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Transforming a symbol of colonialism into a space for African art – Al Jazeera English

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Lome, Togo – It is a scenic walk along the driveway leading to the entrance of Lome’s new centre for the arts. The sun glints through the branches of centuries-old trees, lining a path set within thousands of square metres of lush parkland.

The incessant chirping of birds and the dull thud of my feet against the packed red earth are the only sounds to be heard within the vast compound. It is not long before the canopy of boughs and path give way to a large gravel clearing. A grand, white, two-storey vision rises from the ground, gleaming against the blue sky.

Set on an elevated foundation, a wide stone staircase leads up into the whitewashed arcades of Palais De Lome in Togo’s capital. At its heart is a courtyard garden – an oasis of smooth white cement walls, decorative wood columns and splashes of green trees and ferns.

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Past the crisp white walls and pivoting glass doors are the exhibition spaces – a blank canvas for African art by painters such as Emmanuel Sogbadji and Edwige Aplogan and sculptures by Sokey Edorh. A vaulted, wood-ceilinged corridor on the first floor leads to a room filled with a panoply of artefacts sourced from the region. There are intricately woven ceremonial gowns and beaded headdresses worn by chieftains and West African kings.

The courtyard of the Palais De Lome [Photo courtesy of Segond-Guyon Archipat]

The centre’s remit is not limited to the promotion of pan-African art and culture, according to its Togolese director, Sonia Lawson. Spread across some 2,400sq metres (26,000 square feet) of land, Palais De Lome will showcase the country’s natural resources. The site’s varied landscape includes a garden of sea plants from the coastal city’s sandy shores, grass savannah with vegetation as diverse as palms, cacti and flowering plants, and forests populated by trees and vines. Lawson says the institute expects to attract between 100,000 and 130,000 visitors each year.

It is hoped that the $3.6m transformation of the former colonial building into a centre for the arts and culture will help boost tourism and aid the recovery of the small West African nation’s struggling economy.

It was important and necessary to have such a public institution in Togo because we lacked that kind of infrastructure,” Lawson explains. “We want to be a cultural hub and attract talent from the rest of Africa. We believe culture is important in the development of a country.”

‘Facing the past’

Investment in infrastructure has positioned Togo’s capital as an aviation hub in West Africa. Along with the country’s strategic geographic location on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea, it is expected to support Togo’s bid to plug into the sub-region’s vibrant culture ecosystem.

The past exists. You don’t need to destroy a building. For me, it was a kind of irony to use a colonial building to showcase the future of Africa. It means that we have appropriated this building and it’s now ours.

Sonia Lawson

The renovation of the Palais De Lome is part of a wider government programme to restore sites of historical importance. However, questions have been asked about why the government would spend millions of dollars renovating a remnant of Togo’s colonial past – a symbol of oppression – rather than constructing a new space.

Lawson has an answer. “I think it’s important to be able to face the past,” she says resolutely. “The past exists. You don’t need to destroy a building. For me, it was a kind of irony to use a colonial building to showcase the future of Africa. It means that we have appropriated this building and it’s now ours.”

Lawson refers to an image she discovered of a uniformed man proudly staring out of a picture beyond the expanse of time. It was a photograph of Governor August Kohler – the man placed in charge of the West African territory then known as Togoland, which incorporated what is now Togo and part of Ghana, more than a century ago. Between 1884 and 1914, Togoland was a protectorate of the German Empire. A lucrative resource for its German rulers, the prestigious protectorate was considered a ‘model colony’. In the 1890s, Kohler started building the original incarnation of Palais De Lome – the Governor’s Palace – as a display of Germany’s power and majesty.

Togo's Palais De Lome - Ijeoma Ndukwe [DO NOT USE]

Togo of the Kings, an exhibition presenting artefacts belonging to the various kingdoms, chieftaincies and communities of Togo [Photo courtesy of Nicolas Robert]

The Governor’s Palace was a picture of colonial decadence. Its construction was an opportunity for the imperial rulers to demonstrate their architectural ingenuity by combining local and imported materials with German technology. The building’s large patio was modelled on the palace of Benin’s King Toffa in Porto-Novo – a nod to the traditional architectural design of the sub-region. It housed the governor’s private residence on the first floor with administrative offices located below.

During German rule, two towers crowned the imposing structure, one holding the imperial flag facing the ocean, the second overlooking the ‘hinterland’. The main entrance was decorated with elephant tusks two metres long (6.5 feet) – completing the desired image of wealth and extravagance.

