Interview with Beninese Artist Yves Kpede

Art Histories
Mar 8, 2016 · 15 min read
The Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices group inconversation with Yves Kpede in his atelier on March 19, 2015 (photo by Luise Illigen)

In Abomey, on March 19, 2015, the Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices group visited the studio of Beninese artist Yves Kpede who is globally renowned for his works in the medium of the Appliqué. In the past 20 years, his art was exhibited both in Africa and Europe and had a sustainable impact on the contemporary art scene of the Caribbean.

Textile works by Yves Kpede in his atelier (photo by Luise Illigen)

Art Histories (Romuald Tchibozo): Dear Yves Kpede, thanks for taking time for this talk. Today, we visited the palace museums of Abomey. We saw the Appliqué works that are produced in a traditional way. You chose to manufacture the same medium but in a contemporary context. We are now interested in learning how the process from the traditional form of Appliqué to the modern Appliqué works.

Yves Kpede: You are right to say that I work with traditional art and media, especially about topics that are related to customs and origins of our history such as proverbs and folk tales. At one point of my artistic production I came to understand that the Appliqué was a form that offered a different way of expression. In the beginning, I wanted to show things that are difficult to show elsewhere in the world and I decided to produce a series of Voodoo themes, namely about the God of the Earth and the God of Iron. I wanted to depict the Gods with all of their attributes: the kind of dresses they wear and the objects they carry. However, a deep distinction from the traditional Appliqué was created in my textiles. The traditional works in the palaces, for example, merely inform us about a history of kings. So traditionally, you cannot see representations of Vodun in this medium. I aimed at doing exactly this: to translate, engage, and make understandable those truer means of the idea of Vodun culture. This could have often been done in the medium of drums, but in a certain sense Appliqués have another, a deeper visual way of expression.

A woman sewing in the atelier of Yves Kpedes (photo by Luise Illigen)

In this Panafricanist tradition — which in a certain sense is a deeper tradition — drawing from various cultures that I knew offered to show the spirit of Africa, and the spirit of being black. However, working with the Appliqués for me did not necessarily mean to completely leave out other media. For example, I used cement to produce art in my work in Ouidah at the Porte de Non-Retour, to which a work of mine is attached. So you see that I also wanted to think about the history of the black slave. Another aspect of my work with Appliqués is a high participatory element to my art, which gives me the opportunity to work together with women, for example in sewing, and to create an ambiance in which people collaboratively work together. So this is really another approach than in painting, where I would be alone with my canvas, my brush and my pigments.

Art Histories (Suzanne Blier): In the past, the art of Appliqués was connected with specific commissioning families, especially in the courts. So when you began to work with Appliqués, did anybody from those families that traditionally produced these forms of textiles approach you critically?

Yves Kpede: Firstly, there were many diverse families, who produced Appliqués. Even back in the times of the kings, the works were also produced in Ghana and other countries that manufactured big flags in this medium. When I began my work, I in fact collaborated with members of some of these families. They were part of the team that put together works for the Voodoo festival of 1992. What I found in that collaboration was that they were still working in a traditionally defined way — they were lacking inspiration. You can see it in the works exhibited in the museum: When I started to introduce new ideas to the Appliqués, it also affected works that today are in the museums. For example, I started to change certain colors and you would after a while also see these things being applied to works from the palaces. You would never have seen depictions of Vodun in the context of the palace either and now you do! But what is more is that my own lineage is related to textile production. My grandfather had worked with cotton-based cloth. That is not to say that I was predestined of course. I also studied to be able to do my form of art.

Art Histories (Mohamed Elshahed): What do you think about your influence on abroad artists, especially in the US after the festival of 1992?

Yves Kpede: I offered my collaboration to some artists over there, who wanted to work with me. I think it is especially the themes that I am dealing with in my art that inspired artists to work about similar questions.

Two works by Yves Kpede in his atelier. The left textile shows the symbol of the first international festival held in Ouidah in 1992, which was dedicated to the art and culture of Vodun (photo by Luise Illigen)

Art Histories (Hannah Baader): Was the Voodoo festival of 1992 an important experience for your artistic work?

