Palais de Lomé: Sonia Lawson on Reinventing and Transforming the Forbidden
by Ladun Ogidan
Once a symbol of power under the colonial regimes of Germany and France, the former Palais des Gouverneurs and its adjoining park have been restored and transformed to become the Palais de Lomé, an artistic and cultural centre for design, visual and performing arts. In this interview, we talk to the Director, Sonia Lawson on how successful the Palais has been in reinventing natural and historical heritage to foster creative talents in Africa.
You worked as a luxury goods executive for large French companies including LVMH and L’Oréal. How has your background and work experience prepared you for your recent position as the director of Palais de Lomé?
My background and experience gave me a multidisciplinary outlook for the Palais de Lomé project and a managerial approach for running it. I was able to come up with a structure and follow through on different and diverse phases, from interacting with international architects to coordinating 10 local firms and liaising with the administration. My background also informed my entrepreneurial model to not only promote culture but seek revenue to ensure financial sustainability. For example, we will include two restaurants and a boutique that will support the Palais, as well as local artisans and workers.
Maybe thanks to my multidisciplinary outlook, I was able to see the potential for transforming the former Governors’ Palace (and the 26-acre “jungle” that grew around it while the building was abandoned for 20 years). We envisioned what would become the uniqueness of the Palais de Lomé among West African cultural institutions – it is a place that not only showcases contemporary art but also combines art and culture with design and biodiversity.
What has been the public’s reception to the museum since its inception and how successful has it been in “Reinventing natural and historical heritage to foster creative talents in Africa?”
The first word that comes to mind is ‘curiosity.’ The local public was curious about the opening of this ‘forbidden place’ of power and its transformation as an art centre. I say a ‘forbidden place’ because the Palais de Lomé was the former colonial Governors’ Palace before becoming the location of the country’s first presidency, so it was not open to the public. People were also curious about the Palais because it was the first such art centre in Togo; most of the local population had never seen an art exhibition before.
I think we also had to overcome some early doubts about the feasibility of combining art, culture, and biodiversity. Fortunately, as more and more people discover the venue, they enjoy the space and the exhibitions. Most of all, they are proud of the Palais de Lomé. As someone wrote in our guestbook: “I am very proud to be Togolese at this time when we can rediscover our culture and showcase our talents.”
Regarding our mission to reinvent natural and historical heritage to foster creative talents in Africa, a quick rundown of our programming to date shows how we’ve achieved our first reinvention by transforming the former colonial palace into an art centre that showcases Togolese, African, and diaspora creative talents.
I’ll start with our group contemporary art exhibition “3 Borders,” which brought together artists from Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, and Togo; Abass Kelani, Edwige Aplogan, Tété Azankpo, Serge Clottey, Euloge Glèlè, Al-Hassan Issah, Emmanuel Sogbadji and Prince Toffa. “3 Borders” explored the themes of connectivity, materiality, the notion of borders, migration and the reuse of objects to make political, social and conceptual statements. Nigerian-British curator, Aminat Lawal Agoro curated it in collaboration with the Senegalese Aissa Dione. Curated by Sandra Agbessi, our exhibition “Infinity: Tribute to Kossi Aguessy” showcased the work of an iconic Togolese designer. In “Togo of Kings” exhibition, we displayed artifacts belonging to kingdoms, chieftaincies, and traditional communities, and to make the past speak with the present, we enriched the content by including talks from contemporary visual artists, photographers and filmmakers, including George Osodi, Jean-Dominique Burton, Sokey Edorh, Louis Vincent and Kodjo Efui Wornanu. Our park also plays an important part in showcasing this reinvention by allowing visitors to discover contemporary sculptures by Amouzou Amouzou-Glikpa and Sadikou Oukpedjo while walking amidst century-year-old trees.
It’s been fantastic to see the early success of our mission, but it is also important to realise the Palais is still a work in progress. We only opened a year ago. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we had to temporarily close. So, we haven’t been able to welcome as many visitors as we would have liked, and we had to postpone many projects. That said, we know from what we’ve seen so far that we can and hope to have a significant impact.
What were some of the challenges you faced since the beginning of operations?
We faced many challenges along the way. The renovation itself was not an easy process. The Palais was a derelict building after decades of abandonment in a tropical region. Our challenges included assembling the renovation team. A team of 3 architects was selected after a competition; then, 10 construction firms were selected from a tender. One big challenge was working with archives to be historically faithful to the building. Our builders needed to understand the importance of this aspect of our plan.
