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Riccardo Ciavolella and Armelle Choplin co-curated the exhibition.




Cotonou has a strange destiny: a city overloaded with history - and stories - and yet it seems to have no memory. Or perhaps it's just pretending to have forgotten...

Cotonou wouldn't have a memory to preserve. That would be limited to Abomey, the "pre-colonial" capital of Dahomey; to Porto-Novo, the capital of continuities beyond the fractures of history; or to Ouidah - like Grand Popo, now swallowed up by the waves of time - held to be the region's gateway to the outside world at the time of the triangular trade: the point of entry for material wealth from elsewhere; the point of departure for human wealth to the other world.


Today, Cotonou has, at best, replaced Ouidah in this interface function, but has shed the burden of history: the spatial and cultural interface of the local world with the outside world; but also the temporal interface, between a past that is stuck inland and behind us, and a future that inevitably passes through the city but remains to be grasped.

Cotonou would find its place, in the urban imagination of Benin today, only as a “neutral” city:

  • “city of colonial origin”, for those who see it only as a development of the commercial and military core of the French at the time of the conquest;

  • “impartial city”, depending on who wants to save it from any symbolic recovery by a community or any pre-colonial royalty;

  • “modern city”, “trade” and “opportunities”, for rural people looking for a job there or for global investors looking for local roots;

  • “young city”, where youth would be, depending on the contingencies of rhetoric, both a force for change and an immutable status, from which it is difficult to extract oneself socially and economically;

  • “city of consumption”, “city to consume” or even, “anonymous city”, for those who see in it a degeneration of social life, where one would lose sight of the intimate relationships of interacquaintance, to immerse oneself, by dissolving there, in the anonymity of the commercial relations of a city “to eat”.


A city seemingly rooted in nothing but the present: an experience of the moment; either realization, or frustration of the hopes that yesterday, or the day before yesterday, we had formulated for tomorrow. In short, a city for no one and at the same time a city for everyone, whose “modern” character, cut off from the past, would only increase following the growth of the city itself, its demographic growth and its territorial spread. Cotonou erases its past as the city attracts to itself any social network or human trajectory and engulfs the surrounding rural spaces, even the neighboring towns, clumping together on its few narrow limits. Limits that are natural, such as the sea, the lake and the lagoon (and yet, one can be on this land while being on the water…); and other more social limits: poverty, the cost of land. A stuck city. And yet a city whose hope of survival is to dissolve into an even larger agglomeration: the macrocephalic conurbation that is emerging, for decades to come, on the urban corridor that connects Abidjan to Lagos. In this megalopolis of tomorrow there resides for the moment only the hope of becoming part, by drowning there, of a new center which counts on the scale of the planet: we also hope that, when the time comes, the 'we are able to make a city of such a size also a city on a human scale.

Cotonou, a spatial and social funnel-city, brimming with hopes of success and desires in the present, but which amass on its own margins, be they its shallows and banks filled with waste or along the axes that escape from it. A city that jams at every point of entry or exit: geographically, at the bridge, at the tolls or at the Toyota crossroads; socially, at the gates of schools and employment.

A city-threshold, or a city-filter, where we selectively sort out individual successes and failures, as well as promises and glimmers of collective development: a city that must give space to the energies and desires of those who want it their piece; but which, at the same time, still has to face the challenges of yesterday and already those of tomorrow: its ecological vulnerability, its inequalities, its development, its opportunities.

These images of a “modern” city, projected somehow towards an uncertain future, contain a whole part of the truth. However, they risk restricting our view of the city: encompassing in a single gray image – like cement – the plurality of its land and water districts and territories; to blur its complexity and its richness in a confused nebula of yellow shirts on polluting motorcycles; to smooth out its historical, cultural and social thicknesses, on the present alone, or worse, on the expectation of tomorrow. And yet, it is enough to wander, for one reason or no reason, passing by the Dantokpa market, whose foundation was decided by a snake, the Haie-vive des envies, Awansuri at the edge of the water and maps , Agla where "we don't dare to venture", Akpakpa Dodomey already shaved, and now the city challenges us.

By being for a long time a city of meeting but also of autonomy, a city of interbreeding, a “modern” city if you will but also a city of ancestors and cults, a commercial city and a city of activities, but also a flagship city of spirituality, cities of everyday life and yet a city of Sundays and ceremonies, Cotonou is now a space of the soul where individual and collective experiences have been sedimented over generations; where life projects and interests have been registered; and where urban forms have been deployed, while constantly changing, which, shaped by time, give shape to the experience of the city: living, moving around, working, resting, exchanging in the Cotonou conurbation certainly means appropriating a place and linking its parts; but it also means being part of a story and an environment of identification and attachment, a boat that travels from yesterday to the next day.

A shared city, but also a shared city. This is Cotonou(s).

To read the Cotonou(s) book, click on the book icon
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