The John Smith International Heritage Site for Culture (CCRI) is located in Ouidah, 40 kilometres to the west of Benin’s capital Porto-Novo, and is the first International CCR in sub-Saharan Africa. The Centre works to promote the cultural and touristic heritage of the region, and has been a member of the ACCR since May 2020.
THE HERITAGE SITE
Located in the heart of the town, the former colonial courthouse sits at the crossroads of three main thoroughfares: the Avenue de France, the rue des Palmistes and the rue F. Colombani. Its neighbours are the town hall to the west, the Maison du Brésil to the east, and the civil prison to the south.
Constructed at the start of the 20th century, the courthouse also served as an army enrolment centre. The gallery surrounding the building is characteristic of colonial architecture and reflects the workings of the justice system: the courthouse is reminiscent of a theatre intended to impress. Access to the legal system was not the same for Europeans and the local population; at the time when the Ouidah courthouse was built, the two were clearly separated.
Over time, the Centre will house an outdoor theatre, exhibition areas, and professional work spaces adapted for artists, teachers, students and local community organisations. It also includes a family restaurant area and a multimedia library open to schoolchildren and students.
The architect in charge of the restoration project is Aimé Gonçalves. A graduate of the Ecole Inter-États d’Architecture et d’Urbanisme in Lomé (Togo), he holds a doctorate in History and has been an accredited expert in Buildings and Public Works for the Cotonou Court of Appeal since 2007. He is a member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).
THE CULTURAL PROJECT
The John Smith CCRI (International Heritage Site for Culture) aims to develop a multidisciplinary artistic and cultural project which links history, heritage, research and contemporary creation, notably in the field of writing. The artistic programming comprises workshops, seminars, residencies and live events, alongside activities to promote the area’s heritage and touristic assets in a context of international openness and exchange.
The project is based around five main priorities:
- To create a permanent exhibition on the theme of women and slavery;
- To support young artists in the development of their projects;
- To promote the area’s cultural heritage;
- To participate in the development and organisation of the local artistic environment;
- To involve schools and colleges in the centre’s varied activities.
The aim is to create relationships and partnerships on a local, national and international scale, while developing the centre’s integration within the region and complementing other organisations working in the artistic and cultural sectors. The main beneficiaries will be artists from Benin and francophone Africa, schools and universities, and the cultural sector. The multimedia library and workspaces will be available to local residents and community organisations.
As a place of multidisciplinary artistic research and innovation, with particular attention being paid to contemporary stage works, the John Smith CCRI will welcome artists and researchers from a variety of cultural backgrounds who will develop new projects and art forms which reflect our modern world. Every year, a residency will be open to artists from Africa and Europe, in partnership with African and European institutions. In addition to the residency programme, from time to time the centre may make its spaces available to artists as part of a partnership or hire agreement, and may also host commercial seminars.
The centre’s activities will focus on its artistic and cultural programming, on residencies primarily aimed at supporting young artists in Benin and in francophone Africa more widely, and on workshops and training for school and college students. The multimedia library and cyber cafe will be an important resource for local residents. Finally, the John Smith CCRI will work to promote sustainable tourism and cultural heritage alongside the town of Ouidah and the National Agency for Heritage and Tourism. The first International Heritage Site for Culture in sub-Saharan Africa, the centre is part of the ACCR’s international network and will work to promote the cultural and touristic heritage of the region. It is testament to the desire of Benin to examine its history while embracing its future.