimerer LaMothe explains the value of a dancing body like this:

“To dance is to play with the movement that is making us. It is to cultivate a sensory awareness of how this movement is making us, and of how our own movements, as we shape and transmit the energy of life, are making us. To dance is to play with this movement in ways that allow us to discover and exercise our capacity to make our own movements (…) Dancing, we create ourselves. We become who we are.”

I imagine how “the movement that is making us, that Kimere is mentioning, is consisting out of everyday movements like typing on the computer, handshakes, or doing dishes. Our personal movements are also a result of all the possible ideas, images, experiences and memories about our body and our selves that we have gathered through our life time and up until this day. All this factors that make up our movements can be related to our personal history, our physical body, our self image and our socio-political and cultural upbringing. When considering all these ingredients, a simple dance seems to be a very personal act. And even so, when two or more people meet in a dance, these very personal experiences are shared and new experiences are created, and so a communication is taking place beyond language and culture barriers.

I am fascinated by the different kinds of movements that a human body is interested in doing, I can get absorbed by a persons unique choices of body movements, rhythms, accents, spatial levels and musicality. It does not have to be a technically difficult or a virtuosic dance for me to be interested, but it should be a personal dance. A personal dance requires the unique skill in being you and moving like only you can. A personal dance is like a gift from the depth of the spirit of the self. When a dance comes spontaneously it is both present in the moment and “a present” (a gift) of that moment.

In Finland I do not get these kinds of gifts so often, here dance is unfortunately considered as something that should be reserved for professionals. And so, when first I arrived in Grand Popo in Benin I was overwhelmed. Even though I expected to see a lot of dance during my time in Villa Karo, I had never expected to be a part of and to see so many spontaneous dances. I realized that this is a culture where the spontaneous dance is something very normal, even a necessary part of every day life.

During my time at Villa Karo I made it my mission to as often as possible catch spontaneous dance appointments with different people from different ages, social classes and backgrounds. From hardly dancing with other people then my dance colleges in studios and theaters for the last years I now found myself dancing at the beach, in parties, in backyards, in dance schools, in playgrounds and on streets in the village. The dancers whom I met where of all ages: children, young men, young women, old women and old men, both visiting Finns and Beninese people.

Left from all these meetings I have the memories of peoples rhythms and articulations, his or her way of watching me and my dance and their physical responses to my movements. I remember the movements we shared, the tone of their bodies and the different mindsets that their bodies reflected. One dancer is proud, one humble, one surprised, one teasing, one competitive. Some memories are marked by their surprised (or chocked..?) look of seeing a white young woman shaking loose in a dance untroubled by her lack of understanding for the elaborated Beninese rhythms. Some memories are marked with surprised faces or laughters from the sharing of the dance, and many memories are marked with friendly smiles and encouraging and pedagogic slowed-down movement sequences (my local co-dancers spent many sincere attempts to initiate me into the Beninese dance traditions).

To dance always feels different from occasion to occasion and so also during my time in Benin. Sometimes I was in bliss while dancing, sometimes I did not enjoy, sometimes I stopped very soon, sometimes I found a personal connection with somebody, sometimes I continued for a long time, sometimes I felt good and sometimes I felt bad. But always in all these dances, no matter my personal feelings, was the shared movements and the personal movements created by our personal bodies. And there was also the exchange of looks and the exchange of presence.

To share a dance is a constant exercise it empathic presence. In dance you are allowed to watch others with your full attention, and you are also inviting other people to watch you. To dance with someone you will have to observe a persons body posture, his or her movements and their choices of rhythm and articulation. You have to look at a person with a big amount of attention in order to take in all this, this act of looking is also building empathy to another person. I think it is even impossible to dance with somebody, no matter the style, without building a feeling respect for him or her. And think about how special that is, to observe another person in a dance. When was the last time in your life that you were invited to silently watch a stranger with full attention for a duration of more then a few seconds?

