Reviving the artistic scene in Gabon and stimulating the inner creative
In 2018, the Moleskine Foundation conducted the twelfth chapter of the AtWork program in Kampala, Uganda, under the theme “I had a dream”.
Bunny Claude Massassa opened DWABI studios in 2022. The brand-new creative studio in Libreville offers photography, videography and production services in their unique space in Gabon. The lack of opportunities for creative professionals and amateurs to have access to equipment and opportunities to hone their skills and polish their crafts is detrimental to the creative scene. DWABI Studio was created with the intent of fostering creativity locally, and allowing artists and industries to express themselves freely by removing technical barriers and providing all the tools necessary for them to flourish.
Bunny Claude Massassa: I am Bunny Claude Massassa, artist, photographer, entrepreneur.
Fari Sow: How did you find out and come to participate to AtWork in Kampala in 2018?
Bunny Claude Massassa: I met Simon Njami in Dakar in 2018 and during our exchange he invited me to participate in the Uganda program in May, and I went to Uganda in July. I don’t think he expected to see me arrive, but I finally got there and it was a great adventure for me.
Fari Sow: How was the experience for you?
Bunny Claude Massassa: : The theme was “I Have a Dream” And my dream was to know who I was. Who I am was my big question because I was defined as an artist, even before I touched a medium of creation, that I had an artistic sense, but I did not define myself as an artist. At the time, I had a definition of artists as non-conformists, who do not work and who do nothing with their life, which was the opposite of my person, so I did not define myself as an artist.
And then, when I started to do photography, I was nominated for the OFF of the Dakar Biennale and there, I met artists, and I understood that the definition I had been given had nothing to do. In Dakar, I met many people who were developing thoughts in the sense that I was also questioning myself. I discovered answers to questions I was asking myself and Simon allowed me to unlock these answers, to get out of this space.
At the time, I had a lot of health problems, so my parents had a hard time letting me leave Gabon, added to the fact that I was, for different people, and therefore that defined me as an artist and AtWork allowed me to ask myself this question, the question was to know if I am an artist or if I came from an unknown universe. And this format allowed me to know who I am. It also allowed me to really understand what is art, what is it to be an artist? What is the definition of creativity, of creation? It allowed me to redirect my ideas and to know what matters to me and what I would like to do and how I would like to be, even after my death, what do I want to stay.
Fari Sow: This is the workshop for these kinds of questions. The notebook you produced at the end of the workshop, which was exhibited at the Palais de Tokyo recently with the rest of the collection, is very special visually, even within such a diverse collection. What did it represent for you, how do you experience it today?
Bunny Claude Massassa: In truth, I find it difficult to speak because I sealed it when I discovered myself. Inside this notebook, I discovered media that fascinate me, I discovered a passion for poetry, for ancient art, I made pictograms and drawings whose origin I did not know. It was while doing research that I recognized, for example, the bird of consciousness, of thought, of intelligence. I reproduced this bird in this notebook, I painted faces inside and I closed it. He is the symbol of my whole person on the inside, and everything on the outside imprisons me, which represents that I did not, at a certain point in my life, define who I was, why I was. lost and confused, because there was the weight of society, of my social environment, and the weight of religion which was very present. This religious side actually went with these biblical principles that are misinterpreted, and those that made me frozen in a universe. So these are the external elements, which bewitch my soul against my thoughts and which do not allow me to see who I am and what makes me happy.
There are still fundamental elements such as the consumer society where I wondered how can we live in a world where we are forced to live like workers and we don’t stop to say to ourselves but we are in a loop, a vicious circle. These are questions I asked myself and when I was always answered “You can’t talk like that, you can’t ask these kinds of questions, you’re diabolical”. So that contributed to confining me for a while and religion made me lose myself, since I was sick, I was also in church a lot, where they called me a witch.
My notebook is the symbol of this societal bewitchment, of my family environment, of the consumer society in which I am, where we need to consume, consume, consume and we realize that this consumption does not necessarily make happy. We think it fills a gap, but it fills nothing. We will be happy for a few moments, but the reality will always be there. The same for religion, we will say that I am doing harm to someone, then I’ll hide behind religion and I’ll pray for forgiveness and then hurt that person again, we’re in a circle that imprisons us. All these questions can be found in this notebook.
Fari Sow: It’s a very impressive piece, and these are themes that come up quite often in your creations, whether in photography or painting. The Mami Wata project is a good example, it is a very widespread myth in many African countries and has many different interpretations. You used it to denounce social causes, especially on the status of women.