We also had to advocate for the usefulness of culture in a country with economic challenges. We had to address how culture is relevant for enriching everyday life, as well as for economic development and not just something ‘nice to have’.
It was and it is still a challenge to make the local population discover contemporary art. For many Togolese, it was their first exposure to an art exhibition. It is a challenge to make them come to visit, understand contemporary art and see how creativity can transform some of their daily life objects into artworks.
Another challenge was helping people to understand what we were trying to achieve. In the beginning, some people said: “What’s the point of this park? I’m not interested in trees. Why do we need such a big space in the city centre?” We had to educate and explain that restoring the 26-acre park was a worthwhile use of time, space, and resources.
Another major challenge was figuring out how to encourage people to visit. How to make the public feel welcome in a place that had once been a forbidden place, a place of power. We had to convince our visitors that the power is now in people’s hands – that the Palais is their place.
How would you respond to perceptions and criticisms of Togolese who still view the museum as the government’s property and not useful to the public?
We would invite them to come inside and visit. They will see that the Palais is a welcoming place. This starts with ensuring that our exhibition guides speak local languages, as well as French and English.
We understand that it might be difficult for some to see the purpose of the venue since the benefits of art and culture are sometimes underrated on the continent. But we also appeal to the pragmatic side of people. We explain how the Palais is a major asset for the Togolese economy and tourism. The Palais creates new vocations and jobs, as well as hires people.
Also, the Palais is like a ‘school outside the wall.’ It is a place of learning outside of the schoolroom. We are part of the education of future generations. In our programmes for children, we teach about Togolese culture, contemporary art and design, and about plant species. For example, we know the younger generation loves Coca-Cola, but they don’t necessarily know that the kola in Coca-Cola comes from Africa and that the root of the kola plant was traditionally used for dying textiles. People don’t know this anymore because we don’t use these traditional methods. The younger generation likes Coca-Cola because they think it is cool and modern. We can use plants in the park to provide context and education.
Besides, we are working on apps related to the park and exhibitions that can appeal to a broad audience.
We also use innovative strategies to encourage people to visit the Palais, such as our efforts to bring the Palais to the people. As part of the cultural activities of our upcoming exhibition “LOME+”, we will have screenings of the documentary “The Imminent Impossibilities” in the biggest market of Lomé. The documentary features the trajectories of Lomé inhabitants, including the market workers. We feel this will encourage people to see how the Palais connects with them.
Do you have any programme in place dedicated to improving or developing the immediate community?
We have an educational programme with the schools around the Palais. We welcome children and plan visits to the exhibitions and the park for them. A visit to the Palais can also broaden the minds of the students and inspire new vocations.
Can you tell us a bit about your forthcoming Biennial of Contemporary African Sculpture?
Because of the pandemic, we have postponed the Biennial until 2022. We’ve taken this opportunity to remodel the event format to have a greater mix between sculpture and biodiversity. In the Biennial, nature will not only provide a nice setting for the artworks, but it will also provide a major component of its theme.
How can the continent’s museums reinvent themselves to address major issues affecting Black people all over the world, including systemic racism?
I believe the continent’s institutions play a major part in raising the visibility of African artists, on the continent and throughout the world, through collaboration between the institutions.
We play an important role in educating the world about the exciting artistic vision around the continent. By showing images of Africa, we contribute to changing the narrative about Black people. We hope to encourage pan-Africanism and dialogues between Africans on the continent and in diaspora.
How would you define the relevance of art to the society especially in this period of the Coronavirus pandemic?
I think art helps us in so many ways. It helps to bring us back to ourselves, or open up to others by appealing to our imaginary or to the codes that are embedded in our cultures. It also offers alternative ways of architecting the world. This is especially important in a moment where a pandemic has made more visible just how broken the whole world is. In Addition, art and artists offer other possibilities for seeing society and ordering or reimagining it.
Through a variety of mechanisms including exhibition-making and art education, we bring some of these social problematics and forgotten patrimony to the fore and engage in dialogue with a broad public about them.
Covid-19 has forced us all to pivot, to reassess our relationships, including with nature. It reinforced the role of our park. The pandemic crisis has shown how much human beings need nature and green spaces. Indeed, given all that the world has undergone in the last few months, the importance of what we eat, how we can strengthen the immune system, and reflecting on the surroundings and the environment is more important than ever. We have medicinal gardens in the Park that include herbs and plants that people can use in their everyday life. It’s a way to encourage people to reflect on what we eat, the notion of the earth, and what the earth brings us.
Opening image: Front façade of the Palais © Studio Erick Saillet
May 05, 2021
May 04, 2021