New Togolese contemporary art centre the Palais de Lomé has opened with a retrospective of one of its nation’s creative stars, the industrial designer Kossi Aguessy, who died in 2017 at just 40 years of age.
Aguessy was a graduate of London’s Central Saint Martins design school who started his own eponymous studio and worked with the likes of Philippe Starck, the Coca Cola Company, Stella McCartney and Renault.
The Infinity exhibition showcases his aesthetic, which curator Sandra Agbessi describes as “futuristic, multicultural and polymorphic”. It also mourns the loss of a huge talent who helped to make West African creativity visible on the global stage.
With limited records to draw on, Agbessi had to track down the designer’s former collaborators from around the world to assemble the pieces in Infinity, and said they were all effusive in their praise for the designer.
“I never heard people talking about an artist like they were talking about Kossi,” she told Dezeen. “Whereas many designers would send a sketch and be done with a project, “Kossi was present from day one”, she continued.
As part of the exhibition, the Palais de Lomé produced a short film, with international names such as designer Ross Lovegrove reflecting on Aguessy’s legacy.
In it the founder of art organisation Little Africa Jacqueline Ngo Mpii says that the designer’s early death, from cancer, is particularly tragic because “he would have been a world-class ambassador…in this time when Africa is getting its prestige back and reclaiming a seat at the table”.
Among the chairs, vessels and sculptures in the Infinity exhibition are the glossy Zoo and Loo masks (2010-2016) – Aguessy’s contemporary play on the archetypal African ritual objects.
They are joined by the monolithic Fjord armchair (2010), cut from Carrara marble.
Metal is frequently laser-cut or twisted into fluid forms, such as in the Infinity armchair (2016), made from one continuous strip of aluminium.
The Palais de Lomé is dedicated to fostering contemporary creative practices in Togo and the region, and has a dedicated design gallery.
Its creative team had hoped to collaborate with Aguessy on an exhibition, but after his passing, they chose to inaugurate the institution with a retrospective of his work instead.
“It is our hope that this tribute will allow his work to endure and to make it known to as many people as possible, and, better yet, be a stepping stone to future careers,” said the Palais’ director, Sonia Lawson.
Reflecting on her conversations with Aguessy, Lawson said they were always wide-ranging and that he liked to challenge the concepts of “Africanity” and of an “African designer”, given his international background and influences.
“He was curious about shapes, techniques and materials,” she said. “In one single conversation, he was able to touch on materials used in aeronautics, natural resins in Cameroon and culinary design.”
“I remember him talking about iconic Togolese dishes such as koliko (deep fried yams) and akoumé (a kind of Togolese polenta) which he was thinking of showcasing differently.”
The Palais de Lomé opened in December 2019 following a state-funded project to restore the dilapidated Palais des Gouverneurs building, built from 1898 to 1905 when Togo was a German colony.
In contrast to its history of exclusion, the building is now open to the public for the first time, welcoming both locals and tourists. It has a focus on accessibility, with a free-entry weekend each month incorporating local guides, storytellers and activities.
Along with Infinity, the Palais de Lomé opened with Togo of the Kings, an exhibition of historical and ritual objects that are still in use among the region’s kingdoms and chieftaincies.
Accompanying this is Three Borders, showcasing the work of contemporary artists from neighbouring Ghana, Nigeria and Benin as well as Togo.
The Palais grounds double as a botanic garden — a significant addition of public outdoor space for the capital. Two restaurants will also open within the complex this year.
The Palais joins a growing landscape of arts and cultural institutions in Africa, including the Heatherwick-designed Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, or Zeitz MOCAA, which opened in Cape Town in 2017.