All these short meetings, so full of interesting details and cross-cultural communication are happening all the time all around the world, but most of the time they go unnoticed because nobody speaks about them. To Grand Popo new Finnish artists arrive every month. Most of them will at some point curiously visit a festive dance occasion in the village. At first the new visitor will probably only take a few shy steps, but hopefully they will feel encouraged to keep on moving. The dancing people from the village will probably give you a friendly glance and keep on dancing while inviting the visitor to become a part of the moving crowd. Once inside the crowd of dancing people, the visitor is faced with hundreds of choices of what to do: to follow or to lead, what body part to move, who to look at, what feelings to act upon etc. It might be confronting to make all these choices there instantly in the middle of the dance floor, but that is how a spontaneous dance evolves.

If that Finnish artists has the courage and the will, he or she can fill the dance with his or her own personal spontaneous dance moves. Most probably somebody will want to try them out. And so, step by step the exchange will evolve between people of different languages and different backgrounds, between people that have never spoken to each other, and even, in between people that never will speak to each other. It is in fact a political event on root level that is happening on the dance floors, it is a cultural exchange, a diplomacy exercise and an international collaboration between women and men of different worlds.

That is meaningful to me, and I hope that people will continue to meet in dances through the activities of Grand Popo and Villa Karo for a long time still to come.

 

Sandrina Lindgren is a theatre maker, dancer and physical actor. She is originally from Sweden but is currently based in Turku, Finland. Sandrina is creating works that are using visual and physical theatre and dance in order to observe beauty in daily mundane life. She has studied dance, choreography and visual theatre in Amsterdam and Israel and holds a BA from the dance academy in Amsterdam since 2010. Based on a few of the dancing meetings made during her residency in Villa Karo in 2016 three short films will be produced during 2017 and 2018. The films focuses on three different dancing figures in the area: the taylor Florence, the Togolese dancer Estelle Foli and the local dance school Cherubin Coco.

Vendors of all things

Erkki ja minä 1966

Erkki ja minä, 1966.

In a nocturnal landscape, abandoned and deserted petrol stations.
The story you find is never the one you expect from the outset. I could not envision a sense of a nearly total disability of verbal communication, though I knew I lacked any knowledge of the local languages. You get along with French but my french is, to say the least, rudimentary and few people here understand English.

Of course, we have our guides, with a basic knowledge of English and a preconceived idea of what a visitor would like to experience. I, on the other hand, have no interest in tourist attractions and my guide has a narrow vocabulary of comprehending my undefined search of motives. Slowly, after mutual misinterpretations, my own instincts start setting in.

On the busy market streets of the town of Comé an agitated mob have surrounded a thickset woman. More and more people gather and seem to heckle and jeer at the woman, who is sweating profusely. Steve, my guide and a university graduate, tells me she is a “bat woman”. Someone in the crowd has witnessed a bat descending on the street and transforming into a woman. The woman appears dazed and stares in front of her with empty eyes. She seems to have no means of defending herself, confronting a collective verdict. Many of the onlookers have their mobile phones raised, filming and recording the incident. A witch hunt in the age of mobile communications. Unable to escape or move, the woman lies down on the street, blocking all traffic.

I have an interest in individual and collective mental issues, which seem to converge into local spiritual practices. Here we have a base of voodoo beliefs and an
abundance of christian churches and configurations. And along this, there are the vendors of all things, from goods, services to guidance and spiritual practices. We westerners are the masters of this commerce, we do it behind a mask of cultivation.

I feel no desire to verbalize what I see. I react on a universally human visual language, based on gestures, glances, looks, shapes, forms and colours. One needs to understand there is only one story to tell, the story of the human experience.

And it comes with variations.

Hans v. Schantz
Villa Karo, Grand-Popo, Benin

ENVIRO-Crafts and Recycling Workshops

 

 

 

ENVIRO- Arts and Crafts Exhibition

 

VILLA KARO, LISSA GBASSA, May 2014

We are honoured to present the following artists:

Gabin Ayohouannon, Florent Coovi Nagoba, Richard Dinosaure, Hedy, Johanna Havimäki, Adjanohun Loetamini, Sakari Kannosto ja joulukuun työpajan osallistujat, Matti Kurkela, Albert Toessi

Oeuvre de Matti kurkela _web

Matti Kurkela: Mami-Wata

Text: Blanchard Djoussou and Maikki Salmivaara
Photos and video: Maikki Salmivaara

Opening of the crafts and recycling weekend of ENVIRO project

Confessions of an Anthropologist

Villa Karo’s intern in duty, Emmi, who is also an anthropologist, is reflecting ethics, understanding and responsibility in a foreign culture.

