Would an artist build a hospital in Africa?
One of the most inspiring exhibitions I have seen in Helsinki at the beginning of 2008 – in its speciality – was the joint effort by the Finnish artist Leea Pienimäki and the African artist Victor Amoussou. The exhibition was held at the Gallery BE’19 in Helsinki, by the name “Paintings and fabrics of light”.
Pienimäki got acquainted with Amoussou when she was working in Villa Karo, a Finnish-African culture centre in Benin, in the village of Grand-Popo. The culture centre, which has been active for eight years, was initiated by the Finnish novelist Juha Vakkuri. It is a residence meant for Finnish artists and researchers representing different fields and disciplines.
The cooperation between Amoussou and Pienimäki originated when Amoussou started teaching Pienimäki the wax batik technique that he is well familiar with. The exhibition at the Gallery BE’19 was dominated by large wax batik pieces. The intense colour and rich formal language of the works rendered a feeling of uninhibited joy of creation.
Both the fabrics and the mixed media works contained an aspect of social commentary, ranging from endangered turtles to corruption in Africa.
Formerly a colony of France, nowadays the Republic of Benin is one of the most democratic countries of the continent, and the local culture is still thriving. So far there have been approximately 50 Finnish visual artist residents at the Villa Karo, and they have familiarized themselves with the Beninian culture. I recently interviewed Teemu Mäki, Päivikki Kallio and Ilona Valkonen.
In the beginning there was confusion on both sides, Beninian and Finnish. For example, a Beninian acquaintance could not understand why one of the scholarship holders did not have children, who are a social security guarantee for the locals.
Additionally, in the postcolonial everyday life there were many things – very concretely telling ones – which were proof of the problems colonialism left behind. A different notion of money (which the Beninians have a shortage of as well as medicine) caused surprises. Ilona Valkonen was asked whether she could build a hospital in Benin. The white stranger visitors called jovos, who were supposed to be rich, were asked for money in return for the smallest favours.
As the journey proceeded, selfless friends were also found, including a totally speechless black acquaintance. This was a frequent visitor, a hairy spider of the size of a palm called Pertti.
The strong light of Africa, as well as its darkness and the rough notion of time were facts that the artists experienced strongly. Amoussou asked Pienimäki once, whether it was the year 2010 now. Pienimäki wants to point out that the Africans are not just confusing times annoyingly (from a western point of view) but they are also giving other people time in an unselfish non-western way.
The strongly life-regulating, ritualistic and in many ways performative Voodoo religion impressed all the artists, especially Teemu Mäki. As an atheist, Mäki was intrigued by the polytheistic nature of the Voodoo and its emphasis on the relativity of all phenomena.
However, the locals could not possibly understand why their Voodoo fan was claiming to be an atheist. Finally they ended up defining Mäki as a Voodoo artist(!).
The holistic nature of African thinking seems to have inspired all the artists to re-evaluate all western notions, especially notions of art. Päivikki Kallio was pondering on the option whether the Africans eventually taught the Finns a lot more than the Finns could ever teach them.