How a street painter from Benin got an art exhibition in Finland


Louis Houenoude lives in the small village of Heve, just outside Grand-Popo, in the small West African country of Benin.

He used to paint barber shop signs for a living. But now he is a bona fide artist.

An art gallery in Finland is exhibiting a series of portraits painted by Mr Houenoude.

The portrait series, called Bad Hair Day Leaders, consists of 14 portraits of today’s world leaders, from Angela Merkel to Xi Jinping.

Last year, Mr Houenoude painted a portrait of the Finnish President Sauli Niinisto which was bought by the Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

So how did a Beninese barber shop painter wind up having an exhibition in Finland?

Well, Bad Hair Day Leaders is not entirely his work alone.

The portraits are a collaboration with Finnish visual artist Riiko Sakkinen, who visited Benin last year.

“I initially wanted to know if Benin had the same painted film poster culture as Ghana – it doesn’t. But I saw painted signs for barber shops and hair salons and was intrigued by the colours and composition of the signs.

“The perspective and the shape of figures looked different to the ones familiar to me from European classicism and renaissance tradition. The advertisements worked remarkably well – I kept wanting to go to the barber even though I am bald,” Sakkinen told the BBC.

Sakkinen came up with the idea for a series of portraits of world leaders, all done in the style of West African barber signs and Houenoude did the painting.

“Louis is very meticulous. I myself make a mess and could never wear nice clothes when I paint, like Louis. The language barrier initially proved a challenge because I couldn’t give much direction. But in the end it turned out to be a good thing, the work looked like him rather than me.”

“I received formal training for three months in [Benin’s biggest city] Cotonou in 2001 and I also trained with a professional artist in Ghana,” Houenoude says.

“But my father was a painter,” he says, “so I learnt from him.”

Houenoude has been painting since he was a child.

And now his children help him. A younger son works as his assistant and cleans his brushes. An older son has joined “the family business” and is already painting.

The humidity makes the paint dry slowly and the lack of electricity in Heve means painters must work during daylight.

However, the circumstances have taught Houenoude to be efficient. He finished all the 14 portraits of world leaders in less than a month.

And he has started painting portraits of pop culture icons and private people on commission. The portrait orders largely come from Finland thanks to Sakkinen’s extensive contacts.

A small venture called Salon de Peinture Grand-Popo was also set up around the portrait painting with the help of Gustavo Afaihoun, a local musician and aspiring entrepreneur.

“Painting has been a true gift for me,” Houenoude says.

“I will definitely continue to paint and hope that the future holds more exhibitions.”

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