Koyo Kouoh: First I would like to thank Nka for rebounding on the ball of independent art centers in Africa in the form of this roundtable that clearly provides a higher degree of reflection than any ten-minute slot in a public panel would do. I also take the opportunity to say that the “phenomenon” is not new—it is only starting to get the attention that it deserves. I must stay that if we were to speak of a “mother of independent art centers” in Africa, then Doual’art immediately comes to my mind (and this no Cameroonian nationalism!) Didier and Marilyn will celebrate twenty years of existence next year—an unprecedented achievement in the field of independent contemporary artistic action on this continent of ours. Abdellah’s L’appartement 22 is also on the map since it is very close to ten years. So are many other less visible initiatives and artists collectives that work hard to provide spaces of artistic and intellectual freedom. This reality was also the source of my inspiration for the development of the curatorial statement geared towards art institutions and art scenes as opposed to individual artists for the contemporary section of GEO-graphics, a map of African art practice past and present co-curated with Anne-Marie Bouttiaux under the artistic direction of David Adjaye in June 2010 in Brussels.
Personally I like the poetry of saying that I stumbled on contemporary art by accident at a time when I began working on African literature and writing in general—having published an anthology of writing by women of African descent back in 1994. I have a banking administration and cultural management background from respectively Zurich Business School and University of Paris VII. Reading Senghor in my late teens in Switzerland awakened in me an interest for African art and a fascination for Senegal. I worked as a cultural journalist for various magazines in Switzerland and was involved in Zurich with a group of people dedicated to promoting African cinema through a biennial film festival. In the fall of 1995 the festival was preparing a retrospective of Ousmane Sembène. As the only “writer” in the group, I traveled to Dakar for the first time to meet Sembène for a feature in a local weekly magazine as well as to prepare for the festival. This was when I fell in love with the city and its people.
Back then it had already become clear to me since a few years that I wanted to move out of Europe. Moving back to Cameroon would lead to dull and obvious pattern that I was not interested in. Senegal just seemed to be the perfect alternative. The vibrant reputation of Dakar as a metropolis of art, culture and intellectualism has always attracted numerous Africans to this place. As a site of knowledge production and creativity, nourished by two eminent figures such as Cheikh Anta Diop and Senghor, Dakar has played an important part in shaping the cultural production and artistic life of postcolonial Africa and its diaspora. It offers stability and a degree of sophistication that is not comparable to any other French postcolony south of Sahara. Moreover, the social climate is conducive to establishing a new life. I visited a second time during the Dakar Biennale in May 1996 and moved for good in the fall of 1996.
The initial project was to establish an artist residency and exhibition program to provide an independent private space for production and exchange. The project did not succeed for many reasons I will not elaborate on here. Both time and myself were not ripe. Yet I stayed. I became acquainted with the artist community and specifically with the whole Laboratoire Agit’ Art group, particularly with Issa Samb and Bouna Medoune Seye, whom I owe a lot for understanding the art scene and the social and political codes and processes at play. The catalog of the second Johannesburg biennial, directed by Okwui Enwezor in 1997, was a real mind opener for me in that it exposed me to a level of intellectual translation of art practice that I had never encountered before in relation to African artistic production.
Another poetry that I like is to say is that I became a cultural producer out of necessity. The necessity of putting forward ideas and methods that go beyond the usual borders; the necessity of exposing people (especially art students) to practices and other people that challenge their intellectual comfort and creative confidence; the necessity of questioning the confiscation of the public arena by petty politics and phony religious fervor; and the necessity of re-polishing the image of the artist and the thinker in the society. It is from those perspectives that the genesis of Raw Material Company is to be understood. By the year 2004 it was clear to me that Dakar was losing its reputation and attraction—this is in many ways thank to the often mediocre roll out and roll up of the Dakar Biennale. While it is important to pay respect to the government of Senegal for funding and keeping this event alive, it is just as necessary to analyze its impact on the international artistic map as well as the countless opportunities that have been missed to make this event a federating and powerful tool that I believe it should be. Predictably, the OFF biennial has become much more important and interesting than the biennial itself.
Raw Material Company is a space that works in the interstices of what is stated in the paragraph above. The name itself borrows from the reality of Africa as a provider of raw materials for global industry. It is also a philosophical interpretation of art and intellectualism as necessary raw materials for human development. Company is on the one hand an indication that the project sets itself in an entrepreneurial trajectory and on the other hand it suggests the collaborative approach in the sense of togetherness. As a center for art, knowledge and society, it uses the idea of “dig where you stand” as a leitmotiv.