Former slave trade town to become African art hub

Updated 01 March 2014

Former slave trade town to become African art hub

Until last year, the few tourists who visited the small west African town of Ouidah were likely headed to the Gateway of No Return, a massive monument to the area’s bleak history as a slave trading hub.
But the town may soon become known for an attraction of an entirely different sort: The first sub-Saharan Africa museum dedicated exclusively to contemporary African art.
The Zinsou Museum, installed in an ornate 100-year-old villa, has attracted 13,000 visitors since its launch in November — an impressive tally for an out-of-the-way town in the sparsely visited nation of Benin.
The reputation — and monetary value — of contemporary African art has steadily risen in recent years. Curators and collectors from North America and Europe frequently fly in to artistic hubs like Lagos, Nigeria seeking new talent and new work by established names.
But for Marie-Celine Zinsou, who spearheaded the creation of the museum, better notoriety for African artists abroad was not enough.
While on a trip to Benin with a French based children’s charity in 2005 she wanted to take a group of youths to an art museum.
“I found that there wasn’t any structure to show the children work from their own continent,” she told AFP.
Zinsou, the grandniece of one of Benin’s first presidents, secured an investment from her father Lionel, a businessmen with duel French and Benin nationality who previously worked for France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
The Zinsou foundation opened in 2005 at a building in Benin’s largest city of Cotonou, where access was free to view both African and foreign art.
The foundation attracted four million visitors in eight years, mostly students under the age of 15.
As it became more established, the Zinsou Foundation began acquiring a diverse collection of contemporary African art, with the goal of opening a permanent museum.
The Villa Ajavon, an expansive cream-colored home built in 1922 by a Togolese trader, drew Zinsou to Ouidah, a town of 60,000 people some 40 kilometers from Cotonou.
“When we found out this sublime building was available, we jumped at the chance,” said Zinsou.
“Its style is very symbolic, very specific to this region,” she said.
The slave trade monument in Ouidah is a massive archway with two long lines of chained men in bas-relief along the top, to suggest the group is being marched into the Atlantic Ocean.
Hundreds of thousands of Africans were believed to have been condemned to slavery from the beach below the archway.
The Villa Ajavon in a sense defies that history, having been built by the descendants of slaves who returned from the Brazilian city of Bahia in a style influenced by both Brazilian and African architecture, said Zinsou.
The villa falls along a quiet dirt road lined with run-down bungalows and is just a few hundred meters from the Temple of Pythons, a major center of voodoo worship which retains powerful influence in Benin.
While the villa needed to be renovated to host a museum, Zinsou said the priority was to preserve its original structure.
Air conditioning in main hall was therefore forbidden so as to not disfigure the exterior, so those who wants to see the museum’s collection must be prepared to sweat.
Air circulates through sunlight corridors where the works of leading African artists are on display, including: Ethiopia’s Mickael Bethe-Selassie, Frederic Bruly-Bouabre of Ivory Coast and Cheri Samba of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Like in Cotonou, the entrance in Ouidah is free and the visitors are typically very young.
Eight-year-old Achmine Atindehou said she was on her second visit to the Zinsou Museum and had already grown very confident in her arguably peculiar tastes.
“I like the drawing ‘Living Memory’ because it is nice. It is about death,” she said.
Museum director Claude Aktome said often children come with their school classes and then persuade their parents to bring them back.
Romuald Hazoume has exhibited his paintings, sculptures and photographs in London and New York, but became emotional when recalling his first showing in Benin, the country of his birth.
“It was the first time that I saw young people from Benin coming to admire my work,” he told AFP. “I cried that day. I was so moved.”

Where We Are Buying Today: Bastahh

Updated 28 October 2022

Where We Are Buying Today: Bastahh

RIYADH: The mobile phone business is both highly profitable and very competitive.

There are plenty of independent stores and kiosks in the crowded marketplace selling accessories.

Abdullah Suliman is the 24-year-old Saudi entrepreneur behind online store Bastahh, which sells more than 500 products for cell phones from various international brands.

Items offered on the website include mobile and computer accessories, games, chargers, power banks, cases, covers, and headphones, all at competitive prices.

The store’s prices start from SR4 ($1.06), and Bastahh offers phone covers and cases that have been discontinued and which the company claims cannot be found elsewhere.

Suliman first started his business in 2017 but closed it down due to financial issues. He started up again two years ago, and his all-Saudi team prides itself on serving the community with a quick delivery of items.