”No one will ever read it anyways. Those were the words that I kept repeating to myself every time I started to doubt my ethnographic skills during my fieldwork in Lagos, Nigeria. I wondered if I had understood my informants clearly enough. To make my life easier I lulled myself into believing that my informants in Nigeria will never read my master’s thesis. A funny thought, as I wrote the thesis in English in order to make it more available to everyone.

Finally I got myself to send my thesis about Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry, to the Lagosian university that helped me in my research. I was waiting for somebody to make remarks on the factual errors I had made in my deductions about the Nigerian society. However, nobody said anything. Maybe I had understood the culture ”correctly” or maybe I had emphasized strongly enough on the subjective quality of anthropological knowledge.

The actual traveling part aside, I dare to say that anthropologists in the early 20th century had it easier. Depending on the morale of the anthropologist, he or she could decide quite freely what to say about their research subjects. In most cases, describing the cultural differences was more important than to actually understand the cultural phenomena. The anthropologist was liable for the accuracy of his research to the Western audience, not to his research subjects – the ”natives” more than likely would not have been able to get a hold of the published research, let alone understand it.

I started to think about my experiences in the field while following the heated debate on the portrayal of West African vodun religion in Finland (and in the Western world in general). How does one portray one’s own experiences in an unfamiliar culture? I too signed the ”anthropologist’s ethical guidelines” on how to do ethnographic research while respecting one’s privacy and culture. Truthfully speaking I did not think too much about these guidelines – my informants were after all relatively accustomed to being in the spotlight! But the idea of ”no one will ever read it anyways” (my security blanket so to say) simply will not hold in the modern world.

Today everybody has, theoretically at least, access to published material on the internet. Even the research subjects, ”the natives”, can comment on the possible errors through social media. Researchers, artists, and other explorers need to think more carefully what and more importantly, how they portray their findings. The relationship between the researcher and the researched has become more equal. And rightly so!

After all this pondering, I decided to do something wild: you can download my thesis from the link below. Read it and feel free to comment! After all, that’s what anthropology is all about: cultural debate.

https://helda.helsinki.fi/handle/10138/135400

Everyday Life of Benin?

Finnish photographer Juha Metso’s exhibition “Voodoo – Afrikan arkea” (“Voodoo – Everyday Life in Africa” or “Glimpses of Everyday Life in Africa”) opened this week, and some of the exhibited photos were available for public already through Helsingin Sanomat’s web article earlier in September. The photographs represent powerful images of Vodun practices in Benin. The aesthetic and dramatic features of the situations are emphasized – through the use of black and white images, capturing sudden groans and strange movements of people, and creation of strong contrasts – but the photos also depict controversial themes such as animal sacrifice, and show places that are traditionally forbidden from people who are not adepts of the religion.

While aesthetic and artistic, the photos have also received critical feedback in social media and in discussions of the Beninese and also of the Finns who have shared a glimpse of Beninese life or of Vodun religion. Especially the exhibition title’s and text’s (which is also published online) claims that the photos offer views of common life in Africa (“Afrikan arkea”) or show a “sincere” depiction of the Beninese “reflecting themselves as if there were no one else around” is under scrutiny. We gathered together a few points of view that have come up during the discussion.

In the article by Helsingin Sanomat Metso ends his interview with a self-reflective statement:

“When one photographs others, one photographs himself.”

This insight is however omitted in the exhibition text by journalist Matti Tieaho, and a different view – which suggests that the photos depict “primitive locals” and bring the viewer to “the times of the missionaries” – becomes emphasized. The critical view concerning the photographs is that the pictures and their objects are chosen in a manner that supports stereotypes, and thus spread a problematic image of Benin and especially of Vodun, which is, like the Helsingin Sanomat’s article correctly notes, an everyday religion (just like Christianity, Islam, or Rastafarism) in Benin.