Yves Kpede: Yes! It was the first time that the state initiated an event for its entire people focusing on a particular theme, which was Voodoo. But with this event, with becoming more international, new experiences for me as the artist and for the viewer of my art evolved: Those who are for example seeing a ritual dance but are not initiated can see the dancers involved. However, this is where their understanding stops. If you are not initiated, you will not be able to interpret what is happening in certain rituals. The medium of the Appliqué, however, helps to understand these forms of spirituality because you speak about it, you consider the depiction’s relation to yourself and to others. I can also compare this with other religions, such as Catholicism. We can see depictions of Christ all over the world. It will remind us of the religion, but no one will be able to say what is happening behind the scenes with the priests and the nuns. Seeing images does not mean that you know what initiation and belief mean. The Appliqué is really about showing things in essence that one cannot see and that one does not see.

Art Histories (Mohamed Elshahed): In your art, you stimulate different senses, like the eye, the ear, there is fire used in devotion, so there is smell. Where does the contemporary work come into this context, in which the other senses are not stimulated as in the tradition?

Art Histories (Romuald Tchibozo): And if I may add: How do you work with completely abstract themes within your pictorial representations?

Yves Kpede: First of all, I have a lot of experience with my themes. There are a lot of different things to be seen in the royal family but also in the convent: stones, costumes, dances, drum dances… And I try to take up the beauty that exists in all of these artistic works, that you see in the costumes, in the dance movements, also in masks like the Egungun or Gelede masks. But you simply cannot represent some of these things. For example, in the Oro cults, the wind plays an important role. In these cults, the bull-roar, an oval instrument of music with a whole is very central. It gives a certain windy sound. And if that sound comes close to your house, you are in trouble. It means that somebody did something wrong, so it is not a sound that you want to hear. So, can you represent the wind? Can you depict these cults? In a painting, you can represent them — but in the Appliqué…?

Representation of ritual dancers by Yves Kpede, textile works in the artist’s atelier (photos by Luise Illigen)

Art Histories (Combiz Moussavi-Aghdam): How did the global contemporary art scene perceive your work?

Yves Kpede: I had a lot of luck being able to exhibit my pieces in other countries such as Italy, France and Denmark. In 2016, there will be an exhibit on the Gelede masks in France. And I sent some of my works over just one month before my atelier burned down in a fire a few months ago. Similar techniques as mine are today used in Haiti in the Caribbean or Cuba, by the way.

The signature of Yves Kpede on one of his textile works (photo by Luise Illigen)

Art Histories (Hannah Baader): You have spoken about the ability to export your thoughts and art. Is there a limit within your work that makes it untranslatable because it is related to ideas so deep and complex that it is hard to find the right instruments of translation in order to express oneself?

Yves Kpede: Yes there is a limit. In fact, I show the part that is not visible. For example in some Vodun ceremonies, there are trances and during those, the Vodun priest takes the neck of a living goat in his mouth and dances with it. As Leopards would take goats, the priest in his trance is in the state of being the Leopard. In other ceremonies, you have to sacrifice a rooster or a goat and there are some people who are shocked when they see this degree of brutality. It is not always agreeable to show and represent what is not pleasurable to see.

Art Histories (Suzanne Blier): So do you want to show what is not agreeable?

Yves Kpede: Absolutely. But it depends on the space in which I am working. So if I am working for religious chiefs, I will show things differently than for the art market.

Art Histories (David Colmenarez): Is there a place for irony in your work?

Yves Kpede: Of course, this is especially valid for the proverbs I am using in my art. For example one could say that if you don’t do a certain action, tombs will appear in the sky — but this will of course never happen. I think there is a lot of irony in the arts of kings. But more than these mere rhetorical elements, I am dealing with a culture that is filled with unbelievably complex metaphors, with irony and relations between words and images.

The textile work The Flavour of Life by Yves Kpede in his atelier (photo by Luise Illigen)

Art Histories (Hannah Baader): Appliqué art and proverbs have been closely related historically, for example in the case of funeral ceremonies. Could you explain the role of proverbs in your work a little more?

Yves Kpede: In fact, I work a lot on this topic. I connect proverbs with my pieces, they inspire me and also I sometimes apply them to my textiles. There is a proverb saying that if a snake takes a frog there will always be someone who will protect the frog. You see a work of mine that evolved from that saying. In one of my works, there are three shrimp that are supposed to be part of a sauce. And when they go into the sauce that is meant to be enjoyed, they become The Flavor of Life — which is the title of the work. You see — irony, metaphors, proverbs, they are all interlinked.