“The market is profitable, but the competition is high. Therefore, you need someone patient to get into it,” he said.


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Graffiti: Shift22 celebrates once suppressed art form in Riyadh 

Updated 20 October 2022

Graffiti: Shift22 celebrates once suppressed art form in Riyadh 

  • The festival is held at the abandoned hospital, holding true to the vintage graffiti fashion

RIYADH: The walls of Irqah Hospital’s compound, thought among young Riyadh locals to be haunted, has been transformed into a canvas for local and international graffiti artists. 

Once suppressed, the art is now celebrated as the Kingdom'd Visual Arts Commission presents its inaugural annual street art festival, Shift22. 

The festival showcases commissioned and existing works from over 30 Saudi and international graffiti artists, focusing on murals, sound and video installations, and unconventional sculptures built by repurposing the abandoned hospital’s discarded materials. 

Visual Arts Commission's CEO Dina Amin said: “Shift22 is part of the commission’s efforts to celebrate and encourage local and international visual artists by providing platforms for creative exchange and dialogue. This festival is an example of the many exciting visual arts opportunities that are a result of the growing local art scene.” 

Saudi artist Deyaa Rambo’s piece ‘Harwala,’ an Arabic word for jogging, reflects a culture that is moving only forward with intention. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

Saudi artist Deyaa Rambo’s piece is inspired by the transformation of the country and its modern reality. “Harwala,” an Arabic word for jogging, reflects a culture that is only moving forward with intention. 

“As a culture, we carry the past and present with us, to walk towards the future … The idea talks about how culture is moving forward towards development, but not at an incomprehensible speed: It’s a calculated speed,” Rambo told Arab News.

Coming from an artistic family, he credits his passion to the environment he was raised in. In the early 2000s, when graffiti first began surfacing within the region as a legitimate art form, he discovered the underground scene. 

“Meeting other graffiti artists, I got inspired and realized I need to develop as an artist myself,” Rambo said 

After creating a small community of like-minded individuals, importing spray cans, taking part in small projects, and the occasional bit of street vandalism, they opened up the first graffiti store in the Kingdom: DHAD.

Locally, the DHAD family has collaborated with schools, institutes, exhibitions, galleries, and companies such as Mercedes and HP to design inspiring, unique interiors and exteriors. 

Globally, the community’s work was recognized and showcased in exhibitions and events across the Gulf and beyond, including Tunisia, Morocco, Malaysia, Germany, and France. 

“DHAD is basically all about the lifestyle of graffiti, (providing) tools, spray cans for artists, This is when the community was first created in Saudi Arabia,” Rambo said. 

Deriving his inspiration from fantastical elements, his piece reimagines a modern Saudi as an anonymous figure trotting forward in a traditional thobe and shemagh. 

According to Rambo, the responsibility of spreading awareness about the art form lies ultimately with local artists, not just in dedicated spaces, but true to traditional graffiti style: Publicly.  

“That’s our mission, because graffiti globally was fought against, that it sends a negative message. Graffiti art isn’t restricted to exhibitions or museums to see the art. It’s in the streets — it’s for everyone.”

Contributing Saudi artist Zeinab Al-Mahoozi began her journey in 2011, credited to her curiosity, using stencil techniques to create dynamic and captivating artworks. She made a promise to herself that if she succeeded in her first attempt at the method, she would dedicate a whole exhibition to her street artworks. 

Contributing Saudi artist Zeinab Al-Mahoozi's mural shows her graffiti-d self setting a bird free into a corner of the universe. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

Her mural is a whimsical self-portrait, showing herself setting a bird free into a corner of the universe. 

“Graffiti art is known as an illegal art form, but to be supported as graffiti artists from government sectors — either the Ministry of Culture, or media, or others — that’s something we really needed. We’re very happy about it, and we’re very lucky,” she said. 

While Shift22 is dedicated to platforming local talent, it also creates cultural exchange opportunities as it hosts various artists from around the world to contribute to the festival. 

Europe-based Australian artist James Reka, like many graffiti artists, was first introduced to the underground scene through skateboarding and hiphop culture. His 20 years of experience started off with traditional letterform graffiti, which later developed into characters and figures. 

“I’m honored to be invited to come to Saudi Arabia to be able to leave my own message behind … It’s nice to be acknowledged that it is something special, it is an art form,” he told Arab News. 