The everyday life, however, is not exactly what the images depict according to the Beninese: “These still photos, removed from the context, are deliberately shocking and can be interpreted in many false ways”, Beninese visual artist Victor Amoussou comments. He explains that:

“The photographer is obviously a talented professional, but does not understand what he has captured. In the eyes of someone born in the culture these images are theatrical, some even offensive, especially when claimed they represent everyday Vodun. This is surely not the way to build comprehension between different cultures, this is a moral crime.”

And as Finnish-Beninese musician Gildas Houessou points out:

“At some point we need to stop disrespecting the other cultures. Some of the photos are unfair and out of their context they give a shock effect. But are they really everyday life of Benin? These photos give an image of raw and uncivilized life in our country. Seeing these pictures abroad does not give anything more than a scary Hollywood image of us. Benin is still a calm and peaceful country. This is certainly not every day life of Beninese people.”

Finns attest to the discrepancy between different perspectives. Villa Karo’s former director, writer Miikka Pörsti comments that:

“This visually fantastic series of photos speaks more about the person behind the camera than of those in front of it, as photographer Juha Metso suggests in the related text. But the downside of this is that a few more people will, in vain, be afraid of Benin after seeing these photos.”

Also Jeanette Heidenberg gives an idea of the Finnish perspective:

“The use of black-and-white can be artistic, but to me it creates a distance, making the people in the pictures seem primitive and from a different time. Why were there no more everyday pictures? The text clearly states that Vodun is an everyday thing, but none of the pictures are of people who do things that a Finn can relate to as everyday things. Just kids playing football, for instance, would have been relatable.”

Metso’s photos and exhibition are connected to a book by the same title, also released this week. In the book the photos go along with texts written by writer and director of the board of Villa Karo Juha Vakkuri.

The director of the Society of Finnish Composers Annu Mikkonen commented the photos in relation to the texts, and has an optimistic view about the Finn’s abilities to relate to foreign cultures. According to her, even though the forms of everyday life are different all around the world, they share common features, and this supports understanding:

”I believe that the book is most interesting to people who are interested in other cultures and who understand cultural differences. Those who are looking for a sensation will probably be disappointed.”

As Miikka Pörsti points out, Metso’s photos have opened up an important discussion about the visual and textual representations of Benin and Beninese in Finland, and we hope that the discussion continues. In Jeanette Heidenberg’s words:

“Understanding another culture takes time and respect.”

***

There will be a special issue about the representations of “Africa” and “Africans” in Finland in the next volume of Villa Karo’s journal Akpé. Proposals for essays and comments can be sent to toimisto@villakaro.org by 20th October and the deadline for full texts (max. 2000 characters with spaces) is 20th November 2014.

Text: Anna Ovaska

***
Juha Metso’s exhibition presentation text by Matti Tieaho in English, translated by Leea Pienimäki-Amoussou

Juha Metso in Africa, in the times of the missionaries

We all know the exotic travel stories written by our friends, in which the most important tourist attractions, strange animals, the overwhelming heat, the lack of infrastructure and bizarre primitive locals are mentioned.

Extra points can be achieved by friendships from the country in question. An African Facebook-friend belongs to the basic equipment of every Finn who has language skills. Yet all of us who have travelled far away know how difficult it is to reach a sincere connection with people who live in a strange culture.

When did you last see an African photo, where the depicted people live like there is no one else present?

You cannot find a social message in Juha Metso’s Voodoo-photos. No deliberate some-gestures (gestures created for social media) or arrogant visual rebellion. All intentional communication has been cleared out of Metso’s photographs. The Beninese mirror themselves in the photos as if there is no one to see them.

In his Voodoo-photos Metso takes the viewer to the black-and-white era, when the missionaries invaded Africa. Witchery, the living and the dead, goats, cocks, and people living in their time bubble rush to Finland in Metso’s images. The black-and-white transforms into bright colors.

[Added text: -Matti Tieaho / Kouvolan Sanomat]

Metso photographed Africans for two months in late 2013 in Benin, West Africa. [Added text: This exhibition represents his views and experiences, seen through the eyes of a Finnish primitive local.]

Juha Metso (b. 1965) is a photograph artist from Kotka. During the past 30 years he has had almost one hundred private exhibitions in Finland and abroad. He has worked in more than 60 countries, and his work is represented in all the major Finnish art museums.”

