A few steps - Residency at Villa Karo, Grand Popo, Benin
11/13/2014 - 14:17

In the small village of Grand Popo, on the shore of the Gulf of Guinea in Benin, is Villa Karo, a Finnish-African Cultural Centre. I read about this place a few years ago when I was studying design and textile design at the Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences. I wanted to find out more about the African culture, the use of colours and textile expertise, so I decided to apply for a scholarship as soon I had the opportunity. This autumn that opportunity presented itself. I packed my case with a month’s belongings, a notebook, my painting and drawing equipment, a camera and an open mind. My trip was well worth it. It broadened my mind and I had an unforgettable experience.

Over here I see things on a deeper level, like in two dimensions. The utterly different culture and environment changes the way you view things. Sometimes I feel like I am surrounded by an immense and surreal painting, and I take a few steps inside this work of art. At the same time I feel very at home and surrounded by warmth.

The people carry their outfits, made by familiar tailors, with a dignified air. The colourful cloths and vivid patterns are striking. Against the dark skin, the textiles look sculptural and the strong sunlight emphasises the pureness of the colours.

I am amazed by the expert skill that I can see in the woven textiles. They are hand-crafted locally for immediate use.

On the rendered surfaces of the buildings there are rectangular patches of colour in unsymmetrical locations. The people here clearly love to play with colour combinations: orange and pink, moss green and red. A wooden window shutter painted turquoise in the middle of a grey concrete wall. A bright electric-blue strip on the rust-flecked corrugated iron of a roof. On the adjacent roof, pale blue, brown, pink and green. Here and there, white and black. A lime-coloured fence. Bamboo lathings embellished with a grey patina are grouped horizontally and vertically.

At the edge of the street is a small, luminous yellow kiosk with neon green corner planks. A short distance away a pair of violet double doors lean against the side waiting for a buyer. People walk past carrying out their daily tasks.

The salty sea breeze and the hot sun beating down leave their mark on the surfaces, making them unique. In the peeling paint you can see crumbling old rose, different shades of grey, beige, brown, a hint of ochre, a subtle lilac and pink around the edges. In the flaky surface, you can sometimes see painted figures and outlines. Sharp-edged shadows add another interesting feature to the scene.

I visit the seaside home of a family of fishermen. The starry night sky framed with wooden laths is the ceiling, and we sit on mats woven from palm leaves, which also provide shelter from the wind. The yard has been brushed clean and a reddish light emanates from the burning coals, which heat the food. Next to us, surging water crashes onto the shore forming an eternal and ever-changing image.


Residency at Villa Karo, Grand Popo, Benin, autumn 2014.

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