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Ex-slave trade town seeks to be African art hub

OUIDAH, Benin -- Until last year, the few tourists who visited the small west African town of Ouidah were likely headed to the Gateway of No Return, a massive monument to the area's bleak history as a slave trading hub.

But the town may soon become known for an attraction of an entirely different sort: the first sub-Saharan Africa museum dedicated exclusively to contemporary African art.

The Zinsou Museum, installed in an ornate 100-year-old villa, has attracted 13,000 visitors since its launch in November — an impressive tally for an out-of-the-way town in the sparsely visited nation of Benin.

The reputation — and monetary value — of contemporary African art has steadily risen in recent years. Curators and collectors from North America and Europe frequently fly in to artistic hubs like Lagos, Nigeria seeking new talent and new work by established names.

But for Marie-Celine Zinsou, who spearheaded the creation of the museum, better notoriety for African artists abroad was not enough.

While on a trip to Benin with a French-based children's charity in 2005, she wanted to take a group of youths to an art museum.

“I found that there wasn't any structure to show (the children) work from their own continent,” she told AFP.

Zinsou, the grandniece of one of Benin's first presidents, secured an investment from her father Lionel, a businessman with dual French and Benin nationality who previously worked for France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

The Zinsou foundation opened in 2005 at a building in Benin's largest city of Cotonou, where access was free to view both African and foreign art.

The foundation attracted four million visitors in eight years, mostly students under the age of 15.

As it became more established, the Zinsou Foundation began acquiring a diverse collection of contemporary African art, with the goal of opening a permanent museum.

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A guide shows children through an exhibition presenting a series of auto-portrait photos by Cameroonian and Nigerian artist Samuel Fosso, center, at the renovated villa Ajavon, where a new arts center has been established, in Ouidah, Benin, on Jan. 29. (AFP)

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