Photo by Moshood Balogun.
Photo Series: Emomé Art Festival, Togo’s Art Festival Lives On for a 5th Edition
Run by artist Ras Sankara, Togo’s self-supported performance art festival has become a vital space for artists to showcase their responses to pressing social and cultural issues.
Between June 21 and July 1, 2023, the 5th edition of the Emomé Art Festival happened between the Togolese capital of Lomé, and the mountainous terrain of Kpalimé, located in the Plateaux Region of the West African country. Testament to the steady growth of this seven-year-old festival, which is principally a street and performance art affair, participating artists arrived from across West Africa, as well as from Asia and America. This is following years of exceptional dedication to the art of performance art by Ras Sankara Agboka, performance artist and festival director of Emomé.
Ras Sankara, as he goes by, is not the first artist to advocate for performance art in Togo; albeit only a handful, there have been predecessors—like the late Assiongbo Kaliko, to whom Ras Sankara dedicated his 2023 Ellipse prize win, along with his mother. But prior to his emergence on the Togolese performance art scene, there was no ecosystem to speak of. He thought it was an unsound situation, and so committed to building something viable. "When I got into the scene actively, between 2015 and 2016, there was no structure — no festival, no gatherings; and there were no people who scheduled me for shows. So I had to organize things on my own,” he tells OkayAfrica. “But I also came to realize soon enough that if this artform really needs to grow and evolve in my country, a project or structure must be established.”
Following this, he decided to stage the Emomé Art festival, which aims to train and give opportunities to other artists to express themselves through the art of performance–“really to build a proper scene for this art in the country.” Every year since, Ras Sankara, together with his team and his CASCAD-TOGO association, which he created to promote the art of performance in Togo, continues to do what it takes to make sure the event takes place.
Bodies moving, mutating
The theme for this year’s edition was a mouthful: Les Corps en Mouvement dans des Territoires en Mutation: Explorer L'identité, translated in English as Bodies in Motion in Mutating Territories: Exploring Identity. Artists rose to the task of exploration, responding more directly to the sub-theme of digging into identity.
Correspondingly, performance art made up the lion's share of activities, happening right in the streets of Lomé and Kpalimé. This speaks to Emomé’s avowed interest to take art as close as possible to the streets, to the people. In the early evening of day one, just before an opening shindig at night, Togolese artist Kwami Da Costa opened the festivities with a piece entitled Amegan Djigui, which urged an ethos of leadership that is devoid of hubris.
So many evocative performances followed: Da Costa’s Togolese counterpart Kunakey Koku presented La Clé, a lament and a call to action of a performance concerned about Africa’s lost key. From the Philippines, Nicolas Aca shared Warm Embrace, an emotive response to the warmth he’d received from people he’d encountered in the host country. Taiwo Aiyedogbon’s Journey through the Womb illustrated her exploration of growing pains that mark various stages of transition, and her fellow Nigerian Femi Adebajo’s The Color Red Years decried the phenomenon of bloodletting amongst humans.
In The Dirtiness of Whiteness, Mireia Pérez Rodríguez reckoned with the cruel colonial histories of their homeland, Spain, and with some of the white supremacist ideas that underpinned such histories. From Benin with WE’RE WATCHING OVER IT, Eric Mededa tasked his audience members to assume the responsibility of safeguarding each other’s identities. And Serments Présidentiel, by another Beninois, Kiffouly Youchaou, was a solemn call for the deployment of traditional African deities of justice in the matters of state administration. Relatedly, Ivory Coast’s Zopapi Ehueni presented Identifié — a performance which, much like his stunning paintings, admonished a due regard for African traditions and cultures. And on, and on.
The show should go on
If one would dare deduce a dominant sentiment of the numerous performances and offerings, it would be: an earnest concern about the sociocultural progress of Africa. Which then makes Emomé a vital event in that it is important that more spaces and avenues be created for the expression and exploration of such concerns. Still, considering the dearth of such outlets and the necessity of creative expression, an event like Emomé would remain a worthy intervention if no lofty sociopolitical concerns were cast upon it.
For such a vital cultural activation, then, it is disheartening that the Emomé festival is organized with no state and minimal private sector support; and to the effect of financial loss to the self-funding entity. For one, Ras Sankara bemoans this situation, and attributes a significant part of the lack of external support to his activism against the current government. But then he doesn't let the deficiencies in support get in the way of consistently putting together this event, which he considers indispensable for the edification of his people and society.
With hopes that means shall be procured to make the festival happen again next year, a considerable number of this year’s participating artists have pledged to return. One has reason to believe they are not the only ones eagerly anticipating a 6th edition. No doubt they’re joined by the numerous people on the streets of Togo, who have all these years been treated to art that captivates, stimulates and inspires, even if it bewilders some.
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