Art Histories (Romuald Tchibozo): I would like to ask you to explain further how the process of your work is to be understood — a process that repeats traditional topics and ideas, yet transforms them into a contemporary context. How do you arrive in the contemporary?

Yves Kpede: I received an academic education. I studied philosophy. I am looking differently at the topics that we talked about. So now my process of working things through is supposed to show a new genealogy of kings. Glélé, for example, is normally represented by a lion. But that is not the literal translation of his name. The real meaning of the name is a whole cultivated field. Usually in our culture we use the strong word, the symbol, often the animal to explain certain people in a better way — we don’t just use the name of a king. This is also valid in the example of Guézo: He is represented by a red-feathered bird with a tail that looks like it is on fire. For Agonglo, there are symbols, too. But by going to their names and exploring these meaning, you write a different history than the simple symbols will tell. Concerning tradition, it is true that there is also a controversy. In the past, there would have been certain kings that were not included in the Appliqués as royal, for example Adandozan would not have been included in depictions of textiles because he was the king that Guézo removed. But I started including these people in my art, which leads to another, a new genealogy of kings that is portrayed in that specific medium.

Art Histories (Atreyee Gupta): How do you deal with a profound social or political critique, especially on contemporary conditions, within your art?

Yves Kpede: I think that firstly, the criticism from outside, the one that is directed towards me is there so that I will improve myself. However it is important to say that I have never been part of the — excuse me for this term — class of contemporary artists as it is constructed today. I am telling myself: 50 or 100 years from today, if there will be masks that are being produced, they might be called artisan works, and right now we call the same works masterpieces. So if something ends up in a museum, that is fine for me. But the work that I am producing is made for today even though it might not be fully understood today and thus leaves space for the future.

Art Histories (Romuald Tchibozo): The question of critique is in fact a systemic question. What I mean is that when the artist works, we have to ask the question if there is a certain support, if there is a chain of reactions, criticisms and maybe institutions connected to the single artwork? That means there might be a gallery, art critics and all these systems that are allowing the artist to function. In Benin, we are just starting to create these systems around the artist that enable him to do what he thinks he wants to do with his art. So the question of the social critique of the artist or his critique towards tradition itself has much to do with these echoing institutions: The artist’s position and his critique have to be repeated by someone. It has to be echoed by some actor in order to find an echo in society. And this is the crucial point: Here, in Benin, there are no such actors that repeat or echo artist’s social critique.

Yves Kpede: At the same time, I just said that I am involved with producing a new kind of art, which is about the king Adandozan, who was never portrayed before. And I have been criticized for adding kings like Adandozan and Tassin Hangbe to this lineage. So the critique in my art is not necessarily a critique towards the state, but maybe more towards for example a lineage of royals that are responding to that act asking “What are you doing adding this female to the lineage, who we never considered being a ruler?” — but who was a ruler!

Textile work by Yves Kpede (photo by Luise Illigen)

Art Histories (Hannah Baader): It is very interesting to bring these two together: Because normally, we are used to separate these two positions from each other, whereas you clearly argue that these forms of an artist’s critique, art criticism and systems need to be seen connected. And I think that it is also important that you say that you want to leave space for the future in your work. So if we go to one specific artwork of yours, we saw an Appliqué in which you dealt with Ebola. What about that piece?

Yves Kpede: It is quite simple: Ebola was a horrific disease that came upon Western Africa and I thought that it would be important to tell people to be careful by an artwork — so I made it without a commission as a statement of myself.

Art Histories (Sugata Ray): And can you tell us more about the large portrait paintings that are standing behind us?

