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Fon peoples
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General Description

The visual arts flourished in the Fon Kingdom of Dahomey (modern Republic of Benin) from the 1720s until the French conquest in 1892. The Fon Kingdom evolved into a highly centralized monarchy with a large, sophisticated army that allowed it to expand to the Atlantic Coast by the mid-18th century. The arts were used in this kingdom to glorify the leadership and reinforce its authority, and to address supernatural forces. The exterior walls of the king's palace were decorated with painted clay bas-reliefs referring to events in the lives of the kings and to the pantheon of gods (vodun). Sculpture (bo, singular; bocio, plural), realized in iron, brass, silver, or wood and appliqué cotton, as well as pavilions, canopies, umbrellas, and banners made of silk cloth served the same purpose. Artists working in these various media were organized into palace guilds. The earliest extant examples of appliqué date from the 18th century and were created by a royal guild of male artists who produced cloth with images of mythological figures and historical events. Such cloth was made into clothing, umbrellas (the largest reserved for the king), and wall hangings for the palace, elite residences, and temples of worship.

The red-skinned, ram-headed man depicted at the center of this cloth is Hevioso, the Fon god of thunder and a mythical warrior. The ram is his sacred animal and the double-headed ax clenched in its teeth is his emblem. Hevioso controls the weather, kills men, and destroys houses, trees, and fields with his lightning, but he also bestows fertility upon humans and the land. Here, he is adorned with gourds filled with magical ingredients, and he brandishes a knife and a musket. Above and below him are victorious Fon warriors with their vanquished enemies. This cloth can be read as follows: the invincible Dagesu, who stands at the center, has kept his warriors safe and won the war. Reading from left to right in a circular fashion, the red figures symbolizing a troop of Dahomean warriors who have captured and killed their pale-skinned enemies. During the 19th century, the Fon's enemries were either the Yoruba or the Mahi who lived to the east and the north respectively, or the French.

The French abolished the Fon kingdom in 1900, and many of the royal arts were taken to France during the conquest. For example, the oldest extant appliqué cloth and other Fon royal treasures were displayed at the 1922 French Colonial Exhibition at Marseilles. Because the French practiced indirect rule in the colonies, many Fon royals held high rank as chiefs and continued to support the former royal guilds. In fact, local patronage continued until the period following independence in 1960 when appliqué cloths were sold to anyone who could afford them. Throughout the colonial period and until circa 1973, members of the Yemadje clan from which this cloth originates were recognized as the official makers of the appliqué cloths.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, Add To, Take Away: Artistry and Innovation in African Textiles, Gallery text, 2014.

  • Roslyn A. Walker, DMA unpublished material, 2010.

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