Australian James Reka’s work shows colorful hands reaching for each other, carrying the message that love and community are at the heart of graffiti culture. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

Adhering to his signature style, Reka’s work is abstract, but carries a message of unity. A closer look at the mural would show colorful hands all reaching for each other, embedding the idea that love and community are at the heart of graffiti culture.

“(I’m honored) to also be able to paint and meet with a lot of local artists and share common knowledge about art, creativity, life in general — we’re all children of this earth. It’s a small world sometimes, even though I came from the other side of the world, we have a lot of things in common,” Reka said. 

The festival is held at the abandoned hospital, holding true to the vintage graffiti fashion of marking underground and deserted spaces. 

The open-air exhibition was curated by the New York-based artistic agency Creative Philosophy, dedicating the theme to geometric patterns to parallel the hospital’s architecture. 

In addition to featured works by renowned and upcoming artists, such as Saudi REXCHOUK and Turkish-American Refik Anadol, the festival will hold a series of workshops, seminars, and activities highlighting the various elements of street art. 

The festival will run until Oct. 30 alongside live music, streetwear shops, street food, breakdancing, and skateboarding. 


Art forms combine in Madinah to showcase Saudi talent

Updated 20 October 2022

Art forms combine in Madinah to showcase Saudi talent

  • Talaqi art exhibition aims to bridge the gap between artistic movements while showcasing local Saudi talents

RIYADH: Realism, cubism, and abstraction are among the many different labels assigned to painters to describe their artistic form of expression.

But in Madinah, the Talaqi art exhibition aims to bridge the gap between artistic movements while showcasing local Saudi talents.

The second edition of the event, recently launched at Madinah Art Center, features the works of 16 Saudi artists, eight of whom are publicly exhibiting for the first time.

Each edition of the exhibition features a non-repetitive concept from a new set of artists.

Artist Mubarak Khaled and Amal Shahan showcase their work for the first time in front of an audience during Talaqi 2. (Supplied)

Co-founder of Talaqi and the Thalothya arts project, Manar Ghazzawi, told Arab News: “We are excited to announce that after the success we’ve seen with the previous two editions, from the third onwards each exhibit will feature a single concept expressed uniquely by each participating painter.”

Ghazzawi was among those displaying at Talaqi’s second edition. She described her artwork as a tale of a long-term state of isolation evident in herself in the past and present as two separate people — both comforting the other.

She said: “An embodiment of my being one of the people who tend to isolate, in addition to the fact that all the details in the painting have psychological connotations.”

To prevent the meaning of artwork being lost in translation, Talaqi has affiliated with Thalothya, which hosts intellectual discussions and trends in modern and contemporary art discourse.

Co-founder Manar Ghazzawi presented her work at Talaqi 2. (Supplied)

Co-founder Meshal Al-Hujaili, said: “Thalothya is an art community based in Madinah that promotes a culture of interpretive dialogue that transcends our own preconceived notions and limitations.”

Al-Hujaili said Thalothya was the result of a seven-year journey that he and Ghazzawi had partaken in.

“We did exhibitions … went to experienced artists and hosted them to ask them for their opinions and constructive criticism of what we produced,” Ghazzawi added.

“Throughout our experimentation phase, we learned to filter the good and bad in order to elevate the engagement level of artists from the community within the city itself,” Al-Hujaili added.

Artist Mubarak Khaled and Amal Shahan showcase their work for the first time in front of an audience during Talaqi 2. (Supplied)

The co-founders identified a lack of dialogue-centric local art communities in Madinah.

Al-Hujaili said: “Most art communities available that we noticed have people come into a space and paint or create artwork each on their own canvas.

“So, we’ve created Thalothya to normalize intellectual, dialogue-setting gatherings in the Kingdom and endorse it in the Saudi art culture.

“I would love to see throughout the Kingdom Thalothya as a blueprint community in every city.”