***

Further discussion:

Also former visitor of Villa Karo, Hannele Huhtala, commented Metso’s photos in her blog in Voima. She points out that even though both parties (locals and tourists) actively participate in mystification of Africa, it is still problematic.

Juha Metso’s interview on YLE. He emphasizes that his photos are a mere scratch of African cultures, and that Voodoo (Vodun) is a much more diverse phenomenon than what is usually perceived in popular culture.

Memory

Memory, the exhibition of Anna Retulainen in Helsinki Contemporary 5.9.-28.9.2014.
The texts are from pages of Helsinki Contemporary helsinkicontemporary.com

Memory consists of a series of paintings and drawings that examines memory and remembering. The exhibition builds upon the experiences of two journeys Retulainen made to Africa in 2013. The first one started at Villa Karo in Grand Popo on the coast of Benin and took her to the savannas in the northern parts of the country. The second trip, during which she spent time in Boukombe in the Atakora district in Northern Benin, also encompassed travelling in Togo.

Retulainen stayed with the locals during her trips. She observed life, people and values; tried to understand. She also wrote about what she saw, attempting to render everything she was seeing and experiencing somehow believable. The drawings are her notes; drawing means being present.

Anna Retulainen: Lasti  (Nigerialaista salakuljetettua bensaa, ruokaa ja valkoinen auto). Kuva: Jussi Tiainen

Anna Retulainen: Lasti (Nigerialaista salakuljetettua bensaa, ruokaa ja valkoinen auto). Photo: Jussi Tiainen

“I’m drawing from observation, the observation is pure. I don’t know what I see, and I can’t understand what functions the objects and occurrences I witness actually serve. I painted from memory. The paintings are attempts to go back. I wanted to be as frank as I possibly could, to paint as soon as I came back home before the traces in my mind would vanish or become something else. The original observation is less present and more diluted in the paintings. While they aim to evoke a colour or shape that I once appreciated, what now remain are mere fragments from the past. As if I tried to remember a person who passed by or a scenery that I left behind.”

“I’ve been drawing the routines here, this strange life that has welcomed me as its guest. I’m being present in relation to these people and their homes. I perceive myself by drawing all this unfamiliarity and strangeness that excludes me from the community. I can never belong. The smallest of all our differences is the skin colour; we don’t meet except through smiles. It’s useless to try to explain this in words to anybody. Nobody who has not been here can possibly imagine how it’s like.”

In connection to the exhibition, Retulainen will publish a book, A Motorcycle Journey: Benin Togo 2013, that is based on her two trips.

An Evening in Paris is an exhibition serving as a preface to the Memory exhibition, it lasts for only one evening. It features the time Retulainen spent in an artist residence in Paris in the spring 2014 and the new works she created there. The discussion will revolve around Paris and its meaning for art and artists throughout history. It will also examine Paris in contrast to Berlin, another important centre for art and hub for artists.

The works in the exhibition are observations of everyday life. Drawn on large as well as small papers, they are depictions of a city called Paris, its past and present, and its memories, both common and collective, and private.

 

Discussion – Anna Retulainen & Mika Hannula

Mika Hannula: The title of the exhibition, Memory, is a direct reference to its subject matter – literally. Why memory? How did this interest in memory start?

Anna Retulainen: I’ve always done drawings before painting. For example, I always used still-life drawings as the base for still-life paintings. While painting, the lemon was no longer physically present: I had a drawing of a lemon and a memory of it. When I was drawing my mother on her deathbed, I realized that I’d very clearly remember all her facial features and her gnarled hands. This was really the first time that I focused in-depth on her features as a human being. Previously, I’d looked at her only as my mother.

The drawings are usually black-and-white. I look for the colours for the paintings in my memory, and they get mingled up with elements that disrupt observation, like, for instance, the memory of the unbearable heat in the Africa paintings. In Africa my perceptions were pure and free of knowledge and previous experience. I didn’t recognize the elements of everyday life. I drew so that I would remember, and so that I could believe I had been there and experienced it all. For me drawings imply being present in a given situation and places.

