Jean-Claude Moschetti | Magic on Earth

Deep within the embrace of the forest there exists a mysterious presence. The natural world offers an abundance of knowledge that surpasses what can be seen, glimmering just beneath the surface. The familiar feeling of being watched in otherwise solitary environments is a common phenomenon, this unknown allows for interpretations of another, more spiritual existence.

© Jean-Claude Moschetti. Magic on earth. Courtesy of the artist.


In West Africa this world is channelled through incontestable artistic prowess and the act of disguise. A hidden spiritual plane that runs parallel to ours is glimpsed at where the dead walk with purpose, acting as visiting envoys and overseers from the afterlife. Here too, an abundance of animal species adopt supervisory roles within human societies. To enrobe in masquerade attire is to transcend humanity, becoming a gateway between two worlds, a spiritual conduit of the extensive networks of gods and ancestors.

Jean-Claude Moschetti has formed his own perception of this highly metaphysical realm, one that deals with the coexistence of the supernatural and the mundane. Magic on earth is a project conceived upon his travels throughout Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso and Benin, where both visual and spiritual aspects of masquerade are explored.

© Jean-Claude Moschetti. Magic on earth. Egungun, Igbalè Irin n’la, Taman.


Magic on earth is a three part project divided by country and culture. The Sierra Devil series focuses on the hunting societies of Sierra Leone. In these communities where notions of brotherhood is paramount, the secrecy of masquerade is utilised to cement the fraternal bond. The primary intention of the Bwa performers found in Volta Noire is to summon animal deities by means of abstract and highly stylised costumery. These animalistic facades are the source of guidance and protection. Resplendent and enigmatic, the Beninese spirits seen in Egungun lumber through the streets like elephants. However they can instantaneously explode into spectral cyclones of bedecked fabric, all flee the fatal touch of the Egungun.

I caught up with Jean-Claude Moschetti with the intent of gaining further insight into his artistic practice and first hand experiences.


Keiron Le Vine | What inspired you to create the Magic on earth series? Was the idea of triptychs already planned or something that came later?

Jean-Claude Moschetti | I have travelled throughout West Africa as a press photographer. My first visit was to Benin, the cradle of voodoo. I shot a story about the Celestial Church of Christ, an afro Christian church, spreading all over Africa but also in Europe and the USA. At the same time I began to photograph voodoo ceremonies for myself (I mean for my own pleasure), most of the time in black and white in a photo-journalistic style. I made many more trips to Benin, enjoying witchcraft stories such as tales of humans changing into animals and lighting punishing robbers. I have learnt to see the ocean as the house of maritime deities, and rivers as shelter for peculiar aquatic creatures. I became accustomed to offering ‘Sodabi’ to Legba, to eat a spark of gunpowder in order to protect myself against spells. I have accepted the presence of this parallel world.

© Jean-Claude Moschetti. Magic on earth, Egungun, Avoun nou ti, Alabèbè


Little by little, I wanted to carry out a more personal project about this spiritual realm and the strange world of voodoo was in line with my inner worldview, even if I don’t believe in any god or churches. It was the foundation of my project Magic on earth.

I began with photographing ‘Egunguns’, however when I returned home I knew something was missing. It was apparent that single pictures were not able to express the extent of mystery or fully depict this invisible world. Through the use of triptychs I had found a way to reveal the supernatural dimension that surrounds Egungun society. So I decided to shoot Egungun again, keeping in mind this idea of mixing the images together. This became a recurring practice throughout the rest of the project.


KLV | When creating these images, Magic on earth you mention ‘the right feeling’, could you explain what this is exactly?

JCM | Triptychs and diptychs allow me to deconstruct the space and rebuild it again in a new way, more poetic and odd. The transformation of the mask and the character it becomes occurs in this space, opening up a bridge from one world to another, between the spirit world and earth. The ‘right feeling’ is the right balance between the elements.

In Yoruba culture, this transition point is named ‘Igbalé’. The igbalé is a sacred no man’s land, usually located in the forest or in the convent. For this reason, forests and landscapes are recurring elements within my visual arrangements.

More generally I wish to question the reality we see, and to inspire doubt in our minds – what we see is not always what we believe it to be.

© Jean-Claude Moschetti. Magic on earth, Egungun, Avoun nou ti, Taman Képi. 


KLV | What brought you to the secretive realm of West African masquerade and the idea of photographing their masks?