Ancient carvings discovered at iconic Iraq monument bulldozed by Daesh

Updated 19 October 2022

Ancient carvings discovered at iconic Iraq monument bulldozed by Daesh

  • Now, US and Iraqi archaeologists working to reconstruct the site have unearthed extraordinary 2,700-year-old rock carvings among the ruins
  • The carvings were likely taken from Sennacherib's palace and used as construction material for the gate

MOSUL, Iraq: When Daesh group fighters bulldozed the ancient monumental Mashki gate in the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2016, it was part of the extremists’ systematic destruction of cultural heritage.
Now, US and Iraqi archaeologists working to reconstruct the site have unearthed extraordinary 2,700-year-old rock carvings among the ruins.
They include eight finely made marble bas-relief carvings depicting war scenes from the rule of the Assyrian kings in the ancient city of Nineveh, a local Iraqi official said Wednesday.
Discovered last week, the detailed carvings show a soldier drawing back a bow in preparation to fire an arrow, as well as finely chiselled vine leaves and palms.
The grey stone carvings date to the rule of King Sennacherib, in power from 705-681 BC, according to a statement from the Iraqi Council of Antiquities and Heritage.
Sennacherib was responsible for expanding Nineveh as the Assyrians’ imperial capital and largest city — siting on a major crossroads between the Mediterranean and the Iranian plateau — including constructing a magnificent palace.
Fadel Mohammed Khodr, head of the Iraqi archaeological team working to restore the site, said the carvings were likely taken from Sennacherib’s palace and used as construction material for the gate.
“We believe that these carvings were moved from the palace of Sennacherib and reused by the grandson of the king, to renovate the gate of Mashki and to enlarge the guard room,” Khodr said.
When they were used in the gate, the area of the carvings poking out above ground was erased.
“Only the part buried underground has retained its carvings,” Khodr added.
ALIPH, the Swiss-based International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas, said the Mashki gate had been an “exceptional building.”
Daesh targeted the fortified gate, which had been restored in the 1970s, because it was an “iconic part of Mosul’s skyline, a symbol of the city’s long history,” it added.
ALIPH is supporting the reconstruction of the Mashki Gate by a team of archaeologists from Iraq’s Mosul University alongside US experts from the University of Pennsylvania.
The restoration project, which is being carried out in collaboration with Iraqi antiquities authorities, aims to turn the damaged monument into an educational center on Nineveh’s history.
Iraq was the birthplace of some of the world’s earliest cities.
It was also home to Sumerians and Babylonians, and to among humankind’s first examples of writing.
But in the past decades, Iraq has been the target of artifacts smuggling. Looters decimated the country’s ancient past, including after the 2003 US-led invasion.
Then, from 2014 and 2017, the Daesh group demolished pre-Islamic treasures with bulldozers, pickaxes and explosives. They also used smuggling to finance their operations.
Iraqi forces supported by an international coalition recaptured Mosul, the extremists’ former bastion, in 2017.


Corsican acapella group captivates audience in Jeddah

Updated 10 October 2022

Corsican acapella group captivates audience in Jeddah

  • The idea behind their performance was to share a moment around a rare and typical style of music and songs without instruments

JEDDAH: Several dignitaries, consuls general and high-profile Saudi individuals attended the French Consulate’s Corsican acapella music event to promote peace and serenity.

Performers Tavagna, consisting of seven singers, sang about their childhood, surrounded by nature in Corsica, and their roots, families and friends. The concert also boasted a theatrical dimension.

The idea behind their performance was to share a moment around a rare and typical style of music and songs without instruments.

Founded in 1966, Tavagna’s goal is to promote their culture across the world. The concert aimed at letting the world discover their artistic universe. 

Consul General of France Catherine Corm-Kammoun received the guests and said that the consulate is committed to highlighting French culture to promote cultural diversity.

Speaking to Arab News, she added: “We love to share our music from the French culture with a Saudi audience to promote mutual understanding and culture of peace and cohesion.

“In the future we would like to contribute more to cultural events and cooperate with institutions for cultural exchange in Jeddah.”

Cultural Attache Charles-Henri Gros said: “Music is an easy way to bridge cultural divides and learn more about cultural diversity.

“We introduced very typical French songs, particularly in one of our local languages, Corsican, for which we invited the main Corsican group of singers, mostly due to their historical background and the evolution of the members throughout the different generations.”

He added that the singers had created their own deep and melodious sound, and were now recognized for their distinctive energy and exceptional live performances.

Chairman of the board adviser and Jeddah branch manager at the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts Mohammed Al-Subaih said: “It was an amazing and unique experience. The concert felt very much alive, and the lyrics of the songs captivated the audience.

“The common factor in this acapella event is that we have similar music in our Saudi culture. Under Vision 2030, we are looking forward to strengthening the role of art and culture and understanding between countries.”

Tavagna also performed in front of a massive crowd at the University of Business and Technology of Jeddah on Monday night.