Lumières d’Afriques: When art illuminates the challenges of access to energy

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54 works created by 54 world-renowned contemporary African artists, one for each of the 54 countries that make up the continent, united around the same source of inspiration: The illuminated Africa.

This beautiful exhibition, titled “Lumières d’Afriques” ("African Lights"), opened its doors on Wednesday April 27, 2016, at the Donwahi Foundation for Contemporary Art in Abidjan, under the auspices of the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the African Artists for Development (AAD) Fund.

The challenge of access to electricity in Africa is represented there in all its forms: photographs, paintings, sculptures, installations, videos and performances. Just run through some of the titles of the works on show for a glimpse of the creativity behind the exhibition: "Sun for everyone", an acrylic on canvas by Rwandan Epaphrodite Binamungu; "ANGUKA (FALL)", in partially illuminated capital letters to compose the word "anguka", by Tanzanian Rehema Chachage; "Under the tree of knowledge", a sculpture in welded recycled metal by Congolese Freddy Tsimba; "Africa Dreams" an installation in the colours of the countries of Africa by Moroccan Jamila Lamrani; "My lantern", a composition in wood, metal and acrylic by Togo’s Tété Camille Azankpo; "Happy People", a painting by South Sudanese Deng Majid Chol; the "Load-shedding Series", a mosaic of photographs by Chadian Abdoulaye Barry; "Emity Na-Zahir (Climate change)", an oil on coloured canvas by Nigerien Ibrahim Chahamata, and so many more... This is "the illuminated Africa" expressed in 54 works, each one unique.

"A space to shine"

"This exhibition gives us an opportunity to see the potential and capacity of Africa – as well as our own capacity – to accomplish great things," said AfDB President Akinwumi Adesina at the opening of the exhibition on Tuesday, April 26. A dozen of the artists in the show had made the journey to Abidjan for the launch of this event.

Standing before his painting with dominant black and white in places piercing through people painted in colour, Liberian Leslie Lumeh explains that it is a scene from Camden Camp on Johnson Road, a shopping district in Monrovia. "Back in Liberia, energy is a serious problem. At 4 or 5 pm, economic activity comes to a halt due to lack of light. This used to be a prosperous area," he said, adding: "There is some degree of light in every African, which just needs a space to shine." 

"Doubt is unpleasant, but certainty is ridiculous." This message, written in Arabic calligraphy using nails driven into a square of white wax, is the work of Algerian artist Amina Zoubir. "I am re-appropriating the message of the philosopher Voltaire, who embodies the Age of Enlightenment," explained the young artist. "Why wax? Because it reminds me of load-shedding. We all have a candle at home ready for power cuts. Candles are the first source of light and probably the most economical, because a candle stays alight for hours," she added. Amina Zoubir looks around the room, where other works are on show: "An idea is always illuminating."

Chadian photographer Abdoulaye Barry explains that he took his photos at night in the Marjane Daffack quarter in N’Djamena, the capital. "N’Djamena has been living in the dark for a decade. I took my photos at night, using the light from headlights on the cars or mopeds that went by."

Lighting Africa, an AfDB priority

If the AfDB is associated with this exhibition, it is because "African Lights" embodies one of its top five priorities, one of the "High 5s" set by Akinwumi Adesina when he took office: Lighting up and powering Africa. Because, as he pointed out at the opening, "Without electricity there is no future, no growth, no progress."

This was confirmed by one of the doyens of the exhibition, Ghanaian Paa Joe, one of the most important artists of his generation and a pioneer of the Ghanaian art of customised coffins: "Business cannot develop without electricity." With his son Jacob at his side (the father is passing his art and know-how on to his son), Paa Joe observed the reactions of visitors to his work "Electric Bulb", a coffin nestled in a giant lightbulb.

More than 640 million Africans still have no access to energy. It is urgent to act. That is why, under the aegis of its President, the Bank launched its New Deal on Energy for Africa.

The Bank is planning to invest US $12 billion in energy over the next five years. It is aiming for "universal access to electricity by 2025," explained Audrey Rojkoff, Operations Coordinator for the Green Climate Fund within the AfDB’s Energy, Environment and Climate Change Department, when she addressed the artists and journalists who had come to discover the exhibition a few hours before the opening. "There is a clear link between the work accomplished by the African Development Bank and the message delivered by this exhibition," concluded Rojkoff.

"These artists allow us to access the light of creativity and the light of excellence," said Ivorian Minister of Energy Adama Toungara, also present at the opening of the exhibition.

"African Lights" was initiated as part of COP21, when the African continent made its voice heard to defend its interests in the fight against climate change, thanks to the support of the African Development Bank and of its two partners, the African Union/NEPAD and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, which ensured its high visibility in a dedicated Africa Pavilion.

Having opened in Paris at the Théâtre National de Chaillot in November 2015, the touring exhibition "African Lights" is making its first stop in Abidjan. Other capitals in Africa and elsewhere will follow. The Schneider Electric Foundation, Orange and Tilder Communications Consultancy are also associated with the exhibition as partners.


The Donwahi Foundation, Boulevard des Martyrs, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire


27 April to 6 June 2016

Free admission