Cyprien Tokoudagba and Dominique Kouas: Querying the Place of the ‘Vernacular’ in Contemporary Béninois Visual Arts
by Atreyee Gupta and Verena Rodatus
What Constitutes the Béninois Vernacular?
Along with several Asian and African artists, Cyprien Tokoudagba (1939–2012) was included in the 1989 Magiciens de la Terre, an exhibition curated by Jean-Hubert Martin at the Centre George Pompidou. By this time, however, the artist had already gained recognition in his native Benin, with commissions ranging from bas-reliefs, figural sculptures, and wall paintings for Vodun temples. While much of this early work was site specific, the artist’s participation in the Magiciens de la Terre necessitated the production of mobile artifacts and the concomitant absorption of the work’s magicality, derived in part from its association with ritual space, into canvas and oil paint for display in Paris. Tokoudagba’s insertion into the circuitous routes of the transnational art world, however, did not unmoor the artist from the local Vodun traditions of Abomey. Indeed, artists such as Dominique Kouas (b. 1952 in Porto Novo) and Cyprien Tokoudagba retained a palpable presence in Benin, a presence that was perhaps only magnified by commissions that the artists received during Ouidah’92: Retrouvailles Afrique-Amerique, an event that was also publicized as the first international festival of Vodun art and culture.
Supported and orchestrated by Benin’s Prime Minister Nicéphore Soglo, the UNESCO, and the French Embassy, Ouidah’92 was expected to perform a number of interrelated functions. As Jung Ran Forte has noted,
“aspiring to establish a vibrant tourism industry, the new government strongly encouraged African American homecomings, commemorating the slave trade and celebrating diasporic cultures. The Vodun religion, because of its propagation across the New World through the slave trade, became the core symbol of this reunion, the very evidence of the strength of ancestral linkages and a foundation for black commonality.” (1)
In contrast to Benin’s Marxist-Leninist regime (1972–1989), the new government now sought to politically re-empower Vodun leaders as critical intermediaries holding significant influence over the electorate. This re-empowerment was not merely symbolic. Conceived at a particular historical moment in Benin’s democratic process, Ouidah’92 powerfully conveyed to the local populace the new regime’s procedural “re-traditionalization” of Benin’s public sphere and the re-insertion of priests, kings, and other traditional figures of authority into the institutional frameworks of the modern postcolonial democratic state (2). In tandem, President Soglo’s cultural policy aspired to promote “traditional national cultures” (3). The resultant international interest in and nationalist focus on Vodun also centralized its representational codes as the privileged new vernacular within the contemporary artistic production of Benin (4).
Certainly, the postcolonial production of national cultures as ‘traditional’ may have delineated new structures of belonging and un-belonging, whereby the non-traditional could become equated with the non-national. Nonetheless, it is also this political process that gave a new prominence to Vodun artists such as Tokoudagba. One hundred sculptures of Vodun deities and slavery memorials lining the Slave Trade Route in Ouidah were commissioned in 1992, most of which were conceived by Tokoudagba (Fig. 1).
Indeed, the Slave Route begins with a large tree in front of Don Francisco de Souza’s house, the Brazilian slave trader who arrived in Ouidah in 1788. Under the tree, De Souza’s involvement with the transatlantic trade in black bodies is scripted on a plaque beneath Tokoudagba’s sculpture of an amazon (Fig. 2). We encounter Tokoudagba’s work all along the Slave Route. While the original structure of the Zomai Enclosure, where slaves waited for ships to arrive, no longer exists, the site is marked by a memorial sculpture by Dominique Kouas, flanked by two bound and gagged figures by Tokoudagba (Fig. 3).
Likewise, one encounters Tokoudagba’s figure at the Zoungbodji Memorial for slaves who died at the Zomai Enclosure, arms upraised and chains broken (Fig. 4). The sculpture thus imagines death as a symbol of freedom from enslavement.
