Asen: Identifying Form, Style, and Artists

Barbier-Mueller Exhibition Preview: Part II

December 10, 2018 By: Suzanne Preston Blier

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 II explores these stunning works, both individually and in core artistic groups that represent key examples of these arts from the southern West African area of Benin Republic.

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.

What forms did early asen take?

A small iron fragment of what may have been part of an asen was found in a 1650-1727 Savi site excavated near Ouidah. Unfortunately, its small size offers no real evidence of its original form.

Engraving of Agoye God of Councils
Wydah, The Republic of Benin
Source: Marchais who visited the region in 1717-18, Hardwicke and Argyll 1745-47 III, page 27

Better clues of what early asen may have looked like and functioned as are evidenced in an engraving of Agoye, God of Councils, by a traveller who visited the region around Ouidah in 1717-18. The Agoye, which includes an asen at its height, functioned in contexts of divination and healing. As with the nearby Yoruba iron Osanyin forms, Agoye is identified here as "an Oracle, [with which] they usually advise…before any undertaking….[a figure] ready to assist with his advice..."

Soon after this, one historian also documented asen traditions in Brazil during the 1741-44 period (the reign of Dahomey King Tegbesu: 1740-77). This Brazilian tradition offers insight into early asen forms in Dahomey, and royal attempts to ban such asen traditions from non-royal use. One likely rationale is that in the aftermath of King Agaja’s conquest of Ouidah and lands further inland, there was a need to control the local populations. Controlling their local divination forms and related healing rites seem to have been part of this. In 1789, the slave trader Robert Norris, writing about the tradition of female warriors (Amazons), would note the presence of eunuchs holding “bright iron rods” whose role was to announce their arrival. Asen-like iron pieces are also described by him in the palace.

King Kpenga (1774-1789) is credited with the introduction, into the Abomey area, of a brass casting family specialising in crotal bells. This group who lived in the town of Hoja six kilometres southwest of Abomey are Akan-linked smiths who had been captured in a military campaign into Togo. When I visited this village in 1986, the family leader indicated that historically they had no relationship with brass casters on the Abomey plateau—their presence here is noteworthy.

The following ruler, King Agonglo (1789-97), is identified with influencing asen and other court arts in important ways. Agonglo likely not only introduced the more open asen form (featuring struts) that is more widespread today (the asen gbadota) but also, with the addition of silver and copper sheets, wooden figures secured to the surfaces added to the heights of these asen to create a surface tableau. This shift is consistent with the circa 1720 introduction into this region of special minted silver coins which were added to an array of arts as embellishments.

The structure of open asen, with their array of spokes or struts, also suggests the form of imported umbrellas and parasols which found use in Dahomey and other coastal areas as objects of high status. When Nondichao explained that the closed asen are female and the open asen are male, he may be in part referencing the chronological changes that the asen witnessed in this era—the female being earlier than the male.

"Man seated on a traditional curved arm stool behind a circular table. He holds a long knife in his right hand and a Vodun cane or poker in his left. He is flanked by two rams and a cross."

Asen by the Master of the Curved Horn Ram, Ouidah, Republic of Benin, Fon Peoples
Mid-Later 19th Century

Image Courtesy Barbier-Mueller Museum, Inv. 1010-26
"Figure of a man seated on a traditional stool. To the front is a circular tray secured on a pedestal mount. In the tray are several fish. Standing on the left is a woman who holds a vertical cord with frayed upper edges."

Asen by the Master of the Curved Horn Ram, Ouidah, Republic of Benin, Fon Peoples
Mid-Later 19th Century

Image Courtesy Barbier-Mueller Museum, Inv. 1010-23
"Figure of a woman seated on a traditional stool. Behind her is a cross. In front is a closed calabash gourd atop a spiral mount. Gongs are positioned on each side."

Asen by the Master of the Curved Horn Ram, Ouidah, Republic of Benin, Fon Peoples
Mid-Later 19th Century

Image Courtesy Barbier-Mueller Museum, Inv. 1010-59

In contrast to the closed-asen forms identified with the town of Allada and Dahomey King Agaja, the asen from the Agonglo era (1789-97) appear to include more individuation based on the specific identities of those they are memorialising.

