Cyprien Tokoudagba | Vodun, Animalia and the Twelve Kings of Abomey

The late Cyprien Tokoudagba had an undeniable talent for crafting windows into complex spiritual planes. These worlds are dominated by the haunting visages of animal and human hybrids, saturated with the diversity of Beninese motifs. This was a realm that Tokoudagba was thoroughly immersed in.

 

© Cyprien Tokoudagba. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Degbomey.

© Cyprien Tokoudagba. Guézo, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Degbomey.

 

His artistic career began with painting compound walls throughout the local neighbourhood in Abomey. This attracted Vodun priests who commissioned Tokoudagba to adorn shrines in his own bold style, paving the way to an initiation into the society of Tôhôssou – the deity of water. The reputation Tokoudagba had built for himself then lead to employment as the restorer of bas-reliefs on the walls of the Abomey Palaces. In 1989 he began creating work in canvas form on a commission basis, allowing his grasp on Vodun idols and emblems of the Abomey Kings to flourish in an alternate context.

 

© Cyprien Tokoudagba. Houéda vodoun dangbé, 2007.  Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Degbomey.

© Cyprien Tokoudagba. Houéda vodoun dangbé, 2007. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Degbomey.

 

To look upon the humble visage of a ram does not conjure godly imagery to many. However in the representations of Cyprien Tokoudagba, a ram depicts Hébiosso the Voodoo god of thunder whose lightning swift reactions punish crimes with a horned hammer, the symbol of judicial balance.

The Kings of Dahomey also drew upon the powers of the animal kingdom, those based in both mythology and reality. When the new King was chosen from the dynasty of the twelve kings, a sorcerer or ‘Bokonon’ was consulted on the appropriate animal or animals.  Béhanzin embodied the power of a fish whose wrath summoned giant waves to crush his opponents. Guézo was represented by a brightly crested bird that illustrates his omnipresence throughout the kingdom. These animals certainly became the differentiators between the twelve Kings but they also formed an integral part of their legacies. A legacy shared with Tokoudagba himself.

 

 

© Cyprien Tokoudagba.  Béhanzin.  Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Degbomey.

© Cyprien Tokoudagba. Béhanzin, 2007. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Degbomey.

 

The mausoleum in which the artist now resides was crafted by his children Damien and Elyse Tokoudagba in the same Abomey and Vodun imagery that comprised his life’s work. Though his particular talent and dexterity in regards to capturing the nuances of Beninese symbolism has not been duplicated, the importance of perpetuating legacy is clear to see.

 

© Cyprien Tokoudagba. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Degbomey.

© Cyprien Tokoudagba. Gbé non kpô, 2007. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Degbomey.

 

In bodily form Cyprien Tokoudagba remains in the Gbècon Hounli district of Abomey, but the spirit of his work resides in contemporary galleries across the world. Nicolas Dubreuil of Galerie Degbomey showcased two of Tokoudagba’s paintings at the Outsider art Fair in NYC, 8th to 11th May 2014.

 

© Cyprien Tokoudagba. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Degbomey.

© Cyprien Tokoudagba. Agotonon, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Degbomey.

 

© Cyprien Tokoudagba. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Degbomey.

© Cyprien Tokoudagba. Hoho, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Degbomey.

 

© Cyprien Tokoudagba. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Degbomey.

© Cyprien Tokoudagba. Dan Aydo Houédo, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Degbomey.

 

About

Cyprien Tokoudagba (b. 1939 – 2012, Abomey, Benin) lived and worked as a painter and sculptor in Abomey, Benin. Has made his name as the master painter of Vodoo temples in Benin, Ghana, Togo and Nigeria. Tokoudagba worked for the National Museum of Abomey and was responsible for the restoration of the sculptures and the bas-reliefs on the Palace of the kings (UNESCO World Heritage). He participated in numerous national and international exhibitions, including the art biennials in Sydney, Sao Paolo, Dakar and Moscow as well as at the Centre Pompidou (Paris), the Tate (Liverpool), the Hayward Gallery (London), the Mori and Tobu Museums of Art (Tokyo), and the Smithsonian (Washington, D.C.) to name a few.

 

Written by Keiron Le Vine.

 

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All images courtesy of the artist and Galerie Degbomey.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this article published on June 20, 2014 incorrectly stated that Cyprien Tokoudagba’s artistic career began with restoring the palaces of the ancient Dahomey capital, Abomey. His artistic career began with painting compound walls throughout the local neighbourhood in Abomey.

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