Every artwork and exhibition tells a story. Several decades ago after spending a week examining the Dahomey asen in the collection of the Barbier-Mueller Museum, I dreamed of addressing these works in a dedicated exhibition and catalogue. An invitation to be the curator of the exhibition, Asen: Mémoires de fer Forgé – Art Vodun du Danhomè (Asen: Forged Memories of Iron in Dahomey Vodun Art), provided a unique chance to re-examine and re-engage these works in the light of more recent studies and a pointed critique of my own engagement with these arts in a less in-depth manner earlier.
This scholar envisioned asen as a short-lived phenomenon, specifically grounded in late 19th-century rulership and class contexts: “even simple asen were forbidden at lower levels of society,” Bay writes, adding that iron was strictly limited to rulers. Who is correct? What insights do the asen themselves offer?
The Barbier-Mueller collection is an ideal one around which to frame this discussion not only because it includes the finest examples of such arts outside of the Musée Historique in Abomey, but also because this museum holds works by an array of artists whose styles can be readily discerned and to some degree, dated.
We provide a preview of the exhibition, Asen: Mémoires de fer Forgé – Art Vodun du Danhomè, which opened on 21 November 2018, in this two-part article. Part I explores questions of use, the history of these arts, the political changes that occurred in Dahomey in which asen featured prominently, and how asen help us to understand the changing relationships between local residents and Europeans in the pre-colonial and colonial era.
Much of this text is drawn from the original English version of the exhibition’s catalogue which is available on the Barbier-Mueller Museum’s online store HERE.
At their most basic, Dahomey asen are sculptures intended as memorials to important family members and a key focus of related religious ceremonies.
One of the Fon language etymological roots for asen is se, as related to the “the power of the ancestors transmitted to the person as head of a social group.” Consistent with this, asen can be said to concretise the destiny (se) that distinguishes the ancestor, marking the perpetuation of this presence in the lives of the descendants. Among the Ewe and Adja, the se (ase) is identified additionally as the vital force of each individual, specifically as transmitted to the person, a chief or a social group.
A second proposed linguistic source for asen is the verb, sen (meaning ‘to venerate’). This term is grounded in the prominent role of calabash offering bowls in asen-related rites to honour ancestors. Indeed, an alternative name for asen is sinuka, meaning ‘calabash to drink water’. The idiom, a sen /wa sen (meaning ‘you/it come worship’), is how asen are framed locally.
In key ways, the two terms are co-joined within the physical form of iron asen staffs themselves, one element of which comprises an actual container. The closed calabash gourd is the traditional food and offering vessel—it also symbolises the unity of the world (earth and sky) and the unity of the state (here, Dahomey). The iron staff topped with branches is identified with Fa diviners and healers (often comprising the same person).
Asen also have clear complements with multi-branched Yoruba iron osanyin staffs used in healing and often inserted in the ground near related healing shrines. Etymological links between asen and osanyin are early and probably date to the first Yoruba migration westward in the 13th-14th century.
Significantly one of the proposed complements or precursors to asen are Yoruba iron staffs (asen acrelele, the baton of Fa) and bird-topped staffs known as opa orere (opa osun, opa sungaga) used by Yoruba Ifa diviners as symbols of office and identified with the god of healing. These staffs are positioned on altars in or near the diviner’s house or bed, and are carried by them as walking staffs in related ceremonial processions to bring blessings, the gong-like pendant elements providing sound accompaniment. Animal blood offerings to the staffs enhance the diviner’s power (ase) increasing his ability to safeguard himself and others from danger. These Yoruba forms speak both to the likely historic roots of asen in regional healing and divination practices—functions that were also important in later royal Dahomey use. A somewhat similar form is used in Ouidah area Vodun temples.
To the West, among the Akan (Asante) is another related form, nyame dua, a living tree post of various heights that supports a basin (brass pan or gourd) into which key offering materials are placed. These references to symbolic trees, like asen, press deep into the earth and support branching elements at the top. Significantly, the Fon royal family is believed to come from Tada (in the Ewe area to the west) which shares important complements with the Akan of Ghana. Consistent with this, the term sinuka is employed more in discussions of ceremonial contexts, while the term asen I found to be employed more in the context of individual objects.