MH: How do you experience the materialization of the act itself, remembering, in drawing and painting?

AR: Drawing a thing, a place, or a situation imprints it on my mind. I don’t remember words or names, but I do remember images. The drawing tool traces a line in my memory at the same time as it leaves a mark on the paper. That is why drawings are ultimately unnecessary to me. They are only an intermediary.

MH: A drawing as an intermediary for a painting, yes – but what about the works that are drawings, for example, from the series you made in Benin, and which are in the new book. How does making them through and with the aid of memory make and produce reality in this series, both in its continuities and in certain exceptions? It seems memory in this case would not be a mere result of copying and recording. Rather, it would serve as a certain intermediate space that gives a pulse and space for something new and special.

AR: The drawings are not an intermediary for a painting, but for the image I immortalize in my mind, my memory. This image is real to me, I have experienced it. The drawings do not just record the reality that I see; they contain the whole situation, my own presence in it; my own state of mind. If I am hot and hungry, my perception is very different from when I am feeling good. Hunger and heat are good metaphors in the sense that they were powerfully present every day in Africa. By drawing I order and give shape to my environment. My drawings are very personal, they are my experiences.

I’d say the paintings are more like intermediaries, between me and the viewer. They are detached from the original experience, but at the same time they make it visible to the viewer.

MH: The exhibition is strongly linked with the time you spent in Benin. How did the time and experiences in Benin affect your way of working?

AR: I suppose at first I imagined I would be liberated. But now I would see the liberation being linked to a total lack of understanding of events, places, the language. I did not understand or even recognize anything at all around me. My own expectations and cultural determinants became useless because there was no room for them in my life there. What little I learned to understand of the local customs and life ultimately became a shackle that limited me even more than my own cultural expectations. I also got tired of constantly being a target of negative attention and an object of observation. Being aware of who I am became pointlessly important.

This didn’t happen on my visit in spring 2013, but only during my five-week motorcycle trip the following autumn. I was then constantly, for 24 hours a day, outside of my comfort zone. I was intensely aware that, if I didn’t draw, I wouldn’t believe my own stories later on. Drawing also gave me an excuse for being there. In the end, nobody questioned my existence. The most interesting thing about drawing was noticing that everything was alien. I was forced to look and think carefully about what I was seeing before I drew. At home a large part of my observations are constructed from memory. In Benin, however, I couldn’t use my memory – everything was new and strange, including people’s features.

I’m not able to experience the Africa that I encountered solely as a visual and experiential source of inspiration. I didn’t understand what I was seeing, and now, ultimately, I’m not sure whether it would be better if I still didn’t understand. The poverty, the squalor, the constant pleading and begging, the world of values and actions that was totally alien to me, all overwhelmed me. And it defeated me. I don’t want to think about the overpopulation in Nigeria (and all the other countries), or about the continent’s growing of plastic. The tropics cover and conceal the plastic. But it is and remains on the ground, and ultimately destroys everything. And I can do nothing about it.

MH: What about Paris, the residency there in spring 2014 – how has that affected your way of working?

AR: Paris was wonderful. I felt perfect peace there, and I found Paris the most comfortable city I have ever lived in. I fitted in with the majority there. I could walk around in peace, live a life whose basic structures and rules were already familiar to me. I was able to take some distance to Benin and Togo and the realities there. The drawings and writing I did in Paris and afterwards have rendered my African journey something true, something that really happened. Without them I would definitely believe I had imagined it all. It possible I may have actually distanced myself so much from Africa that it would be hard for me to go back there now. I guess I had to admit to myself that I am European and that I enjoy life in Europe.

MH: How do your experiences in Benin and Paris compare with each other?

AR: A white woman from the first world in black Africa is like a lighthouse. This was intolerable for me. I loved Paris, because I could walk around in peace, people barely notice passersby there. The most important thing both experiences afforded me was the chance to work in peace. I was beyond the reach of the expectations and determinants of my home country. I felt alien in both places: in Paris in an enjoyable and calming way; in Benin and Togo, at certain moments, in an extremely oppressive way. The fact that an adult person can do nothing, knows nothing, and is ultimately unable to engage with their fellow human beings on any recognizable level was intolerable for me in Africa.

