In April of 2017, artist Gwyneth Leech, who is based in New York City, travelled to Cotonou, Benin, to participate in an artist exchange program. On Monday, April 24, her first day in Cotonou, Leech worked all day on an installation of cups at the Residence of U.S. Ambassador Tamlyn. Leech is well known for her artwork on used coffee cups which she has exhibited widely as site specific installations since 2011. Leech describes her inspiration for the art of paper cups, stating: “I’m one of those people who draws on everything…. While I was on jury duty I discovered what a great surface for drawing a paper cup is. It’s very matt, very stiff and takes all kinds of materials, such as watercolor and gouache, very well. I became fascinated with drawing all the way around the cup. Leech paints only on used cups to “upcycle,” thus avoiding waste through art. The cups are graphic and colorful, depicting street scenes, people, architecture, or park landscapes. On the base of every cup, along with her signature, she writes the date, location, occasion and beverage consumed to ensure that each cup becomes a record of a social moment.
An important focus of the trip, as proposed by Ambassador Tamlyn, was to visit the studios of women artists. On Tuesday April 25, Leech visited the artist studio of Hadegnon Fantodji and Eliane Ayosso in the morning. After lunch she travelled to see the work and studio of nun Henriette Gousikiney at her class room and gallery Center Saint Augustin. And later that afternoon, she visited the studio of Sika da Silveira. ”These studio visits to women artists were one of the most notable parts of my exchange. I was immensely impressed by the generosity and tenacity of these artists who appear to encounter more social and financial obstacles than their male counterparts. These women artists were entrepreneurial, and as we discovered… the need to diversify in art and business, is no different among artists in NYC as in Benin. We found we had a lot in common through the difficulties of finding ways to sustain an art career. “
On Wednesday the artist traveled to Porto Novo where she visited the studio with artist Hermance Donoumassou and sculptor Virgile Nassara. After a lunch break, Leech lead a workshop with ten artists at the Ouadada art center. “ My project of making art on paper coffee cups (which Leech supplied, having brought them from New York), was met with some initial bemusement and reluctance by some of the participants of the workshops. By explaining my process, engaging with the artists directly, I was able to raise the participants’ curiosity. And the larger purpose of my workshops, beyond drawing and surface design, is conversation and collaboration which were both abundant… as we made impromptu art installations at the end of the workshops. “
On Thursday, the program started with a workshop for twelve artists at an artist cooperative called Le Centre, where director and noted artist Dominque Zinkpe welcomed Leech and introduced her to the group she would be working with that morning. The Thursday afternoon was set aside for a visit to the Ecole Secondiare de Métiers d’Arts at SOS Village des Enfants, which is the only high school in Benin where art is taught.
The day concluded with a reception at the American Ambassador’s Residence, which was attended by many of the artists, teachers and art administrators that Leech had met and interacted with during her time in Benin. “..As well as making connections with professional artists, as an artist I benefitted from meeting curators, gallery owners, and artist who have opened some wonderful art centers, exhibition spaces and residencies in Cotonou and Porto Novo.”
The intense and busy week left the artist tired but inspired by her experiences. “I am pleased to have met some of these exceptional artists and to have seen what they are doing to expand opportunities for younger artists in their home country.”