Marie-Cécile Zinsou: Celebrating art in Africa

On June 6 2005, the Zinsou Foundation opened its doors in Cotonou in the Republic of Benin, West Africa, founder Marie-Cécile Zinsou explained, “art of today is Africa’s most beautiful metaphor of tomorrow”, adding that “nothing is more urgent than making it visible.” Ever since, the success of her foundation has exceeded all her expectations. Whilst the country may appear to be a cultural desert, the Zinsou Foundation and the Museum of Ouidah, the first contemporary institution of its kind in Africa, are turning Benin into an artistic oasis.


A conscious and rewarding choice


As daughter of economist Lionel Zinsou and great-niece of Benin’s former president Emile-Derlin Zinsou, Marie-Cécile Zinsou quickly realized the importance of culture as one of the fundamental ingredients in education and development.

Ouidah Museum / Bus culturel de la Fondation Zinsou


The Republic of Benin has eight million inhabitants, and four million of those have stepped into her foundation. Zinsou receives 500,000 visitors a year: amongst them, 127 000 alone visit the foundation’s library. “There is definately public demand, 80% of visitors are under 18.” But is culture a priority in Benin? “We could have opened a hospital with the foundation’s budget, but we wouldn’t have had the resources to make it last longer than ten years. Today we have a budget which is manageable, and we are very efficient in everything we do.”

Benin has not signed the UNESCO convention and the collection is managed by the family, otherwise the State could not keep it going. But this collection could one day be transferred. Only through public support was a building made available for the foundation’s library.


A programme of the highest class


“At first we wanted a long-term attachment, but public demand is so high that we are constantly renewing the programme. Today we have Africa’s greatest contemporary artists at the Zinsou Foundation, from South Africa, Benin, Senegal. From Frédéric Bruly Bouabré to Mickäel Béthé Sélassié, and George Lilanga, Aston — one of the Benin artists whose profile is growing, and whom Pinault spotted when he visited the foundation.”

“Next to the great classics are the South Africans - Bruce Clark, Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé - who reflect the younger generation. We have had instances where we present non-African artists. We welcomed Portuguese artist Thomas Colaço and Sofia Aguiar to complete residencies here.” And recent acquisitions? “We recently acquired some works by Omar Victor Diop.”



A success built on association


Self-sustained, the foundation gains revenue from the institution’s library, “it allows us to pay a minimum part of the fees, as all the activities are free.” But if today the foundation is so active, it is due to the impressive support of donors.  “And they donate to us frequently, which is reassuring.”

Proof of the foundation’s backing is there, “Sotheby’s enabled us to open the first library. When such important sponsors support us, it also gives us extra credibility.” But the names of international backers doesn’t end with Lafarge, Colas, Air France or the Union Européenne. “SCIL Peintures, the Togo-Benin company managed by Italian-Togolese couple leading the local market, provided us with all the paint we needed, which equates to considerable amounts,” continuing, “individuals also donate privately, and anonymously sometimes! Whether they like contemporary art or not.”

Major players in the art industry have also firmly demonstrated their support for Marie-Cécile Zinsou; whist Anne de Villepoix has been on the scene since 2005, the gallerist Enrico Navarra lent the foundation 64 artworks by Basquiat.



Connecting intelligently and dynamically


In the West, the foundation has received extensive media attention, and the foundation’s strong social media networking has paid off.


“Forty percent of our visitors come via Facebook. We set up campaigns via SMS, thanks to the South African telephone operator MTN. When we launch a new exhibition, one million people receive a text message. At the moment, every time a client tops up their phone credit, they receive a message inviting them to discover the current exhibition at the foundation. These are the kinds of innovating partners we are creating with brand names on site.”  



Ton Pied Mon Ventre (2015) Romuald Hazoumè ©Romuald Hazoumè



Our hardest project, to make it long term


“When you need €60,000 for a library, you find it easily. But to pay bills, salaries, they build up (€20,000 is put aside for each of the six venues), it's less of a sales pitch.  Another important question is conservation, not seen by the public. 80% humidity and 36° is not an ideal atmosphere to conserve photographs. So we control the humidity, drying the air, and all this is in a country where electricity is not guaranteed. It's our biggest challenge. We want to conserve, rewrite and create our archives, to make everything accessible, especially through an increased reality programme at the Museum of Ouidah. The system, created by Pierrick Chabi, allows the viewer to visualize the whole of the collection from one unique piece. Today we have in the region of a thousand artworks.”



Market in full bloom


“France has a paternal outlook on Africa, and we do not always measure Africa’s development and growth, or the fact that a large percent of the population owns a smartphone. But on the artistic front, its interesting because we still anticipate the Western viewpoint, and we are still lacking an internal market, at least its not that important, and we know that the art market will still develop at a local level at first. Established art dealers were there already, and today the number of African contemporary art collectors is in full growth. People are beginning to understand the workings of the market. But after all, €4,500 doesn't seem excessive for a canvas in Europe, but in Benin, the average salary is €45 a month.”

"When you go on holiday, don’t you come back?”

For the artists, there will always be barriers and contrary to some ideas, “artists don’t want to leave Africa, they want to travel freely. But when the British Museum invites an artist, the consulate refuses to issue a visa, fearing he will not return to Africa. When you go on holiday, don’t you come back?”