This change likely coincided with the introduction of the Yoruba Fa/Ifa divination practice in the Abomey court as the official divination form in Agaja’s reign. With this shift, each ruler had a unique set of iconographic referents based on the specific du (odu) sign associated with his person and reign. This shift also accompanied the replacement of more local types of geomancy and healing with court-sanctioned Fa divination forms. Through this means, the Dahomey court gained even greater power over the local residents of this area. The connection between Agoye and both divination and healing constitute an important precursor to this royal tradition.

The historic connection between asen, divination, and well-being is also interesting in light of the mid-19th century Abomey court asen that British traveller Richard Burton described as serving as a “defence against disease” and whose form displayed “an Asen-iron…fetish axe.” In short, like Agoye and other traditions, this was a work whose function was closely linked to healing. Consistent with this too, one scholar identifies a key asen sub-group, with works consecrated to local divinities, whose role in part is to help safeguard an individual and his family from harm.

"Here we see a tunic-wearing man with a wide-brimmed hat with upward curling edges who holds an open umbrella in his right hand. He sits on a traditional curving stool with his feet resting on a short rectangular foot rest. On each side are crosses."

Asen by the Master of the Rolled Brim Hat, Ouidah, Republic of Benin, Fon Peoples
Late 19th to Early 20th Century

Image Courtesy Barbier-Mueller Museum, Inv. 1010-63
"A man in a long tunic and wide-brimmed hat holding a cane in his right-hand stands in front of a traditional curved sided stool. Around the edge are a cross, a blacksmith’s hammer on an anvil, a pole to which a chain is attached, which in turn is held by a woman and a banana plant (the latter a reference to regeneration)."

Asen by the Master of the Long Tunic, Ouidah, Republic of Benin, Fon Peoples
Late 19th Century

Image Courtesy Barbier-Mueller Museum, Inv. 1010-51
"At the rear of the platform sits on an immense open carved back seat of the European design. He holds a knob-headed staff enfolded in cloth. Behind him is a cross with pointed arms, and around the perimeter are two banana trees, an enormous rainbow serpent that arches across the top of the scene (referencing Dangbe Ayido Hwedo), a chameleon, a tall staff, and a vertical element that appears to support a turtle or fish."

Asen by the Master of Gargantuan Imagery, Ouidah, Republic of Benin, Fon Peoples
Early 20th Century

Image Courtesy Barbier-Mueller Museum, Inv. 1010-64

These later asen forms also underscore larger class dynamics in play, and specifically the association of rural cultivators as the one-time source of healing knowledge. This group, whose name (Fon) references a rural bush, are autochthonous residents of this region. As the early Dahomey rulers (who were not native to this area but gained control over the Abomey plateau), they began enslaving local Fon-linked residents (the Gedevi among others). This history also finds expression in some types of asen-like forms.

One Fa divination text identifies an asen-acrelele with a slave who had been bought to cultivate the fields and who refused to cut down certain plants because of their importance for healing certain illnesses. Local Fon traditions of healing were important because this population was able to draw on the healing power and knowledge associated with historic deities being worshipped here. Consistent with this, in one Fa sign, asen are identified with ritual curses, a reflection of the belief that “asen is a Vodun,” such that when one plants the asen in the earth, the various ‘medications’ (or ‘recipes’) identified with its Vodun become engaged.

Similarly, in Brazil, the god Oxala (Obatala—the Yoruba sky god) is referenced in an iron tree-like staff surmounted by a bird; this form clearly has its source in similar asen acrelele and osanyin forms. Oxala is an interesting referent here because it is considered the oldest and wisest of the gods. This Brazilian context also complements the importance of asen in honouring an ancestor’s memory. Over time, particularly during the 18th and 19th centuries, the tradition of rural asen linked to divination, healing, and protection was replaced by new art forms delimited in Ifa divination—for example, wooden bocio associated with safeguarding an individual from various harms. Concomitantly in the Abomey court, traditional asen uses shifted to the set of elaborate court ceremonies focused on the protection and healing of the kings in part through the memories of the deceased individuals within the royal family.

Detail of an Asen by Hountondji Blacksmiths, Abomey, Republic of Benin, Fon Peoples
20th Century
Iron, Copper Alloy
H: 139 cm; D: 30 cm
Photograph by Luis Lourenço

Image Courtesy Barbier-Mueller Museum, Inv. 1010-59

How does one differentiate one asen artist from another?