Pazzi informs us that the name asen appears in an array of 17th and 18th century written documents under the name assim or assimah. Key among these is a 1682 letter in which Pazzi notes that the “name designates the cane surmounted by a piece of iron used in ancestral sacrifices, also it applied to the royal palace, and expresses sacredness.” Early regional asen traditions are linked in part to protecting the house and to female fertility. From the Abomey plateau, we also have important oral traditions about asen, including their origins and history.
In Dahomey court-related oral histories, these arts are traced back to the reign of King Akaba (c.1685-c.1716) and a dispute he had with an enemy, King Yahese, in river valley north of Porto Novo. The use of asen were part of Yahese’s traditions, and he had challenged Akaba by warning that “I will take Akaba and I will kill him in memory of my father and I will spill his blood on the asen. I will plant that there and my father will drink water from it.”
In the end, King Akaba would die in the hands of his enemy, Yahese.
King Akaba’s younger brother, King Agaja (1718-40), who succeeded him on the throne was able to defeat Yahese in battle and bring his asen tradition to the court in Abomey. Moreover, the same Dahomey troops who brought Yahese’s head back to Abomey also brought his blacksmiths who made Yahese’s asen. This smithing family, the Aganli, have remained important iron-forgers in Abomey.
The Yahese story coincides with other accounts that “enemy skulls were sometimes used for drinking oath-taking solutions (the skull becoming a form of vessel, like the calabash gourd).” This may be a source for the alternative term for asen—sinuka, ‘calabash for water’. The link between asen and death were also noted by the British traveller Richard Burton in the first published reference to Abomey asen. In 1864, Burton describes the planting of an asen on the grave of an important individual along with the head of a victim of sacrifice.
Although King Akaba is identified with the origins of royal Dahomey asen, it was under King Agaja that royal asen undertook significant changes. The earliest royal asen forms in the Abomey area are closed-form asen (asen gudokpono; meaning ‘calabash in form of gourd bottle’). These asen evoke the bottle-shaped calabash gourds that are said to be the oldest asen form, used to carry liquid and make offerings.
These closed asen are also known as aladasen (Allada asen), a term referencing the city of Allada, that preceded Abomey as a court centre in this area and was closely linked to the Edo (Benin, Nigeria) political sphere. Edo iron staffs featuring heads that honour deceased enemies, complement traditions linked to King Akaba and Yahese as discussed above. King Agaja conquered Allada in 1724, so most likely this closed asen tradition is linked to him. This form of asen tends to reference more generic rulership ideas, rather than specific kings, as would become common in the mid-19th century. King Agaja brought the coastal port of Ouidah (and its ties to Europe) under Dahomey control—this is identified in a later, circa 1900, asen with a four-pillar house topped by a cross shelter and a closed calabash. Asen are historically housed in family memorial shrines (asenho) and in key ways, this work also evokes this.
Following King Agaja’s 1727 military campaign over the Ouidah-linked King of Savi, the Dahomey monarch would introduce key new ceremonies at court, most importantly the 'Grand Customs' of propitiating, 'watering' the kings’ spirits—a ceremony in which asen feature prominently. Agaja, whose mother died during the campaign, undertook the first of such customs—a state memorial in her honour after his return to Abomey. During these rites, asen likely had an important role.
Also under King Agaja, the famed Hountondji royal smiths were brought to Abomey from the coast—their compound was established opposite the new Abomey palace that Agaja had built for himself in the capital. It is this same smithing family who later would create a majority of the Abomey asen forms for the royal family.
A unique corpus of 19th and early 20th century asen from Ouidah were created to honour court ministers known as Yovogan. The Yovogan lived in the coastal town and served as the key intercessors with Europeans who went there to trade. They were responsible for collecting all taxes for the king from traders in Ouidah. These included the additional funds required by the Dahomey monarch for royal funerals or annual ceremonies.