I am not prepared to adopt alien customs; I can be a guest and respectful, but I can’t be changed. The centre of Paris is perhaps the one world’s most exclusive places. Everything is beautiful, the streets are cleaned every day, the food and pastries are, at best, works of art. People drink champagne and eat oysters. The city is filled with amusements: opera, theatre, music, countless museums and art galleries. People have Internet connections, and every possible personal entertainment device is available. In Boukoumbé there was no electricity. There was one bar that was alright, but became infested with mosquitoes as soon as it got dark. And the darkness lasts for 12 hours. The temperature at night is over 30 degrees. I’m glad that I have visited both places, and that I can now concentrate on growing vegetables in the peacefulness of Helsinki.

MH: And how, on the other hand, was Benin, through its colonial history and current contemporary situation, also present in Paris? How does this special arc and connection affect your work?

AR: I was in Benin when it became clear to me I’d have to go to Paris next, although I still did the motorcycle trip in Benin and Togo before Paris. I couldn’t understand anything about the life around me: I couldn’t decipher what was originally a product of the old colonial power, France, and what was African. In order to be able to grasp at least a little bit of all that, I knew I had to go to Paris. I had never lived in France. I’ve lived in England and Australia for longish periods, and I think I can recognize Britain’s influence on its old colonies. Consequently, in the end, another option would have been Ghana, but I don’t think I would’ve been able to stand it. In Ghana I might’ve been able to distinguish between what was African and what was of colonial influence, and I think that would’ve also helped me better understand the corresponding dynamic in the former French territories.

France’s presence in Benin and Togo is very visible and also, in my opinion, quite oppressive. Almost all tourists there (very few) are French or from Francophone areas. Information, schoolbooks and, of course, the language and all bureaucratic and administrative practices are inherited from the French. In any case, I am not particularly interested in colonialism. Yet it is impossible to miss it in the old colonies, where the presence of the “mother country” can be powerfully discerned in people’s ordinary everyday lives. My awareness of this was reinforced in Paris.

The way I felt about and related to Paris would’ve been very different had I not been in Benin. Simple observations I probably wouldn’t have noticed before: Paris’s city centre is extremely white. Disconcertingly white for the capital of Francophone Africa in Europe. The blacks are ‘hidden’ far from the city centre, except for the small, but lively Chateau Rouge commercial district. There it’s actually possible to sense something of Africa’s life and fragrances. The great dream of Europe and Paris ends in the sewer, and people from sub-Saharan Africa end up selling kitschy Eiffel Towers to tourists. The towers jingle and clatter as the sellers come out of the sewers. The story people tell at home in Africa is bound to be a lot more glamorous.

The pompousness of Paris, the victory symbols, the luxury oozing out everywhere and, on the other hand, the remnants of the colonial period such as the human zoo, took on a different meaning in my mind. The Eiffel Tower, a 320-metre-high, totally useless iron structure, with the zoo’s newly renovated 65-metre-high artificial mountain and the giraffes walking around it – a neat miniature Africa. Suddenly there was an awareness of Europeans once bringing citizens of their old colonies to “human zoos”, where people could go and marvel at them. In the same way as they now marvel at giraffes around the high mountain. Total exploitation and incomprehension are still a reality. People are very unequal, which is a self-evident statement, but now it has considerably more meaning to me. Things that previously were self-evident in everyday life aren’t self-evident anymore.

The subjects of my drawings are selected very much on the basis of my experiences. I would’ve never sought out and found the ruins of the human zoo from the 1931 colonialist exhibition in the Bois de Vincennes had I not been in Benin, the former Dahomey. I had read that there was a Dahomey pavilion there and I wanted to see it. I spent my birthday in the area, drawing. Now, the Human Zoo series is an important part of my exhibition. My attention was drawn to things that I would hardly even have glanced at before, or at least I wouldn’t have tried to remember them. Now, I went back and drew them, and I remember.

MH: And these experiences birthed the works, both drawings and paintings, that are now in the exhibition.

