Benin smart­phone app brings mu­se­ums into homes


Ad­mir­ing paint­ings or pho­to­graphs by Africa’s great­est con­tem­po­rary artists is a lux­ury in Benin, where mu­se­ums are scarce and most peo­ple lack money to travel far­ther afield.

But a new ap­pli­ca­tion de­vel­oped by a foun­da­tion based in Cotonou, the largest city in this West African state, is seek­ing to bring art to the masses by al­low­ing any­one with ac­cess to a printer and smart­phone or tablet to turn their place into a mu­seum.

“For 10 years, the Zin­sou Foun­da­tion has been striv­ing to bring con­tem­po­rary art to peo­ple who don’t have ac­cess to it be­cause we think cul­ture is a right, not a lux­ury,” said Marie-Ce­cile Zin­sou, the Franco-Beni­nese head of the foun­da­tion that cre­ated the “Wakpon” app.

Bud­ding art en­thu­si­asts need only print out col­or­ful im­ages avail­able on the app’s web­site onto pieces of A4 pa­per and hang them on the walls of their home, school or gov­ern­ment build­ing — just like paint­ings in a mu­seum.

Visi­tors can then aim at these im­ages with their smart­phones or tablets us­ing the app, and a paint­ing by Benin’s voodoo artist Cy­prien Tok­oudagba or a photo of Nige­rian hair­styles by J.D. Okhai Ojeikere will pop up, along­side in­for­ma­tion on the work of art.

All in all, 44 pieces by 10 artists are avail­able on the app, all taken from the foun­da­tion’s col­lec­tion.

Low Vis­i­bil­ity for African Art

Zin­sou said she con­vinced her fa­ther, who has just been named Benin prime min­is­ter, to set up the foun­da­tion af­ter she re­al­ized that like many other African coun­tries, there were no mu­se­ums in Benin to show­case the con­ti­nent’s con­tem­po­rary art, de­spite its grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity else­where.

Lead­ing African artists were vir­tu­ally ab­sent from art sales just a decade ago but now con­tem­po­rary works fea­ture strongly in sev­eral in­ter­na­tional auc­tion houses.

Bon­hams in Lon­don re­cently de­scribed the con­ti­nent as “one of our hottest prop­er­ties on the art block.”

Since 2005, the foun­da­tion’s show room in Cotonou puts on free ex­hi­bi­tions of Beni­nese and for­eign artists, and once show­cased U.S. leg­end Jean-Michel Basquiat — a first in Africa.

In 2013, it opened a mu­seum in an old build­ing of the for­mer slave trade hub of Ouidah, some 40 kilo­me­ters (25 miles) away from Cotonou.

All in all, nearly five mil­lion peo­ple have vis­ited both places in a decade — most of them them chil­dren who of­ten come the first time with their schools, re­turn on their own and then bring their fam­i­lies.

Zin­sou said the Wakpon app — which once down­loaded does not need to be con­nected to the In­ter­net — aims to widen ac­cess to a broader pop­u­la­tion.

‘To­mor­row’s mu­seum’

Mo­bile phone pen­e­tra­tion has been low in Benin, par­tic­u­larly for smart­phones, be­cause of poor in­fra­struc­ture.

But com­pe­ti­tion from in­ter­na­tional mo­bile op­er­a­tors and un­der­sea ca­bles is in­creas­ing take-up, as prices come down for both hand­sets and In­ter­net ser­vices.

“This ap­pli­ca­tion is amaz­ing,” said Beni­nese artist Ro­muald Ha­zoume, whose work has been show­cased abroad and is also avail­able on the app.

“African peo­ple will be able to have ac­cess to their cul­ture, to their artists who are known around the world but whom they can­not see due to a lack of ex­hi­bi­tion sites, of money or visas.

“It’s like a bait. Peo­ple will know works of art, their story, and they will want to see them for real. It’s to­mor­row’s mu­seum and it’s what all big col­lec­tions should be do­ing.”

In the Cotonou show­room, those who visit are given a Wakpon demon­stra­tion at the end of their tour.

“Wakpon” means “come and see” in Fon, the most widely spo­ken lo­cal lan­guage in Benin.

“It’s great. My cousin has a good tele­phone, I’m go­ing to plead with him to ac­ti­vate the ap­pli­ca­tion and our en­tire dis­trict will take a look,” says Obed, 15, who came with his class.

Zin­sou said peo­ple in Africa had a ten­dency to think that cul­ture will emerge only once their coun­tries are de­vel­oped.

“But no, cul­ture is es­sen­tial for de­vel­op­ment,” she added.


Pic­ture of a new smart­phone ap­pli­ca­tion that al­lows peo­ple to view pic­tures and works of art at the Zin­sou Foun­da­tion for mod­ern art in Ouidah, south­ern Benin on June 11.

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