Significantly, in 1858-60, responding to increased demands for King Guezo’s funerary rites, Ouidah merchants, through the Yovogan, were summoned to the Abomey court to bring both gifts of merchandise (rum, tobacco, gunpowder, silverware) and sacrificial victims. The liquor shown on the table in front of the Yovogan is a primary ‘attribute of authority‘ for holders of this office, as also are his chair, top hat, and umbrella.
As Labarthe writes in 1803, payment to the Yovogan at the conclusion of trade was often considerable and included in one case, a wardrobe container, eau de vie, and other merchandise, including a beaver skin hat from Spain, a silk cloth, a barrel of flour, and a barrel of salted beef, all of which are consistent with his role in greeting the outsiders. The French trader, Chaudoin, who would later be taken prisoner by Dahomey’s king, describes the formal ceremony of drinking liquor with the Yovogan. He notes that the Yovogan’s
“major domo brought the bottle, a carafe of water and glasses, poured the Teau in a glass, poured it afterwards in the other glasses, followed by ‘the drink.’ The Yovogan then poured a glass of water, drank a mouthful, and gave the remainder to his major domo who, on his hands and feet in front of him, drank the glass that the cabechere gave him without touching his hands. Once the ceremony terminated, one serves absinthe.“
Liquor was important not only in such interactions with Europeans (the honorific shared bottle of liquor accompanied most engagements) but also in annual celebrations honouring the ancestors.
The office of Yovogan was founded by King Tegbesu in the late 1740s—the first Yovogan, Dasu, was a successor to the office of Ouidah ‘viceroy’ appointed by Agaja in 1733. Four individuals held this office prior to Guezo’s rule in 1818, with considerable turnover after the 1780s. For part of the 19th century, the Yovogan was overshadowed by the Chacha (da Souza), a similar office created by King Guezo on his accession in 1818. By the last decades of the 19th century, the Yovogan office lost some of its former power. In 1860, King Glele named a relative to oversee the Yovogan. Between 1864 and 1871, his power shrank further when the Yovogan’s authority to collect taxes was granted instead to a local merchant, Houenou. Dagbo Yovogan’s successor, Yovogan Sekloka would sign treaties with Britain in 1877 and France in 1878.
The Yovogan position regained its influence in the 1880s when the last Chacha was disgraced and arrested in 1887 for plotting to make Dahomey a Portuguese protectorate. Following the victory of the colonial French over the Dahomey forces in 1892-94, the Yovogan was dismissed, the compound was torn down, and a Basilica and French mission were built in its place. There was no more need for a ‘chief of whites’ since the whites themselves were now in power. None-the-less, even after the last minister, Dagba Yovogan was removed, his family maintained key attributes of authority—large parasols, an asen memorial house, a temple dedicated to the royal Dahomey deity Nesuhwe, as well as the houses of former slaves.
A half dozen asen by the ‘Master of the Curved Brim Hat’ found in various collections in the West appear to represent the Yovogan. In these works, we frequently see European liquor bottles and cups displayed on a table positioned before a seated individual. The latter often wears a top hat similar to those worn by local court ministers. Pendant forms on these works often include paddles, a common motif on Ouidah asen that references the large sailing vessels used by Europeans, and the canoes that carry humans and goods from shore to ship and back again.
In another Yovogan asen by the ‘Master of the Curved Horn Ram’, a man in a tall brimmed hat sits atop an elaborate European style chair holding a long-stemmed pipe. Flanking him on each side are long-horned rams. A cross stands behind him, two French flags fly on poles at the front. Pendants include anchor-resembling forms, these alternating with gongs. This man is seated behind a liquor bottle-laden table, a subject closely identified with the Yovogan ‘Chief (Lord –gan) of Europeans (yovo)’. The French flags are a possible reference to the treaty signed by Yovogan Dagba with the French in 1868, although the inclusion of European flags also may reference Dahomey’s control of European trade. Yovogan Dagba, who served in the role of Yovogan for over 50 years (from 1823 until his death in the early 1870s) was described as ‘very old’ in 1871 and likely died soon after.
