Selected by: International Advisor, Jean-Pierre Raffarin (France)
In 2005, twenty-one year old Marie-Cécile Zinsou established the Zinsou Foundation in the West-coast African Republic of Benin. The Foundation was established to provide free access to the Arts, to promote African Art and Culture and to increase educational advancement through cultural and artistic exercises.
Their headquarters are based in Cotonou, the biggest city in Benin. At the heart of the headquarters lies an exhibition space where, for the past 9 years, 23 exhibitions of African Art have been held. In November last year, the Foundation opened a museum in Ouidah, a one-time slave trade town, 30 km west of Cotonou. This Contemporary Art Museum is the first facility of this kind in Benin. The building itself is a ninety-year old, two-story mansion that has been refurbished as a museum to house a permanent display of contemporary African Art.
Ms. Zinsou says that she had the idea to transform uninhabited buildings into Art spaces after a visit to Naoshima in Japan. Naoshima is an island in Kagawa Prefecture that is known for its modern art museums, architecture and sculptures and on a visit there two years ago, Ms Zinsou was introduced to the "Art House Project" where uninhabited houses were transformed into galleries. The Foundation has a large collection of African Art and it hopes to increase the number of buildings available for use for the Arts by the "Naoshima method."
The Foundation has a multitude of activities based on the Arts. It runs art workshops twice a week where students can learn how to paint, draw and make art works. It has an ambitious program of exhibitions that are linked to various educational programs and it brings school students from the many schools in Cotonou to the building in a wonderful, colorful bus, the "Culture Bus." It also has 6 mini-libraries (each with 2000 books) in Cotonou and once a week, they show movies there too. In addition to these regular activities they have also been involved with starting a "Contemporary Dance Festival".
One of the key elements to all these activities is that they are free to the public, thus ensuring that in the first 9 years of their existence, 4.6 million people out of a total population of 10 million have participated in or experienced one of the many activities. The Foundation's annual budget of one million Euros comes from the Zinsou family and 50 international companies who recognize the vital work being done by the Foundation.
Well-known African artists have offered their support for the Foundation's activities. From the beginning, Beninese sculptor Romuald Hazoumè, famous both in Africa and the West for his gasoline canister masks, gave his backing by providing work for the Foundation's first exhibition. He will also take part in the tenth anniversary events.
Mr. Zomahoun, Benin's Ambassador to Japan, who founded "Takeshi Japanese Language School" in Cotonou in 2003, providing free Japanese lessons, often talks with Ms. Zinsou about education that enriches the people of Benin. He says, "It will be wonderful if people understand Benin and Africa better through the cultural and artistic activities of the Zinsou Foundation."