At Ouidah’s Sacred Forest, Tokoudagba’s gigantic cement anthropomorphic Legba figure with an enormous erect phallus acts as a gatekeeper (Fig. 5). The sculpture faces Tokoudagba’s representation of a Fa diviner (Fig. 6).
Tokoudagba’s works thus remain scattered across the public spaces related to Ouidah’92, spaces that continue to form essential components of the tourist itinerary, diasporic or otherwise. Yet, during our visit to Ouidah, the artist’s name was rarely invoked by the local guides who acted as intermediaries between visitors and historical sites. While the iconographic significance of Tokoudagba’s sculptures was explained in great detail, the figure of the artist himself was left out of narrative. Instead, the works functioned as interchangeable signs — sometimes standing in for lived practices of Vodun and divination, and at other times invoking the history of slave trade. Originally made of brown cement in the 1990s, the sculptures have since then been repainted with bright colors and the Ouidah’92 symbol of a Gélédé mask inscribed on their pedestals by other painters commissioned by the state. These changes were not authorized (or repudiated) by the artist although they occurred during the artist’s lifetime (5). Tokoudagba’s works produced for Ouidah’92 then bring to the foreground questions concerning artistic labor and the work that the figure of the artist performs within this particular context of Vodun cultural circulation today.
Discursively, Tokoudagba, however, categorically situated himself as an artist. The essential components that distinguish the early biographies of artists worldwide are markedly present in Tokoudagba’s self-narration. “When Cyprien talks,” note René Sève and Viviane Sève, “he is already painting and he delivers his first secrets.” (6) Relating his early biography to Dana Rush, Tokoudagba describes himself as a gifted child, driven by an “insatiable desire to create things with his hands,” preoccupied more with drawing and doodling than with his school textbooks (7). Drawings stealthily generated by the ten-year old child during class hours were then transformed into clay sculptures, and displayed around the family home (8). These sculptures lead to his first commissions: “Visitors started commissioning the precocious boy to sculpt specific subjects,” Rush writes, “ranging from chameleons (for the spirit Lisa) to Jesus.” (9) Two subsequent episodes from the artist’s biography are usually highlighted as formative. The first constitutes Tokoudagba’s Vodun initiation, precipitating a deeper understanding of animism and divination. The second involves the artist’s brief involvement with the Beninese army. Eager to convey to his family the mysteries of the weapons store, of which he is in charge, Tokoudagba begins to sketch scenes from the army camp. At face value, animism and divination may appear to be at odds with the documentary impetus of the sketches produced at the military camp. Nonetheless, both converge to form the artist’s representational vocabulary, one that demonstrates a meticulous attention to detail in conjunction with an equally astute awareness of Vodun iconographic transfer.
Kouas counts as one of the inevitable references of Benin’s Vodun Art and his work has multiple religious symbolisms and spiritual connections. He belongs to the first generations of artists after Benin’s Independence. During the country’s Socialist era, he works without giving up his spiritual vocabulary in his artistic practice even though in this period the religion of Vodun was officially prohibited by the government. After the end of the Marxist-Leninist regime in Benin, he gains importance as an artist, not least because his artworks were part of the state organized festivals in the early 1990s like Ouidah’92 (Fig. 7).
Back in the late 1960s, Kouas serves as an informant and assistant to the French-born and Salvador de Bahia-based photographer Pierre Verger (10), who came to Benin to look for historical objects in the Ouémé River Valley. Kouas’s interest in antiquities is inspired by his intimate interactions with Verger (11). Subsequently, the artist begins using a variety of traditional wooden sculptures in his works (12). Dana Rush notes: “Although Kouas is known for the large metal works displayed throughout Ouidah one visit to his house-studio in Porto-Novo demonstrates his stylistic range and his versatility with various media.” However, to cite again the author, “[a]ll of Kouas’s pieces […] maintain a recognizable signature: they are big, bold and geometric, playing with positive and negative space.“ (13) (Figs. 8 and 9)
During our visit to Kouas’s studio, the artist received us in the portico of his atelier, where he had displayed a number of ‘traditional’ (but not necessarily old) African objects from all over the continent. These included a Songye mask from Congo, Ife and Nok terracotta heads, a Yoruba door pole from today’s Nigeria, and Bocios from Benin’s Fon people, among other objects (Figs. 10-12).