As one looks closely at the asen at the Barbier-Mueller museum and in other collections, one can begin to read the histories of unique artist hands through their various details.

One of the remarkable things that transpired during my week examining the individual asen in the collection of Barbier-Mueller, was that I began to recognise the individual styles of the artists, in particular, those who were working in Ouidah, among which one can discern four distinctive artists’ oeuvres:

  1. The Master of the Curved Horn Ram (Mid-Later 19th century)
  2. The Master of the Rolled Brimmed Hat (Mid-Later 19th century)
  3. The Master of the Long Tunic (Late 19th-Early 20th century)
  4. The Master of Gargantuan Imagery (Early 20th century)

In addition, we see several works from the Hountondji family guild of metal workers in Abomey (dating after 1910).

"Here we see two men holding a palanquin atop their heads positioned in front of a standing ruler holding a pipe. Behind him is a tree and two the side is a woman with a calabash bowl. The chains symbolise the tight bonds of filiation."

Asen by the Master of the Wide-Brimmed Hat, Ouidah, Republic of Benin, Fon Peoples
Mid-Later 19th Century

Image Courtesy Barbier-Mueller Museum, Inv. 1010-72
Asen by the Master of the Hat on Board, Ouidah, Republic of Benin, Fon Peoples
Mid-Later 19th Century
H: 154 cm; D: 41 cm
Photograph by Luis Lourenço

Image Courtesy Barbier-Mueller Museum, Inv. 1010-1068
Asen by the Master of the Long Tunic, Ouidah, Republic of Benin, Fon Peoples
Late 19th Century
H: 108 cm; D: 32 cm
Photograph by Luis Lourenço

Image Courtesy Barbier-Mueller Museum, Inv. 1010-1038

While each asen artist’s oeuvre is unique, distinctive features of which are in part suggested by the names I have chosen to delineate each (distinctive ram, hats, tunics, gargantuan imagery etc.), the artist’s fashion of working iron and other metals also is distinctive. Indeed, as evidenced here, it is the manner in which each artist chose to affix the dangling togbe earring elements to the rim of the asen that was an even more salient marker of the artist.

Each artist also treats the scenes themselves differently. The artist of the Curved Horn Ram shows particularly striking skill with animals, carefully spacing his various forms, and has a special ‘feel’ for animal portrayals. The Master of the Rolled Brim Hat has captured the art of crafting works of iron that convey a feeling of cloth or paper by the manner in which he cuts and drapes the sheets of metal to form his figures. The artist of the Long Tunic, on the other hand, shows a keen interest in the ‘trades’ of his figures (from the tailor to the blacksmith) and generally only uses only gong-form togbe. Works by the Master of Gargantuan Imagery not only feature the gigantesque in many of its elements but also enhances these forms through added pigments.

While the dating of the asen is only approximate, the earliest of these artists, the Master of the Curved Horn Ram, is identified with the mid-19th century period, a date based in part on the importance of key subject matter with events in Ouidah at this time, particularly around the Yovogan minister as discussed below.

Asen by the Master of the Gargantuan Plant, Ouidah, Republic of Benin, Fon Peoples
Early 20th Century
H: 115.5 cm; D: 28 cm
Photograph by Luis Lourenço

Image Courtesy Barbier-Mueller Museum, Inv. 1010-1064
Asen by the Master of the Ram with Curved Horns, Ouidah, Republic of Benin, Fon Peoples
Mid-Late 19th Century
H: 154 cm; D: 33.5 cm
Photograph by Luis Lourenço

Image Courtesy Barbier-Mueller Museum, Inv. 1010-1067

Asen: Mémoires de fer Forgé celebrates a diversity of asen forms. Drawing together some of the finest sculptures in iron anywhere, the exhibition explores important issues related to the artistic styles of these forms.

Not only would each king add his own ‘stamp’ to this tradition, but throughout, captive blacksmiths brought into Dahomey through war, introduced new forms and technologies. Among the most important of these artists were the founder of the Hountondji guild and the brilliant iron artist named Akati, whose work seems to have been instrumental in the group of Ouidah asen.

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

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.

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