Bunny Claude Massassa: Yes, I used it because it is very relevant to me. As I said, in this phase where I was sick, I really wasn’t. I was just developing a sense that my family didn’t necessarily understand. I have met many people in this scenario. When I went to the psychologist, because I was very withdrawn as a person and I didn’t talk much, I saw people chained up, really badly. And what always came back as an explanation was Mami Wata, bewitchment, witchcraft. It wasn’t depression, or not feeling real.
In my research work on Mami Wata, it is this transposition that I wanted to represent. Some religious have found an excuse, when women are victims of violence, when they want to denounce it, they are called witches. These people within society have found an excuse to indulge their vice and actually transposed witchcraft instead of the person’s claims that they are witches. If she was attacked within her family, in the workplace, even if she worked too much or had too much ambition in her career, she was said to be possessed by Mami Wata.
That’s what I’m trying to denounce. It was very hard sometimes to see cases of depression, which really have to be taken into account, which can be treated and not attributed to an entity. This is to shed light on this situation on the stigma on mental health, all these problems attributed to witchcraft. It is really to denounce all that and to say to oneself therefore there is a real evil. People live with inner wounds, and this leads them to depression.
It is important to shed light on these subjects that are taboo but create reservations and a lack of depth in youth from generation to generation. In school and at home, you are sometimes taught a process to hate, to fear, to discriminate others and this is something you carry into society and creates divides.
Fari Sow: And this rejoins the philosophy of AtWork, in the sense that to develop critical thinking and a new attitude, you must first unlearn what was imposed on you and break harmful social cycles. It starts with you and then carries on to the rest of your community.
Your notebook was also exhibited at the Palais de Tokyo with a part of the Collection this year.
Bunny Claude Massassa: It was really something for me, because 2021 was a hard year as I was putting together DWABI Studios and I did not have much time to focus on my art. But when it was incredible for me to have my notebook exhibited next to Pascale Martin Thayou and so many great artists there. It’s an unbelievable feeling to see your work and your name there. That is what I like about the Collection, that there is no barrier, only diversity.
Fari Sow: Could you tell me more about your new space, DWABI Studios?
Bunny Claude Massassa: It is a creative studio for anyone who wants to produce films and photography. We give them the space, the equipment, create concepts for clients and accompany them in the process. It is still rare to see this type of space in Gabon, matter of fact we are the only one of this kind that offers such a production space.
There is a real need for this kind of space here, we are responding to an overwhelming demand from artists, but even small companies that need help and support with marketing campaigns in different sectors.
Fari Sow: How is a space like this going to impact small independent artists?
Bunny Claude Massassa: We will create true change for them because there was no such space before. For musicians and artists, the cost of production was always too high, with having to accommodate outdoor production, organize timing for everyone involved, consider weather, security and many other things. We offer one space dedicated for all and allow them to save on time, resources and to not worry about external factors.
Our primary goal is to stimulate the creative scene in Gabon and allow those artists to truly express themselves. We are here to change things, because artists will have a space and resources to realize what they want. Without thinking about production budget, setting, time restrictions, all of those things we take care of, they can focus on their craft. To be honest, I also needed a workspace for myself. Developing this project, I had no time for my own creativity, and I would like to focus on my work as an artist again. I want to get back to writing, photography and painting, because that is my true work. My last project was “Silence” and I need to start thinking about the next ones, about the next messages I want to spread.
Fari Sow: Do you think creativity can change the world?
Bunny Claude Massassa: I do, but not just in an artistic sense. I always take the example of the child. When a child learns how to walk, they must be creative after falling for the first time, learn how to get back up and stand true, it is innate, but it is developed consciously. Creativity is part of us all. I never talk about differences, but rather biodiversity, and creativity is an element of this.
Fari Sow: For example, you use legends and myths to address social phenomenon and break stigmas, how do you find inspiration in culture to engage into critical thinking?
Bunny Claude Massassa: Culture is a fundamental element of identity in society and, if creativity is innate, culture is learned, and it needs to be constantly talked about and redefined. It is crucial to identify where your creativity comes from, in society and history, to develop it even further.”
It is one thing to talk about politics and economics for the development of a society, but identity and culture shape us all and as an artist, I need to find the tools and dig into my creativity to approach those topics.
Claude Bunny Massassa is a contemporary artist from Gabon. She created Bunny Studio in 2016, a start-up dedicated to photography production, which became DWABI Studio in 2021. As an artist, she has represented Gabon in many international exhibitions in Senegal, Uganda, France, the United States, and Italy. In her art, she denounces social stigmas around issues of identity and mental health, and explores themes of traditions and myths.