Artist Spotlight

Cyprien Tokoudagba, Benin

August 31, 2019 By: Keiron Levine

The late Cyprien Tokoudagba (1939 – 2012) was renowned as a master painter of Vodun temples in Abomey, Benin, where he lived and worked. While also a proficient sculptor, his distinct talent was originally recognised while painting compound walls around his local neighbourhood, going on to securing commissions from Vodun priests. The buildings around Abomey were now being aesthetically elevated by way of Tokoudagba’s bold and evocative style. It was at this time that Tokoudagba was initiated into the society of Tôhôssou, the deity of water, which naturally influenced the way in which his work manifested. In 1987, he was appointed restaurateur at the Abomey museum where he was responsible for the restoration of the sculptures and the bas-reliefs on the Palace of the Kings (UNESCO World Heritage). His oeuvre, in this context, comprised of Vodun symbology, domestic or regional, as well as political and religious figureheads, particularly the Kings of Abomey.

In 1989, Tokoudagba began creating acrylic paintings on canvas in addition to his wall adornments and sculptural work. The amalgamation of his knowledge on Vodun iconography and Abomey history allowed for a rich pool of inspiration from which to draw and interpret through his own perception. The enthralling nature of Tokoudagba’s emblematic imagery meant that his work was soon witnessed by global audiences, notably at the Centre Pompidou (Paris) in that same year. Tokoudagba continued to exhibit nationally and internationally, including numerous art biennials, the Tate (Liverpool), the Mori and Tobu Museums of Art (Tokyo), and the Smithsonian (Washington, D.C.).

In a series of unique canvases commissioned by French photographer Jean-Claude Moschetti between 2004-2006, Tokoudagba veered from this predominant subject matter, the Kings of Abomey, and explored Vodun cults and deities he was yet to depict.

Moschetti had travelled extensively throughout Benin and holds a personal connection to Egungun societies of his own. Therefore, this significant breadth of knowledge held by the two creatives coalesced into a series of, for the most part, one of a kind images charged with symbolic potency. Pieces such as Gambada, Minona and Azeto are the direct result of the conversations between and research conducted by Tokoudagba and Moschetti.

Cyprien Tokoudagba
"Azeto means 'sorcerer' in Fon language. The Azeto is able to change himself to animals like dog and birds. By night, he eats up the heart and soul of his victims. The on the left is dedicated to evil and black magic."

In one such unique piece, Azeto, Fon for ‘sorcerer’, depicts an entity that shapeshifts into animal form in order to predate on the hearts and souls of his victims. In the Moschetti pieces at least, there are focal entities but by means of Tokoudagba’s pictographic style, many supporting ‘characters’ represent important aspects of the deeper symbolic meaning at play.

When reading these visual segments of the image as a whole it is possible to see the bigger picture. With Azeto, the “bô” featured is representative of evil. In Koku, the owl indicates the sorcerer’s presence and in Legba, the plant snake hybrid embodies the divergent properties of medicine and venom in relation to Legba’s knowledge.

Jean-Claude Moschetti
"Magic on earth" - Egunguns
Igbalè Irin n’la, white Alabèbè

"Egungun is an ancestor coming back on earth in order to guide and judge living people. This canvas is inspired by one of my photographs 'white Egungun'."
—Jean-Claude Moschetti
Jean-Claude Moschetti
"Magic on earth" - Egunguns
Igbalè Irin n’la, Odoudoua

Amongst the collection is a depiction of Egungun, an ancestor on earth, which was directly inspired by Moschetti’s photography and his connection to this facet of Vodun culture. Also featured are some of Tokoudagba’s recurring motifs, such as the amphibian representative of the water deity Tohossou, the cult of which he was a member.

Keiron LeVine

Keiron LeVine, also known by the moniker KLV, is an interdisciplinary writer and artist with fauna and flora at the heart of all he creates. As an artist, KLV prefers digital collage and millinery and as a writer, he has a strong anthrozoological focus. This written aspect of KLV's work feeds the visual and opens up new avenues to explore our relationship with nature. KLV graduated with first-class honours in illustration and has exhibited at home on the Isle of Wight and in London, Berlin and Toronto. He has also featured in The Guardian and Vogue Australia.

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