fondation Total



avec le mécénat de la

fondation Zinsou

Artists of Abomey

visuel de l'affiche de l'exposition Artistes d'Abomey

Dialogue on an African kingdom

East mezzanine

Collections ticket 8.50€ full price and 6€ reduced price

From Tuesday, 10th November 2009 - Sunday, 31st January 2010

Head Curator: Gaëlle Beaujean, head of the Africa collections at the musée du quai Branly

With the collaboration of Joseph Adandé, art historian at the Université d’Abomey-Calavi and Léonard Ahonon, manager and curator of the royal palaces of Abomey site.


This exhibition presents the artists of the kingdom of Dahomey (1600-1894), in present-day Benin, through 82 works and 8 old graphic documents.

Its objective is both to present their work and investigate their role and status within the Dahomey society, and more specifically in the capital of Abomey. Indeed, the artists chosen by the king enjoyed great privileges while being constrained by their allegiance. Through these artists' works, the exhibition will explore the different functions of art in Abomey.

This is done by associating the artists and families of artists with each type of object presented. This new approach is the fruit of research led by the scientific team and often results in an extremely precise attribution of certain works.

Finally, the exhibition offers two perspectives: that of the country of origin (through the contribution of two scientists from Benin) and that of the French curator.

Around the exhibition

A number of events are organized in the reading room related to the Artists of Abomey exhibition

Consult the reading room program related to the Artists of Abomey exhibition

statue anthropomorphe © musée du quai Branly photo Michel Urtado et Thierry Ollivier
Anthropomorphic statue © musée du quai Branly photo by Michel Urtado and Thierry Ollivier

Exhibition route

The introductory area presents an ancient map and the genealogy of the kings of Abomey. This is followed by five sections which explore the status and role of the artist within the Dahomey society.

The memory of names

This section presents the sculptures of six artists identified by name, a relatively rare phenomenon in African art. Certain Abomey masterpieces are exhibited, including the statue of the god Gou by Akati Ekplékendo and the statues of the Glele and Behanzin kings, by Sossa Dede.

trône de Béhanzin de la cérémonie de l'ato © musée du quai Branly photo Patrick Gries
Throne of Behanzin for the ato ceremony © musée du quai Branly photo by Patrick Gries

The court artist, Master - Servant

The question explored in this section is the place of the artists: how is this achieved? What are the Master's advantages? Which elements are indications of servitude?

The artists created the king's regalia and narrated his exploits. This section will bring together both royal emblems and works that proclaim the official history.

Of notable interest is a precious ivory recade and two thrones which serve to express the king's power in an imposing manner.

siège royal vue d'ensemble et détail © musée du quai Branly photo Michel Urtado et Thierry Ollivier
Royal seat, overall and detail views © musée du quai Branly photo by Michel Urtado and Thierry Ollivier

The palace, window onto the world

Information gathered in situ has allowed scientists to identify the use and placement of certain works within the palaces. The kings possessed exotic objects and typologies of sculptures, such as the ibeji (statuettes of Yoruba twins).

The term “treasure of Behanzin” serves to group together certain pieces seized by French officers. The section is nearly entirely constituted by a portion of this “treasure”.

paire de bracelets du premier ministre. Style fon. Famille Hountondji © musée du quai Branly, photo Thierry Ollivier, Michel Urtado
Pair of bracelets of the prime minister. Fon style, Hountondji family © musée du quai Branly, photo by Thierry Ollivier, Michel Urtado

Distinction through art

Artists also worked for dignitaries and soldiers and, in this case, the amazons. The possession of works from royal workshops was a privilege.

Four categories of people were thus honored:

  • the prime minister or migan: very close to the king, he was notably responsible for the execution of prisoners during the annual customs which served to communicate with royal ancestors
  • the amazons, female soldiers of the Dahomey army
  • the priest of Heviosso (god of thunder)
  • the shamans, for whom artists produced geomancy material

This section notably includes two knives and an outfit that the minister wore for decapitations, as well as the precious recade belonging to the priest of Heviosso.

porte du palais royal d'Abomey © musée du quai Branly photo Michel Urtado et Thierry Ollivier
Door of the royal palace of Abomey © musée du quai Branly photo by Michel Urtado and Thierry Ollivier

On the walls of the Palaces

The artists of Abomey also decorated the walls, doors and pillars of the royal palaces. The exhibition will present bas-reliefs and wooden doors from these palaces.

The acrylic on canvas works executed by the artist Cyprien Tokoudagba will draw attention to Abomey's contemporary art scene and highlight the influence of the ancient works produced by the royal workshops.