Beninese ancestral libations and Japanese pottery. What could possibly connect these two traditions? King Houndekpinkou.
Born in Montreuil, France and of Beninese origin, it was a trip to Japan over twelve years ago and a chance encounter with traditional ceramics, that triggered King’s eventual ceramic creations that combine influences from these seemingly disparate cultures. He harnesses clay, fire, glaze and colour to create ‘vessels’ — an alchemy that transforms clay into vessels reminiscent of Benin altars, caked in sacrificial offerings. ‘I was inspired by dripping liquid on a Voodoo altar,’ explains King.
King’s 2021 Dans Mon Jardin (In My Garden) project (07 September – 02 October at Galerie Vallois, Paris) uses ceramics, enhanced with golden spikes, oozing colour and bubbled surfaces to invite you to see that “there’s more than meets the eye.”
I'm in the middle of preparing a September show and I'm currently working with colours. Sometimes you get into a zone when working with colours, you’re absorbed by them.
I love colours and happy things. I love being everything that's positive. I love the positive but I also love the tension between the positive and the negative, the plus and the minus, the visible and invisible. The ‘constructive contradiction’, that ‘friction zone’ is very interesting to me. There’s a conversation taking place there. I've always wanted to explore it but never knew I was going to be exploring it through ceramics.
I've been doing ceramics for almost ten years and the work has continued to evolve over that time, but also remained the same.
What’s remained the same is what propelled the work and what propelled me into this career. Seeing how the clay, the water, the air, and the fire translate who I am in the language of ceramics. The animist beliefs of Shintoism in Japan and the bridge that I’ve been able to imagine with Benin, these things remain the same. It's just that now, these motivations and inspirations take different forms. I keep living, and my hobbies and passions influence the work and the way I see things. But the roots of it all are still the same.
In Benin, people go to the church in the morning but then at night they go to the Voodoo priest. Growing up in Benin, with Beninese spirituality, everyone is Voodoo, everyone has this animistic blood in them. At the same time, people still follow two of the main monotheist religions including Islam and Christianity. I would go to Benin every summer and my Mum would give me a pendant to keep me safe, to prevent me from getting attacked by bad spirits and at the same time, every Sunday we'd go to the church.
I grew up in an environment where spirituality was always around, always being grateful to the highest powers that are above us. Being grateful for all the things that we have and recognising that there are forces that exist that are not necessarily tangible, that you don't see, but that are acting on you. I grew up with that and it still impacts me today.
Exactly! Exactly! You translated that very well. I'm hot and cold but I'm interested in what happens in that space between the hot and the cold, that friction. I believe that's where beauty lies. For example, in creating a bridge between Benin and Japan or even in textures.
These days I use paint and glaze at the same time — what happens when you apply a glaze that’s then juxtaposed with paint. I'm interested in that tension. What happens when rock is submerged in jelly? How does it behave? What happens when contradictory matters come into contact? My role, I believe, can be likened to being a diplomat of matter, the middleman between textures. It doesn't seem like they will go well together but you just have to make them understand that there's beauty in the way they will interact, there’s beauty in that possibility.
The only purpose of those altars was to connect with a higher spiritual entity or force. People offered sacrifices to those altars to connect with gods and deities and spiritual powers, not to make the altar ‘beautiful’. And somehow there's this kind of beauty that just appears when it's not about ego but much more about connecting with something higher, something that transcends what we understand.
I think that's also why I love ceramics because beauty always appears. When you put a glaze on a piece and then place it into the kiln, you don't really know what it's going to look like. There's something very magical about that. Like this apparition that’s manifesting in front of you. That's a part of the ceramics process that I've always been intrigued by, fascinated by, how things can just appear to you without you noticing or experiencing what really happened in the kiln. You've had an influence on it but the end result is down to the fire and the elements.
First of all, I believe that we are both feminine and masculine — again, that duality. And more importantly, everyone came out of a woman's body. We were all conceived in a woman's body. We all have a feminine part.
In most animistic beliefs, earth is mother — Mother Earth — and fire is father or male power and somehow reconnecting with the clay or working with clay, I truly believe is working with your feminine side and reconnecting with that Mother Earth spirit.
I went to a village called Sè in Southwest Benin in 2016. I asked the female potters if I could have some clay to make some works. They didn't really understand my request. "Oh wow, it's a guy, and he's young as well with a very strange accent asking us for clay to make works." They just didn't understand but they went with it and gave me some clay. It was only later on that they realised that I was serious about my projects. But they were surprised at first because as you said, it's mainly women that make ceramics in West Africa. But the thing is I grew up here in Europe where on the contrary, it's mostly men who create ceramics.
To me, what's beyond gender is simply the act of making, it’s the act of touching the clay. Whether you're a man or woman, it doesn't matter. What interests me is the approach — how you approach clay, how you approach ceramics and in general, how you approach whatever you're doing.
But there’s a huge feminine part of me that is active when I work with clay. I use the wheel to shape clay. George Ohr was a famous ceramist from the 19th - 20th century who used to call his ceramics his 'clay babies'. Whoever you are, male or female, your feminine part is very active in the fact that you're modelling something and bringing it to life and I definitely think my works are my children.
The idea at the beginning was to create a space where I could just go wild with colours and shapes and just be myself. I wanted to have a dedicated space where I can just do whatever I want.
In addition, we’ve all mostly just come out of lockdowns where many public places have been closed. We couldn't go to gardens. So, I thought, maybe it would be interesting to do a show that invites people to my own garden.
The base for each work is a vessel — a bowl, a vase, a cup, or a teapot. Then I assemble different modules onto the different parts of the vessel. The idea is to say that okay, the works are sculptures, but they're made out of functional pieces.
"There’s more than meets the eye."
That's it! And the idea was also to say that functional pieces like the vase, while the base of the work, is not made to put flowers in it. The work itself is enough to be the living element of the ‘garden’. So that's why the show is called ‘In My Garden.’
The pot and the vessel is still the main language that I speak. It’s the core. It’s just that I use it differently. They’re like beings, they are like creatures. When you look at the works, you might ask "oh, what is that?" You don't really understand what you’re seeing. It's about what's behind what you see. Behind a cup there are so many stories, there's a tradition. There's more than meets the eye.
Our bodies are vessels. This planet is a vessel. The vessel is everywhere when you think about it. It's a perspective, it's a way of seeing. And when you enter that way of seeing, when you position yourself like that, you see everything as a vessel.
I want people to enter the room and say, “what the f**k is this?” and I want people to enjoy it and at the same time. I want people to maybe go back thinking, “wow, there’s more than what meets the eye.” That when they go back home and hold a ceramic cup, to think “I'm not just holding a cup, I'm holding the door to a thousand possibilities.”
Sometimes I'm at shows and people think I'm the bouncer because I’m a black man. I love it and I hate it because again, it demonstrates that there’s more than meets the eye. I want people to get out of that show thinking of that.