Looking back at Lab Week Building Beyond in Benin

From 22 to 27 April 2024, 12 selected cross-disciplinary African makers and designers – the third group of the Building Beyond mentorship programme – met up in Cotonou, Benin. After a series of online sessions in the first few months of this year, under the guidance of the four programme mentors Khensani de Klerk, Ola Hassanain, Fatima Bintou Rassoul Sy and Hicham Bouzid, it was special to meet as a group for the first time in real life. Perspectives and views were exchanged and reflective conversations took place about the implications and influences of urbanization with regard to forming public space and community, and preserving heritage and memory. Restitution was discussed in relation to the post-colonial past and post-colonial present and the influences cultural organizations and other stakeholders have on it. Cotonou, a city in flux, provided the base for these exchanges and meetings. The Internationalization team looks back at the programme and experiences.

28 May 2024

Earlier this year, the third group of the Building Beyond programme, a special collaboration between the Creative Industries Fund NL and the Prince Claus Fund, started up. Building Beyond is carried out with three main objectives: encouraging and facilitating open dialogue, collaboration and connection within the selected group of makers, designers and artists; supporting the individual practice of each selected maker and/or designer based on a specific objective or question during the programme; and facilitating encounters and exchange between the group and other makers, designers, institutions and collectives in the field on the African continent and in the Netherlands. All 12 participants work in different urban contexts, including in Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa.

start of the lab week: on the ground in Benin

The first day of the lab week kicked off with a grounding session, led by participants Khotso Lamola and Michael Tesfaye, where the Building Beyond participants and mentors reflected on their practices in relation to the urban contexts in which they find themselves. Together, they identified overlaps between different approaches and routes of engagement. This exchange formed the basis for formulating joint and individual intentions for the lab week, including in relation to the urban context of Cotonou and the cultural dynamics of Benin.

Throughout the week, participants regularly expressed their views on the commitment, nuance and strength it takes to work within often complex social, political and cultural contexts. As a maker and/or artistic collective, how can you be part of creative ecosystems that match the needs and challenges within the context and starting from the context? Who are you collaborating with and what should underpin these collaborations – specifically at the institutional level? And who becomes involved, or not, and how rooted are we really?

learning from local practices

During the lab week, the group was hosted by a number of passionate and committed cultural organizations and individuals. Each of them showed a part of the city from their own position and perspective. For instance, Togolese architect and anthropologist Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou introduced participants to his practice L’Africaine d’architecture: a platform for research and experimentation. He shared his vision of creating smart, sustainable cities inspired by traditional African habitats, or indigenous technologies, which fit their surroundings and make use of local materials and techniques. Afterwards, the group was introduced to Atelier les Griots. Here, they focus on studying and valorizing local African building cultures, also described as ‘informal urbanism’: self-built housing by populations in peripheral neighbourhoods. In a presentation, architect Habib Mémé talked about co-designing, co-building and co-maintaining within the Akpakpa Dodomey Enagnon neighbourhood.

A day trip to Ganvié took place on Wednesday. This floating city of about 20,000 inhabitants offers a model for socio-ecological urbanism. During this excursion, indigenous practices and the connection to their heritage were explored. Accompanied by a local guide, the group engaged in a conversation about the relationship between material conditions and space. Once back in Cotonou, one-to-one sessions between the participants and mentors were organized.

Sah Studio founder and alumnus of the second Building Beyond group, Olufemi Hinson Yovo, took the group for a walk through Dantopka Market, West Africa’s largest open-air market. During this session, participants reflected on the systems of the living city in public space. Afterwards, the group visited Le Centre, a hybrid artistic space dedicated to documenting and promoting the heritage of the Kingdom of Dahomey. At this location, mentor Fatima Bintou Rassoul Sy and participant Jesse Gerard Mpango facilitated a dialogue with the group, through a series of short films, about intergenerational restitution and restitution of non-visible objects, which is also a major cultural, political and economic issue in Benin.

Friday’s programme took place in the port city of Ouidah. Here, participants were welcomed by local guide Boris Medatinsa, who explained the historical and contemporary context concerning voodoo and various ways in which communities practise spirituality. The group then visited the Zinsou Foundation, an independent foundation with great influence on the artistic cultural field in Benin and the wider region. After visiting the exhibition An Archive of the Present, the group was given a guided tour by Marie-Cecile Zinsou. She provided insight into the history and role of the foundation in Benin.

The final day of the lab week focused on one-to-one sessions between the participants and mentors. Mentor Hicham Bouzid talked about his cultural platform Think Tanger in a concluding session, shedding light on the urban and social landscape of Tangier in Morocco.

looking ahead

In the coming period, the 12 participants and four mentors will meet online concerning two overarching themes: Geographies and Technologies of Stitching and Archiving and Spatial Vocabularies. In September, they will meet again for a lab week in the Netherlands to exchange ideas and experiences with different makers, designers, cultural platforms and institutions. We look forward to welcoming the group and once again facilitating an inspiring programme where possible new collaborations may emerge.

Photos by Victor Adéwálé and Alex G