AR: Yes. I don’t think I would’ve drawn the Eiffel Tower without considering the relationship between Benin and France. It is, of course, a frequently drawn subject, and I perhaps could’ve approached it through art history. Now, however, I see it as a symbol of power and strength. The Champ de Mars park surrounding the Tower used to be the human zoo, the village nègre. The Tower outraged the residents, but apparently the village nègre didn’t, or at least I haven’t found any mention of it. Nowadays, blacks sell flashing kitsch-Eiffels beneath the Eiffel Tower, in the same place.

I made the Tricolore drawings on my last day in Paris. All I had left was red and blue, plus white paper. I continued painting it once I was back home. The endless boulevards and squares, the Egyptian obelisks, the fat, winged woman high up on the top of a column, the equestrian statues. The Eiffel Tower and one of the Catholic Church’s most important landmarks, Notre Dame. The steps up to the Sacré-Coeur and the city gleaming in white. The triumphal arches and the arrow-straight Axe historique from the Louvre to La Défence, the fluttering French flags. The river and the bridges, and the artificial mountain looming in the distance. The pomp, the power, the history, the pride. The words liberté, égalité, fraternité written everywhere.

Thank you, Florent!

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ILOMANTSI. I’m afraid I have some disappointing news. The first ever world champion of bear sculpting isn’t traveling back to Benin now that the competition is over. Florent’s workmanship was largely appreciated – both by the jury and the public – but the jury decided to give the first prize to a Finnish chainsaw sculptor who demonstrated astonishing skill in describing the movement of the bear in a statue.

The first three prizes were awarded to:

1) Esko Heikura, Finland, 1500 euros

2) Erkki Rytkönen, Finland, 1000 euros

3) Silver Treiman, Estonia, a set of protective workwear

Congratulations, winners!

Leikkiä ja totta

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Ms Helka Ketonen, member of the Jury, and cultural director of MSL gave thanks to Florent’s original idea about a hibernating bear and African perception of the Finnish national animal. Florent’s concentration and working technique also earned thanks, said madame la directrice.

Florent is leaving Finland in a couple of days with lots of new contacts in his phonebook and a few new skills in his pocket. “I’ll start using a chainsaw in my work. It’s very interesting. I’m also happy about all the new contacts I have”, he told VK reporters on the way back from Ilomantsi. He is looking forward to continue sharing with his European peers via Internet.

Kahvi

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And what does Florent think about Finland? “The trees is Finnish forests are very straight and growing in clear lines”, he says. “It’s like Finnish people. Everything is straight and well organized, things have their own places.”

Along with new sculpting skills and contacts, Florent is bringing back home an experience of Finland. Here, up north, the air is fresh and working outside is very consuming. For this reason, one of Florent’s new experiences includes munkkikahvit, coffee&donut, a Finnish institution almost as important as the hot sauna. With the help of munkkikahvit, skill and artistic vision he finished his work and built a long-lasting Beninese monument in Ilomantsi. Florent’s Le Rêve Puissant will be displayed there every summer for years to come.

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A Log of Scots Pine in Beninese Hands

Miikka Pörsti reports from Ilomantsi:

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“I hear it’s louder here now than during the Winter war”, said member of the jury and outsider artist Eero Pulkki as the Bear sculpting championships had just begun in the keskusta of Ilomantsi, 10am this morning. Many of the 32 competitors are using chainsaws. However, some of them, like Beninese competitor Florent Nagoba, scholarship holder for VK and the Union for Rural Education and Culture, work with their handmade custom tools.

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Estonian sculptor colleague Raivo inquired if Florent’s instruments had been made the same way as the Sampo. Yes, his tools are an accomplishment of a very skilful blacksmith (taitava seppä in Finnish, kvalifitseeritud sepp in Estonian). But unfortunately, for both Finns and Estonians, the Sampo has been destroyed a very long time ago. As the picture tells, talk of this tragedy devastated both competitors. To not unnecessarily darken the moods of the sculptors, the VK media team left the premises to enjoy a cup of coffee and a delicious vatruska in the nearby coffee shop.

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Nevertheless, the competition is now on and our cheering thoughts are with Florent, proud son of Benin, who competes as number 24 until Saturday morning. By then his artistic vision and gifted hands will have turned a large log of scots pine into a bear.

Stay tuned.