Existing within the faded walls of a family home at the centre of one city’s complex history, these are the Demoiselles de Porto Novo.
© Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou. Untitled from the series Demoiselles de Porto-Novo), 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Bell Gallery.
As the title would suggest, the solitary figure within these images are of young women from the port city, and former capital of French Dahomey. Demoiselles de Porto-Novo the portraiture series, is part of a broader body of work and project entitled Citizens of Port-Novo.
Photographer Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou documents his hometown and its local community in resplendent costume or against alluring backdrops, namely the Egungun and Musclemen series respectively. Each of these images are part of a deeply personal exploration into Beninese identity. The Demoiselles are more indicative of Agbodjélou’s own family history yet still upholds the greater theme of presenting Porto-Novo’s individual character. The mood has shifted into sombre territory as the dazzling patterns and colours as seen in previous series have faded away. The palette is now decidedly gloomy and a sense of loss lingers in the air.
Agbodjélou’s compositions, in triptychs and singular images, use architecture to allude to the subject matter – the history of the coloniser and the colonised. The atmosphere that emanates from vacant passageways and sitting rooms is no mistake; both location and subject are meticulously orchestrated.
The set upon which these Demoiselles manifest has been in Agbodjélou’s family since its creation in 1890. Erected during the era of French colonial rule, it was built by Afro-Brazilians artisans who were amongst those repatriating to Porto-Novo. They encompassed only a sliver of the millions that were taken from the Bight of Benin as slaves.
The 124 year old grand mansion was commissioned by Agbodjélou’s grandfather whose subdued presence continues to linger. A portrait of a seated man can be found propped against a mirror, this the image of the savvy merchant who built his fortunes selling lemonade to French and Portuguese legions stationed nearby. Much like the rest of the city and its colonial era architecture that is said to reflect a Portuguese style, Agbodjélou’s family mansion visibly retains layered echoes of the past.
The model’s very presence in the house conjugates a memorable juxtaposition. They stand bare-breasted and masked, a diligent combination of vulnerability and anonymity that simultaneously attracts and deflects the gaze. Their disguise, as selected by Agbodjélou from surrounding villages, submerges the models within the mystery of Vodun. This spiritual facet of Beninese life maintains forward momentum in the present day. As misplaced as these quasi-modern women may seem in such a colonial shell, all are integral components of Porto-Novo. In assembling all of these channels, Agbodjélou composes an aesthetic history encompassing the local people and the past they share.
The Demoiselles de Porto Novo series is currently on display at the Saatchi gallery until November 4th as part of Pangaea: New Art From Africa And Latin America.
Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou, the son of Benin’s best-known photographer Joseph Moise Agbodjelou (1912-2000), photographs the people of his hometown—the thriving port city of Porto-Novo, caught between tradition and modern influences. Drawing subjects from street life, friends, family, and studio customers, Agbodjelou produces carefully composed portraits of individuals in interior spaces, standing in brightly colored, traditional Yoruba costumes against mud brick walls. In his “Demoiselles de Porto-Novo” series—which addresses art history through its triptych formats and titular references to Picasso—he focuses on the young female citizens of Porto-Novo, often capturing them in ceremonial or Vodun masks. Agbodjélou recently opened Benin’s first photography school.
Written by Keiron Le Vine.
All images courtesy of the artist and Jack Bell Gallery. All rights reserved