Paintings of familiy members by Yves Kpede in the atelier of the artist (photo by Luise Illigen)

Yves Kpede: The first one is a portrait of my father, who died two years ago and the piece is in fact one of the very few things that I saved from the fire that burned down my house and collection a few months ago. Next to it is my grandfather and my grandmother. And there is also a portrait of my father’s older brother, so it is a whole work on my own family. I used black-and-white photographs to draw them and will add words into the depiction of my granddad. This series is really about Africa in totality — about its unity in the future. We debate a lot about customs. Often in Africa, different cultures are represented mainly by the masks, whose forms are chosen by specific people. And there are specific animals in Africa. Or there are fake heads from Nigeria. I have masks from Côte d’Ivoire here. And I am combining these African forms, for example with an eye of a diviner to talk about unity. By addressing such topics or integrating artifacts from conclaves, my work is political.

Art Histories (Sugata Ray): Could you talk about style as a category in your work?

Yves Kpede: There have been very important influences on me. Matisse’s oeuvre, particularly his paper cuts, would be one of them and of course Picasso’s art has had an impact on my work — both through book publications.

Art Histories (Mohamed Elshahed): What do you as a Beninese artist think about the Zinsou Foundation?

Yves Kpede: I appreciate the Zinsou Foundation because it is the first foundation in our country that seriously engages with the promotion of art. But it is also an institution with some political program and I perceive it as a foundation that often works like a conclave. They have a patronizing way of dealing with certain chosen artists. That is of course totally normal — in my view, the foundation acts more like a gallery. But I believe that art is not necessarily only embedded in an urban milieu such as the Zinsou Foundation constructs it. For example, they featured one Beninese artist who works with Gelede masks and who through them got to exhibit his art in Paris and received a renowned artistic award there. That surprised everybody here! All in all, they are certainly doing a good job in exhibiting him and others.

Art Histories (Mohamed Elshahed): Has the Zinsou Foundation collected your own works?

Yves Kpede: No, I think I lack a lobby (laughs). They are collecting certain artists and others not, so you need strong supporters in their rows. But there are also some books about art from Benin such as a publication edited by Romuald Tchibozo for an exhibition in Paris that feature single artist like me and at the same time the Zinsou Foundation as a collector or institution.

Art Histories (Mohamed Elshahed): In a context, in which your work is mostly exhibited in francophone spaces or in France directly, do you fear that there is a contemporary exoticism developed toward art from Africa?

Yves Kpede: Very certainly –this is a fundamental issue.

Art Histories (Romuald Tchibozo): So concerning the current way in which you chose to produce your art: Is it right to say that people who do not know about the subjects of your art are explained something that they have not known before and that they can discover through it?

Yves Kpede: Yes, I think that is possible. Not everybody knows Voodoo. But the themes behind Voodoo often talk about known or common beliefs. This puts us into relation. And even though in my art, I am working with earth, with fire and with the divinities, some people will buy these works albeit they do not know exactly what they are about. And still, it means something to them. For example, I did not know that there were Egun masks, which are masks of the ancestors, in Argentina. But there was an Argentinian who came to my atelier and bought a work depicting such a mask because he could relate to it. So people might find in art such as mine things from their own culture that they already know but that they might not have seen. And this approach is the opposite of exotification. It is rather the normalization meant as sharing or brotherhood.

Art Histories: Dear Yves Kpede, we thank you very much for this interview.

Romuald Tchibozo (left) and Yves Kpede (right) during the discussion (photo by Luise Illigen)

The interview was held in French and English. The transcription and translation was done by Philip Geisler and Lucy Jarman.

Cite this page:
Kpede, Yves/Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices. “Translative Textiles.” From Traditional to Contemporary Aesthetic Practices in West Africa, Benin and Togo. The Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices Blog. Ed. Baader, Hannah. August 2016 <>.

From Traditional to Contemporary Aesthetic Practices in West Africa, Benin and Togo

The Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices Blog 2016 | Editorial Board: Hannah Baader, Gerhard Wolf | Coordination: Philip Geisler | ©2016 by Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices, Forum Transregionale Studien, Wallotstr. 14, 14193 Berlin | | ISSN 2512–417X

Art Histories

Written by

Berlin-based research program “Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices. Kunstgeschichte und ästhetische Praktiken” |

From Traditional to Contemporary Aesthetic Practices in West Africa, Benin and Togo

The Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices Blog 2016 | Editorial Board: Hannah Baader, Gerhard Wolf | Coordination: Philip Geisler | ©2016 by Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices, Forum Transregionale Studien, Wallotstr. 14, 14193 Berlin | | ISSN 2512–417X

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