Germany lost its prized colony in 1914 when Togoland was invaded and occupied by British and French forces following the outbreak of the first world war. The territory was later divided into separate British and French administrative zones and the Governor’s Palace was taken over by French colonialists. It was considerably expanded during its time as the governors’ residences during French rule.

A new chapter for the palace

When Togo gained independence in 1960, it was the beginning of a new chapter for the palace. It became the seat of government for the Togolese Republic until the mid-1970s when it was used to house state guests. Months after a reformist prime minister moved into the property in 1991, the palace was raided by Togo’s armed forces. This marked the beginning of a period of social and political unrest, which saw the building dramatically deteriorate. Tropical vegetation had overwhelmed the governor’s palace when French restoration architect Laurent Volay visited the abandoned site in 2012.

“It was like a jungle,” Volay says. “There was a lot of vegetation and in the centre of it there was the monument and it was something extraordinary.”

Archipat, Volay’s practice, partnering with architecture studio Segond-Guyon, landscape designer Frederic Reynaud and Lome-based firm Sara Consult, spent two years researching the project after winning the bid to renovate the site.

Togo’s Palais De Lome - Ijeoma Ndukwe [DO NOT USE]

The palace before its renovation [Photo courtesy of Segond-Guyon Archipat]

Careful examination of the property revealed layers of poorly executed adaptations to the building. It took a further five years to complete construction, with the architects drawing heavily on the archives. The team stripped away the building’s flawed layers – removing buildings added in the 1970s, reopening the terraces and restoring wooden galleries that had been destroyed.

The project was fraught with challenges during its first year, Volay explains. He cites difficulties sourcing sustainable materials locally, which slowed progress. The team eventually found a steady supply of teak and iroko woods in the region, which the carpenters used for the centre’s doors and throughout the first-floor galleries.

An architectural highlight for Volay was the faithful restoration of the original imperial cement staircase, complete with wrought iron balustrade. A further triumph is found within a ground floor space Volay describes as “a room for special things”. Salvaged tiles are arranged to resemble decorative rugs in a bid to reuse “precious materials”.

‘An oasis in a cultural desert’

Togo’s Palais De Lome - Ijeoma Ndukwe [DO NOT USE]

The Council of Elders, a sculpture by Sadikou Oukpedjo in the grounds of the Palais De Lome [Photo courtesy of Sadikou Oukpedjo]

On the day of its launch in November, hundreds of guests arrive to celebrate the grand opening of Palais De Lome. Amidst the revelry, some raised concerns about how the centre will raise sufficient funds for its upkeep and succeed in fulfilling its remit to support the arts in Togo and the region. Despite this, many people see the centre as an important cultural legacy for the nation.

“It’s an oasis in the cultural desert,” says Togolese sculptor Sadikou Oukpedjo, who was commissioned to create a large-scale marble sculpture that lies on a grassy clearing within the park. His sentiment is felt by many artists in a country where state investment in culture has been lacking.

“What the government has started to do for Togolese culture is not a gift,” Oukpedjo says. “It is what the government should have been doing before, which they weren’t and have now begun.”

Dakar-based artist and physicist Caroline Gueye and Togolese painter Seshie Kossi say the Palais is an important cultural platform for Africans that can vastly improve opportunities for artists. “It’s just inspiring to be here,” Gueye says. “To create for this place – that would be fantastic. We would all like to showcase our work here.”

Togo’s Palais De Lome - Ijeoma Ndukwe [DO NOT USE]

Caroline Gueye, an artist and physicist based in Dakar [Ijeoma Ndukwe/Al Jazeera]

A photography exhibition at the Palais documents its extraordinary journey, showing the property’s striking transformation from a ruin following two decades of abandonment, into a modern pan-African cultural institute.

From the first floor, a wood-pillared balcony beautifully frames an expanse of water scattered with vibrant green water lilies. A thick stretch of trees bordering the pond is punctuated by a group of tall bronze sculptures. Beyond the iron gates of the entrance, a strip of yellow sand meets the ocean before a greyish blue haze blurs the Atlantic and sky on the horizon.

Although the vestiges of the building’s colonial past remain within its walls, the spirited optimism for its future in the hands of Togo’s people prevails. It is impossible to determine whether this will be the building’s last incarnation, but the launch of Palais De Lome feels like the beginning of an era.

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How Brexit Is Still Impacting the British Art Market

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At first, it was frustration, then it was confusion, and now… well, no one really knows. It’s been more than five years since the U.K. voted to leave the European Union (EU) and the U.K. art market, like the country as a whole, is still wondering what Brexit actually means.