JCM | I have a genuine interest in traditional African cults, at the same time these pictures allow me to express my own questions and doubts. The French writer Paul Valery wrote “Que serions nous sans l’aide de ce qui n’existe pas” (What would we be without the help of that which does not exist). This sentence resonates with my own state of mind and maybe explains the strength of the West African imaginary world.


KLV | Where did this journey first begin and what countries and spectacles have you encountered?

JCM | Benin, as I mention earlier, where I encountered ceremonies dedicated to Heviosso and Mamy-Watta. I was also present at Zangbeto, Gélédè, Djagli, Fa cults etc… Currently Magic on earth is made of three chapters, “Egunguns” in Benin, ( 2007, 2008, 2009) “Volta Noire” in Burkina-Faso (2009), “Sierra Devils” in Sierra Leone (2013). I wish to continue with my exploration but without any sponsors it’s not so easy.


© Jean-Claude Moschetti. Magic on earth, Sierra Devils. 


KLV | Your work brilliantly captures the striking animal representations in West African masquerades, could you tell us more about the use of animals/animal symbolism in West African spirituality.

JCM | Some African myths relate that God created animals before humans. It was the animals that taught the first ancestors of humans about living in hostile environments. The dog found water-springs for the Dogon and the Antelope showed the Bambara how to cultivate the soil. The worship of animal spirits is a way to honour these ancestral protective animals who continue to watch over the community.

According to Fon myth, after the creation of the earth by Mawu, the world was too heavy so Mawu asked the rainbow snake, Aido-Wedo, to encircle the earth and support her. The snake coiled itself around earth forming a protective carapace. I don’t really like snakes and for sure I am not the only one, but in such myths, the snake is a savior. Everything in life depends on a point of view and West African spirituality teaches us to look at the world in a different light.


KLV | What are your feelings on photographing such a secretive practice on the decline? and how did the societies and individual masqueraders react to your presence?

JCM | For Magic on earth, I don’t take pictures during masquerades and ceremonies. There is more power in photographing masqueraders and believers without movement, motionless within the right environment. I don’t photograph humans but spirits as some Egunguns, when seated, look like fetishistic and supernatural creatures, for sure they are not humans. It is motion of these beings that brings us back to the human condition.

Carrying out such work involves endless negotiations with elders. These negotiations can be highly rewarding when my project and intentions are understood, however this is certainly not always the case. Traditional societies vary greatly in how open or secretive they are, what is available to outsiders and what is not. Nothing is ever won, for even when permission is granted the masqueraders themselves are highly unpredictable. Each image I present is a challenge to obtain.

© Jean-Claude Moschetti. Magic on earth, Egungun, Igbalé Irin n’la, white Alabèbè. 


KLV | Could you describe your own emotive response when confronted with these supernatural beings?

JCM | I am close to Egunguns societies, I am proud to be one of them even if I live far away. Yet when an Egungun stands in front of me I am still impressed, I have a great deal of respect for him. It’s a true gift to spend time with these beings, certainly a rare and precious experience to be living in an another world. My opinion on Hunting Societies in Sierra-Leone is quite different but I haven’t spent enough time with them.


KLV | Have your experiences in West Africa altered the way in which you perceive the world or your environment in any way?

JCM | It has helped me step back from our materialistic world. When I am walking in the forest now, I don’t have the feeling of being alone anymore.

© Jean-Claude Moschetti. Magic on earth, Volta Noire, Pouni 04. 


KLV | What distinguishes your ‘artwork’ from your other body of photographic work?

JCM | My “artwork” is a free creation without formal constraint, I don’t have to delight to anybody for it is not a business matter. Other pictures allow me to earn my living. Currently I would like to collect praise songs during ceremonies, then write them on my prints. I wish to go further than photography.




Jean-Claude Moschetti (b. 1967, Antibes, France) lives and works in Bain-de-Bretagne, France, and Porto-Novo, Benin. Following his studies at the Institut National Supérieur des Arts du Spectacle et des Techniques de Diffusion (INSAS) in Brussels, Moschetti started working in the film industry as a camera operator and, since 1995, has worked as an independent press photographer. His photographs are regularly featured in French and international press. Moschetti has travelled extensively in western Africa, engaged in reportages on subjects such as the African oil industry and the battle against imitation drugs. Moschetti upholds that the principle motivation behind his photographic practice is to reveal the mysteries of the occult that exist within the quotidian. Through mirroring, duplication and montage, his series Egunguns (referring to the secret Beninese voodoo society that honours ancestral spirits) depict scenes of hybridised, illogical landscapes centred by animal-headed creatures poised in ritualised dance.




Written by Keiron LeVine.


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All images courtesy of the artist. All rights reserved.


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