During our discussion with the artist, his close familiarity with the objects became obvious. From my first visit I knew that he has a very large number of objects, which are piled in a room in the back of his house. Viewed in this light, the artist is at the same time collector and ‘connoisseur’ of African objects. The practice of collecting these objects — which then serve him as material for his contemporary work — can be seen as a performative act through which the artist himself actively constructs the ‘traditional’ in his work. Above that, Kouas also had a little radio on his working table in the atelier (Fig. 13). It seemed to be consciously placed as if it was meant to be a connection to higher spirits. Kouas’s performative presentation of his artistic self was coded within a series of references that drew its legitimacy from his power to communicate with spirits from the sacred forest. This meeting, then, seemed to be a consciously elaborated performance of his own ‘vernacular tradition(s)’ of Vodun.
But what do the terms ‘traditional/vernacular’ connote in context to contemporary Béninois visual arts? In Kouas’s case, we see not just one (vernacular) tradition, but multiple aesthetic connections to old and new African objects from diverse regions and cultural contexts. In this sense, Rush explains: “Contemporary Vodun arts are a testament to the strength and flexibility of a belief system that is perpetually reinventing itself. Their embodying aesthetic reflects remarkable adherence to traditional themes and structures that also celebrate signs of change. The constant negotiation between ideologies that are old and new, local and distant, the artifical boundaries are dissolved.” (14) It is also in this sense that artists such as Kouas engage in the “culture game” (15) where the play with cultural difference(s) is a visible component of alterity and therefore becomes a ‘currency’ in the economies of the (international) artistic field and art market (16). Sanctioned through the postcolonial ‘re-traditionalization’ of Benin’s public sphere, this complex form of alterity, of course, is one that was both politically orchestrated by Ouidah’92 and other similar events that occurred in the early 1990s.
(1) Jung Ran Forte, “‘Ways of Remembering’: Transatlantic Connections and African Diaspora’s Homecoming in the Republic of Benin,” Social Dynamics: A Journal of African Studies 33 (2007) : 123.
(2) See Cedric Mayrargue, “Democratisation Politique et Revitalisation Religieuse: L’Exemple du Culte Vodun au Benin,” in Religion et Transition Democratique en Afrique, Eds. Francois Constantin/Christina Coulon (Paris: Karthala, 1997), 135–61.
(3) Ibid., 142.
(4) For a broader discussion on the intersections among Ouidah’92, Vodun, and the post-1990s politics of representation in Benin, see Emmanuelle Kadya Tall, “On Representation and Power: Portrait of a Vodun Leader in Present-day Benin,” Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute 84 (2014) : 246–268.
(5) See Dana Rush, Vodun in Coastal Benin: Unfinished, Open-Ended, Global (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2013), 141–142.
(6) René Sève and Viviane Sève, “Les Pluriels de Cyprien Tokoudagba /The Multiples of Cyprien Tokoudagba,” in Dahomey, Kings and Gods, Exh. Catalogue, Fondation Zinsou Cotonou, 02/05/2006–02/09/2006 (Cotonou: Fondation Zinsou, 2006), 20.
(7) Rush 2913, 34.
(8) See Sève/Sève, 22.
(9) Rush 2013, 34.
(10) See Franck Raoul Pedro, “Dominique Kouas, Une Cheveille Ouvrière de l’Art Béninois,” http://fr.allafrica.com/stories/200802050459.html
(11) See Manfred Metzner/Michael M. Thoss, Pierre Verger. Schwarze Götter im Exil, Exh. Catalogue, Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, 01/09/2004–2006 (Heidelberg: Das Wunderhorn, 2004).