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Dealers are tired of talking about Brexit, but they also can’t ignore it as the British art market enters an uncertain 2023. That’s because, for collectors, gallerists, and dealers in the U.K., a combination of legislative, bureaucratic, and economic factors brought about by leaving the EU are making it more costly and less efficient to buy and sell art. The impact of Brexit, it turns out, is ongoing.

Not only does the U.K. begin the year facing the “worst and longest” recession of any country in the G7, but two staples of London’s art fair circuit, Masterpiece London and the Art & Antiques Fair Olympia, recently announced that they were canceling their summer editions. Both fairs cited escalating costs and a decline in the number of dealers, and both organizers mentioned the impact of Brexit as a contributing factor.

 

 

Installation view of Masterpiece London, 2022. Courtesy of Marc Straus.

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The cancellation of Masterpiece, which is owned by Art Basel’s parent company MCH Group, felt particularly significant.

“It’s very sad for the London art world—and London more generally,” said William Summerfield, head of sales and a specialist in modern British and 20th-century art at the auction house Roseberys. “The fair had a very particular style that was entirely ‘Chelsea’ and I think a lot of non-‘artworld’ buyers and visitors were more comfortable with [it] than some of the other, larger fairs.”

It’s unclear what the spillover of the fair’s cancellation will be for the British art market more broadly. Yet, as Summerfield cautioned, “losing a major yearly event always has a knock-on.”

But there’s also the question of what this says about the British art market today. There were already signs that the European presence at Masterpiece was wilting, with stands from the continent falling by almost 60% between 2018 and 2022, according to the Financial Times. The cancellation may have been a shock, but it wasn’t a huge surprise.

 

 

“The organizers were rather circumspect, talking about less international attendance, but what that translates into is that the Europeans aren’t coming anymore,” said Gregor Kleinknecht, a partner at Keystone Law and specialist in art law and dispute resolution for clients that include collectors, galleries, institutions, and dealers. “That’s both the exhibitors and the trade who would normally take up stands at the fair, but also the collectors. There is less incentive to come to London with all the complications after Brexit.”

Masterpiece is the latest art world example of how Brexit is crystallizing and exacerbating difficulties for an already febrile British economy, which can no longer blame COVID-19 lockdowns for its woes.

“Effectively, the U.K. has pulled out of the world’s largest and most effective trade agreement and, predictably, that has consequently made trade more difficult,” said James Ryan, CEO of Grove Gallery, which has spaces in London, Switzerland, New York, and Australia. “Quite aside from the unpleasantness of directly rebuffing those nations we do the most trade with, it has served to reduce that trade, including the trade in art and antiques—which has been negative for all those involved.”

 

 

Brexit legislation is impacting the art trade in a number of ways, touching on everything from taxation to employment all the way through to data protection, dispute resolution, and copyright. It’s led to heaps of red tape, all amounting to the basic fact that the free movement of people and goods between the U.K. and EU no longer exists in the fluid way that it once did. Art—and artists—have become more difficult and more expensive to move across the continent.

The British art market is still adjusting to this new normal, but the impact has already been drastic. In the two years since the U.K. formally left the EU’s single market and customs union, its share of the global art market has plummeted to its lowest level in a decade. Dealers complain about extra VAT (value-added tax) and shipping costs, which can mean spending more than four times than before on logistics. Smaller galleries are overburdened with extra paperwork. Christie’s has noted a “drop-off” in EU consignments in London, and collectors are being disrupted, too.

Fiorenzo Manganiello, an Italian-based private collector and patron of the Lian Foundation, told Artsy that the administrative aspect of importing works from London has become “cumbersome” since Brexit: “I have experienced logistical issues and work being blocked sometimes for months at a time,” he said.

 

 

EU countries such as France, meanwhile, are seizing on the fallout. Last year was a banner year for the French market: The country hosted a shiny new international art fair, enjoyed record-breaking results at its auction houses, and enacted policies that, ominously, aim to “take up the challenge of the French reconquest of the art market,” according to the Art Law Review.

So far, so bleak for the U.K. art market. But is it all disaster ahead? While everyone that Artsy spoke to for this piece acknowledged the difficulties caused by Brexit, many were quick to find optimism in the reputation and heritage of the British market, as well as its enviable ability to produce top artistic talent. Galleries continue to open, museums continue to host world-class shows, work continues to sell, and London remains a leading light of the international art market, they say.

“For me, London is the place where innovations in art still take place, surrounded by top-tier art schools and universities,” said Manganiello. Britain still remains a “top-tier destination” to acquire artworks, meet artists, and discover emerging galleries, he added, noting that he’s increasing the number of works from London galleries.

