Abidjan Green Arts: Banco National Park's Art Exhibit in the Forest
Updated: Feb 19, 2020
In December, some of my Fellow Fulbrighters and I embarked on a trip to Côte D'Ivoire, a beautifully green (and humid) West-African country just a few hours from Dakar by plane. We began our trip in the country's economic capital, Abidjan. We were only planing to spend a couple of days there before heading to Yamoussoukro, so we did as much as we could in the limited time we had there. I checked out some travel forums about Abidjan, and at the top of most of the lists of sights-to-see was Banco National Park, a lush forest conservation stretching over 7,000 acres.
We arrived at Banco on our second day in Abidjan. We payed the ~$10 entry fee, and because we didn't really want to spend hours wandering cluelessly through the forest, we also paid for a guided tour. Kouamé, our guide, knew just about everything theres was to know about Banco. From the scientific name of just about every plant species, to the traditional medicinal use for the leaves– if we had a question, Kouamé had an answer.
The trail through the park was roughly 6km, and for most of the trek, I had no idea where the trail led to. I was hoping we were headed to a waterfall or maybe up a hill to see a nice a view... anything to make the long trek feel worth it. Kouamé later told us we were headed to an arboretum. I honestly had no idea what an arboretum was, but after my friend informed that it was essentially a botanical garden, I was kind of disappointed. "You mean to tell me y'all got me hiking for miles ... slipping all in the mud, in 90 degree heat and almost 100% humidity for a GARDEN??? You've gotta be kidding me." I thought to myself. The way I saw it, we were already in the forest... literally everything around us is a garden, no?? Nonetheless, I kept my contempt to myself, trying to stay positive and just enjoy the trip. And to be honest, after a while I was actually enjoying the hiking. Yes, I was ridiculously hot and dripping sweat, but it was honestly really nice to be surrounded by so much greenery. I live in Dakar, a city that's generally really dry, really sandy, and really air-polluted. So honestly, I didn't mind a long trail if it meant fresh air and some much needed green scenery. After a while it just felt... invigorating. I didn't know what to expect at this arboretum, but I was just enjoying the ride at that point.
When we finally arrived at the arboretum, it was kind of hard to tell we were there. It just kind of looked like the rest of the forest. I noticed a few small buildings– schoolhouses and even a small museum-like space that had some fossils of animals native to the area. After quickly touring those spaces, Kouamé took us over to the arboretum where, after closer inspection, I could see labels for many of the plants.
I thought learning about the plants was cool, but to be honest, Kouamé knew enough about the forest to make it all feel like an arboretum. He knew the names of the plants even without labels. I was much more intrigued by the sculptures I saw scattered around the area. Kouamé explained that the sculptures we were seeing were part of the inaugural installation of a new initiative called Abidjan Green Arts (AGA), a biennial, 12-day art festival created by Ivorian artist Jems Koko Bi. The purpose of the festival is to bring attention to the pressing issue of deforestation. According to the Ivorian Ministry of Water and Forests, Côte D'Ivoire has lost about 80% of its forests in just the last 60 years. Jems Koko Bi created AGA in hopes of using art to inspire people to preserve the forest, or as he calls it, "the lung"of Abidjan.
During the 12-day festival, lively prayers, songs, and dances take over an otherwise tranquil Banco National Forest. There are seminars and workshops highlighting issues of deforestation and climate change, and participating artists are around to give talks about their sculptures.
The inaugural festival hosted installations by 8 artists from around the world: Soly Cisse (Senegal), Franck Abd-Bakar Fanny (Côte D'Ivoire), Ri-Lee Eung Woo (South Korea), Ernst Daetwyler (Canada), Imke Rust (Germany), Nathalie Vairac (France), Karin Danielle Van der Molen (Netherlands), and Elena Redaelli (Italy). Participants only had two rules: 1) Do not bring anything unnatural into the forest. You are to create only with what the earth provides. 2) Do not harm any living thing in the forest, including trees and plants. If you want to work with wood, you work with dead wood. If you want to work with leaves, you work with leaves that have already fallen to the ground.
The pieces weren't labeled, so there was no way for me to know which artists created which pieces, but my understanding from some digging online is that most of the pieces were collaborations among several or all of the participating sculptors.
After the 12 days of the festival, the art remains, left to the elements to be decayed in the following months. We happened to arrive to Banco just 4 days after the end of the festival, so most of the sculptures we were able to see were still in like-new condition, despite the rainstorm just the day before.
The exhibition was unlike anything I'd ever seen before, and even as I'm writing about it, it's kind of hard to put into words what it was like to see art in that way. It was like if Mother Nature herself had woven the fallen branches and dead leaves into new living beings. The sculptures all just blended in so perfectly. I had never seen art that looked so much like it it... belonged ...exactly where it was. Most traditional art exhibits that I've experienced put art on display on pure white walls so as not to distract from the art itself. When I see art in that pure, white environment, I always took it as a given that the art doesn't necessarily belong there, it's just passing through on its way to the next museum where thousands of visitors like me will ponder its meaning...or maybe it's on its way to a home where it'll tie seamlessly into someone's meticulously fabricated interior design landscape... or maybe thats the end of its road when the installation comes down... who knows. Either way, I've always kind of subconsciously understood an exhibit to be a stop on art's journey. This installation kind of turned that notion on its head for me. I couldn't imagine the work being on display anywhere else. It was like it not only belonged in the forest, but it belonged to the forest as well.
And I guess that makes sense... art in the forest and made from the forest.. of course it looks like belongs, but it wasn't just that simple. Even beyond how well the art blended in with its environment, observing this work made me reflect on how art exhibits imply value, and what message this exhibit in particular sends about how we should value the earth.
When I walk into a traditional art gallery, it kind of goes without saying that what I'm seeing is priceless. Even if a piece does happen to have a price on it, I always know that there is nothing else quite like it in the world– it's one of a kind. Abidjan Green Arts, to me, highlights how the same can (and should) be thought of the earth we inhabit. The art here is no less valuable than anywhere else, not only because of the artists that created it, but simply because it is made of, and resides in, the forest. In the same way art can't be replicated, neither can the forest once it's been destroyed. So leaving the art to decay in the elements in no way implies that the work or the materials used to make it are any less valuable. If anything, I think it implied that the forest itself was the priceless, one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable piece of art. The art was the forest, the forest was the art.
Abidjan Green Arts is of course not the first nor the only time natural materials have been used to create art. I see it every day here on Goree Island where skilled artists create beautiful art with nothing more than sand. I think this kind of art has a lot teach all of us about how the Earth provides for us and how we value it in return.