It is possible that the Barbier-Mueller Yovogan asen, and several other Yovogan sculptures shown in this exhibition, were created for Dagba’s memorial, as well as other former Yovogan who were members of his ministerial ‘family’. Most likely, they were commissioned at the same time. If this work does reference Dagba, it most likely was created in 1873 or 74.
The talented artist of the early Yovogan asen, the ‘Master of the Long-Horned Ram’, may well have been the famous Abomey blacksmith, Ekplekendo Zomabodo Glenegbe Akati (also known as Akati, Akpele Kendo) or a blacksmith affiliated with him. It is he who, circa 1860, forged the famous Fon warrior linked to the god of iron, war and creativity, Gu. It was in the 1860s-1880s when the ‘Master of the Curved Horn Ram’ was also likely working in Ouidah for the Yovogan and others.
While the Yovogan asen by the ‘Master of the Curved Horn Ram’ could have been created in Abomey, then transported south, it could as easily have been made in an Ouidah blacksmith compound long located near the Yovogan residence.
Presumably, this smith also helped fashion iron weapons and other goods to meet military and other needs of this wealthy Yovogan minister who, like Don (Chacha) Francisco da Souza (d.1849), maintained his own army that was loaned to Dahomey rulers when needs arose. These military troops would have needed iron weapons (machetes, knives, guns among others) so it follows that accomplished blacksmiths affiliated with the Abomey court, likely also were working in Ouidah where they may have forged this work. Indeed it would make sense for a distinguished blacksmith from Abomey (such as Akati) to have been sent to teach forging and undertake iron commissions in Ouidah, particularly since it was for the powerful office of Yovogan. This also is consistent with the role of key wealthy Ouidah families (including Da Souza) had played in assuring King Guezo’s place on the throne in the 1818 coup.
Whatever the identity of the artist, Yovogan and other asen from Ouidah offer a stunning window into both the vibrancy of art production in this coastal centre where local residents created their own court life that in some ways mirrored that in Abomey but also in some ways was independent of it. A great example of this is another Ouidah asen by the ‘Master of the Rolled Brim Hat’ showing a ruler sitting on a tall throne looking at two men holding a royal palanquin (litter) on their heads in front of him.
What we see from this brief history, is that asen represent a broad regional tradition with links to Yoruba, Benin, Gede, Hueda, Gun, Gede, Fon, Ewe, Adja and Asante traditions in nearby Nigeria, Togo and Ghana.
Asen traditions extend back to at least the 17th century where these works played key roles in healing, divination (consultation), as well as death rites and memorial traditions. As the Dahomey royal family gained control of the Abomey region in the 17th and 18th centuries, not only did they send many local and area families into slavery (to Brazil and elsewhere) but they also sought to control local activities in which asen long had been engaged—divination and healing among these. The Dahomey royal family did this through the promotion of Fa/Ifa divination and related consultation and healing practices.
Asen: Mémoires de fer Forgé explores questions of meaning, the history of this form, and the importance of asen in understanding the broader history of this area.
Asen: Forged Memories of Iron in Dahomey Vodun Art runs at the Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva, from 21 November 2018 until 26 May 2019.
Suzanne Preston Blier (Ph.D. 1981 Columbia, Allen Whitehill Clowes Professor of Fine Arts and of African and African American Studies, Harvard University) is a historian of African art and architecture in both the History of Art and Architecture and African and African American Studies Departments. Her most recent book projects include Picasso’s Demoiselles: The True Origins of a Modern Art Masterpiece, Les asen: mémoires de fer forge dans l’art vodoun du Dahomey, and the forthcoming 1325: How Medieval Africa Made the World Modern. Blier's 2015 book, Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba: Ife History, Power and Identity c.1300 won the Prose Prize in Art History and Criticism. Her second book, African Vodun: Art, Psychology, and Power received the Charles Rufus Morey Prize.