 

 

For those in the trade, meanwhile, a typically British attitude characterizes the current mood: Yes, Brexit is a pain, but things aren’t going to change anytime soon. We may as well get on with it.

“Frustrated? Yes. Pessimistic? Yes!,” said Katie Terres, COO of Artiq, a London-based art agency that curates collections around the world. While Brexit has added an extra layer of “frustration” and cost, the company, like many others, has had to adapt. “We’ve found ways of working with it and working within the regulations for our clients. We’re trying to make it as easy a process as possible.”

The cancellation of Masterpiece isn’t the first post-Brexit hurdle that the British art market has faced—others include EU funding cuts and unclear government guidance, to name a few—and it’s unlikely to be the last. But as long as the collectors keep coming, the auctions keep hammering, and the galleries keep selling, there’s no reason to write off Britain’s integral place in the art world just yet.

Arun Kakar

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Metro Vancouver art instructor found not guilty of child molestation, despite judge’s concerns with case

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A Metro Vancouver art instructor has been found not guilty of molesting a young student, despite the judge ruling that she strongly suspected the accused touched the girl “under her pants as she described”.

According to a Supreme Court of B.C. ruling, the teacher was arrested last March after the student reported the alleged incidents to her mother.

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The girl testified that during the course of art classes at the man’s home he put his hand down her pants, under her underwear, and that he placed her hand on his penis, over his pants.

He was subsequently charged with touching a child (count one) and inviting a child to touch him (count two) for a sexual purpose — to which he pleaded not guilty.

The teacher said the only touching that occurred was to correct the student’s sitting position or posture as she drew and painted. He said he was a strict teacher who often admonished the student and had at one point put his hands on her torso to pull her back into her seat.

Justice Heather Holmes said the girl was a credible witness and that key areas of her testimony “had the ring of truth”.

“I accept (the student’s) evidence that (the teacher) touched her inside her pants, in the way she described, during the final Sunday lesson and on at least one other occasion, likely a number of other occasions.”

In reference to the alleged penis touching, Holmes wrote “(the student’s) uncertainty or discomfort in remembering or describing this conduct do not reduce the credibility of her evidence.

“However, together with the associated absence of detail, they leave her evidence about this allegation as little more than a bare assertion of the conduct she described, with a little context against which to assess its reliability.”

In conclusion, Holmes wrote that if she were to choose between the evidence of the student and evidence of the teacher regarding count 1, “I would conclude (the student’s) evidence is more credible and more reliable than (the teachers).

“However, that is not the task. For an accused person to be found guilty of a criminal offence, the evidence must establish their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a very high standard. It does not require absolute certainty, but it does require more than strong suspicion.

“The evidence in this case leaves me strongly suspecting that (the teacher) touched (the student) under her pants as she described. However, the evidence does not give me confidence on that point beyond a reasonable doubt. (The teacher’s) evidence is not compelling, for the reasons I have given, but I cannot reject it entirely. It leaves me with a reasonable doubt.”

As a result, the teacher was found not guilty on both counts.

The accused name, the location of the art studio and the ages of all parties have not been reported due to a publication ban put in place to protect the girl’s identity.

 

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Goalie mask art exhibit on display at Kelowna Rotary Centre for the Arts

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Madison Erhardt

Goalie masks are the centre of an art exhibit at the Rotary Centre for the Arts, all made by a former UBC Okanagan fine arts student.

Rylan Broadbent’s series, Behind my Mask, I am Secure is a collection of ceramic goalie masks. They are currently on display at the Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art.

“This whole journey started with wanting to engage with some of my hockey equipment. I have a Master’s of Fine Arts, so I am primarily an artist, but I also play hockey outside of this and I wanted to marry the two things together for this project.”

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The artist and goalie says it has been rewarding being able to put his artwork on display.

“It has been really excellent to put the mask in front of people. To me that sort of completes the circle of spending all that time making the piece and then it is really rewarding actually put it in front of people,” Broadbent said.

He says his artwork took three months to complete.

“I started with one of my own goalie masks and took it all apart. I ended up making a plaster mould of it and then taking clay and pushing that into the mould then basically pulling masks back out and then finding ways to engage with them to open up different doors,” he added.

Broadbent hopes maybe one day an NHL goalie may call him up to help create a mask.

“I certainly wouldn’t hesitate if one of them wanted to pick one up and it would be great to get a goalie’s reaction.”

The hockey lover says he plans on expanding his exhibit in the near future.

The masks are on display until March 11.

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