(12) See Paul Badet/Emmanuelle Kadya Tall, “Artistes au Pays ou Ailleurs: Quelques Parcours Remarquables. Golí, Retour au Pays de la Confusion,” Politique Africaine 59 (1995) : 56. Internet resource: http://www.gedichte-brie.de/afrika/internetseiten/afrikanischekunst_com/moderne_kunst/Artistes%20au%20pays%20ou%20ailleurs_m.pdf
(13) Dana Rush, “Contemporary Vodun Arts of Ouidah,” African Arts 34 (2001) : 32–47, 94–96.
(14) Rush 2013, 133.
(15) Olu Oguibe, The Culture Game (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).
(16) See Sarat Maharaj, “Dilocutions: Interim Entries for a Dictionnaire Elémentaire on Cultural Translation,“ in Reverberations: Tactics of Resistance, Forms of Agency in Trans/Cultural Practices, Ed. Jean Fisher (Maastricht: Jan van Eyck Editions, 2000), 34.
Badet, Paul/Tall, Emmanuelle Kadya. “Artistes au Pays ou Ailleurs: Quelques Parcours Remarquables. Golí, Retour au Pays de la Confusion.” Politique Africaine 59 (1995) : 45–58. <http://www.gedichte-brie.de/afrika/internetseiten/afrikanischekunst_com/moderne_kunst/Artistes%20au%20pays%20ou%20ailleurs_m.pdf>.
Maharaj, Sarat. “Dislocutions: Interim Entries for a Dictionnaire Elémentaire on Cultural Translation.” Reverberations: Tactics of Resistance, Forms of Agency in Trans/Cultural Practices. Ed. Fisher, Jean. Maastricht: Jan van Eyck Editions, 2000. 32–48.
Mayrargue, Cedric. “Democratisation Politique et Revitalisat Ion Religieuse: L’Exemple du Culte Vodun au Benin.” Religion et Transition Democratique en Afrique. Eds. Constantin, Francois/Coulon, Christina. Paris: Karthala, 1997. 135–162.
Metzner, Manfred/Thoss, Michael M. Pierre Verger. Schwarze Götter im Exil. Heidelberg: Das Wunderhorn, 2004.
Oguibe, Olu. The Culture Game. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
Pedro, Franck Raoul. “Bénin: ‘Dominique Kouas, une Cheveille Ouvrière de l’Art Béninois’.” Autre Quotidien 2008. 15 Jan. 2015 <http://fr.allafrica.com/stories/200802050459.html>.
Ran Forte, Jung. “‘Ways of Remembering’: Transatlantic Connections and African Diaspora’s Homecoming in the Republic of Benin.” Social Dynamics: A Journal of African Studies 33 (2007): 123–143.
Rush, Dana. Vodun in Coastal Bénin. Unfinished, Open-Ended, Global. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2013.
Rush, Dana. “Contemporary Vodun Arts of Ouidah.” African Arts 34 (2001) : 32–47, 94–96.
Sève, René/Sève, Viviane. “Les Pluriels de Cyprien Tokoudagba /The Multiples of Cyprien Tokoudagba.” Dahomey, Kings and Gods. Exh. Catalogue, Fondation Zinsou Cotonou, 02/05/2006–02/09/2006. Cotonou: Fondation Zinsou, 2006. 17–40.
Tall, Emmanuelle Kadya. “On Representation and Power: Portrait of a Vodun Leader in Present-day Benin.” Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute 84 (2014): 246–268.
Cite this page:
Gupta, Atreyee/Rodatus, Verena. “Cyprien Tokoudagba and Dominique Kouas: Querying the Place of the ‘Vernacular’ in Contemporary Béninois Visual Arts.” From Traditional to Contemporary Aesthetic Practices in West Africa, Benin and Togo. The Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices Blog. Ed. Baader, Hannah. August 2016 <https://medium.com/from-traditional-to-contemporary-aesthetic/cyprien-tokoudagba-and-dominique-kouas-querying-the-place-of-the-vernacular-in-contemporary-b-d8fd1efdb86#.j37z0m29q>.