“Fondation H is a living space, where thoughts, emotions and creativity are made possible.” – Q&A with Hassanein Hiridjee: Patron Fondation H
Following the recent grand opening of its new art space in Antananarivo, START Journal interviews Fondation H’s president, Hassanein Hiridjee, who stands as a key Contemporary Art practitioner on the continent today, with a keen interest in his unique individual perspective that stems from his background, inspiration, influences and experiences visa vie the relevance of this initiative for Africa as a continent.
Foundation H is the very first private contemporary art foundation in Madagascar and the first cultural institution of its scale in the country as well!
START: What is your family and professional background?
HASSANEIN: I come from Madagascar, where I grew up and live with my family. I am the CEO of a group called AXIAN, active in Madagascar and several African countries in the telecoms, energy and innovative industries, among other things. I travel regularly to many capital cities in Africa, and I always try to visit a few art institutions, artist studio or gallery while in town.
START: When and how did you get into art collecting?
HASSANEIN: I started collecting about 10 years ago, looking at both local artists from Madagascar and international talents during my trips abroad. I’ve always considered important to challenge our local realities by also collecting other artists, coming from other geographies and contexts.
Locally, I’ve started purchasing works from artists I got to meet and become friends with, such as Madame Zo and Temandrota, to name just a few. Both are very well represented in the collection, and I’ve been supportive for many years. On the international level, I’ve made my first acquisitions through gallerist friends, such as Eric Dereumaux. And the collection grew from there, my tastes and vision becoming more and more precise over the years.
START: What kind of art makes up your personal collection?
HASSANEIN: The collection – entirely donated to Fondation H – is mainly focused on artists from Africa and the diaspora. But as always, I don’t like to be restrictive, so I do also acquire works from artists from other backgrounds. In the end I realize there are always connections in between the works of the collection, like threads that subtly and slowly appear with time.
START: What was your most profound point of inspiration for setting up Foundation H?
HASSANEIN: When I launched Fondation H in 2017, my main goal was to create a platform to support local artists in Madagascar. With this in mind, we started Prix Paritana, now in its seventh edition, dedicated to young local artists, and we shortly opened a small exhibition space to accompany the artists further, first in Antananarivo in 2019, then in Paris in 2020. We were astonished by the response from the artists, but also from the public! Students, families, so many people came to our exhibitions and events.
One has to keep in mind that there isn’t any public contemporary art museum in Madagascar, so the demand for such encounters with art is huge! So, we’ve decided to restore a beautiful 100-year-old building in the city center, which took two years, and we opened our new space in April 2023. We coordinated a four-days-long celebration made of performances, talks, discussions, entirely free and open to all. It was a most magical moment in time for the cultural scene in my home country, and my best art memory so far!
START: Who have been your biggest influences in the contemporary art world?
HASSANEIN: I would say that Madame Zo has influenced me in a great and continuous way. Over the years, she became a dear friend of mine. When she passed away very suddenly in 2020, it became absolutely evident that we had to pay her the most beautiful homage she deserved by dedicating her the first exhibition of our new space. We invited 4 international curators (Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Bérénice Saliou, Aly Sebti and Hobisoa Raininoro) to put on the most beautiful exhibition, titled Bientôt je vous tisse tous [Soon I Will weave you all]. Spanning two decades of her career and with more than 80 works, the exhibition presents her voice and work to thousands of visitors every month. I couldn’t be prouder.
START: What major challenges have you encountered since establishing Foundation H?
HASSANEIN: We are the very first institution of that scale in the country, so that comes with challenges! We had to train and accompany the team, and invent the way we should do things, since no one has ever done it before. We also have to be very kind to the public visiting the space and accompany any visitor in this experience.
START: How have you maneuvered through these challenges?
HASSANEIN: By accepting the context: since there aren’t any other example, then we’re entirely free to think of the best possible way to build this project. This absolute freedom has been very beneficial to our programmes I believe. We’re not trying to copy anything, or follow any kind of rule, and that’s very precious! We just listen to the public, and chat with the artists and curators we collaborate with and come up with our dream platform.
START: How do you measure the general impact and success of Foundation H’s programs and activities today?
HASSANEIN: By looking at every single child visiting Fondation H every day (we invite public schools every single morning throughout the year), by chatting with any visitor coming in to our space (we have about 15,000 visitors per month), by looking at the artworks produced by our residents, by listening to the talks and discussions we host every Saturday mornings… Fondation H is a living space, where thoughts, emotions and creativity are made possible.
START: What specific advice would you give anyone setting up a contemporary art space on the African continent?
HASSANEIN: Go for it! Make it small if you wish but make it. Ask yourself if you’re relevant every morning when you wake up and imagine your dream next project every evening when you go to bed! One has to be as ambitious as possible, whatever size and scope you have.