A MASTER OF FON SYMBOLISM: CYPRIEN TOKOUDAGBA.
By Nii B. Andrews.
To date the work of Cyprien Tokoudagba has been exhibited at the Smithsonian institution – National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC; Musée Dapper, Paris, France; Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf, Germany; Hayward Gallery, London, England; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan; São Paulo Biennale, Brasil.
But it was only in 1989 that his work appeared outside his native Benin for the first time – at the seminal exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre” in Paris, France.
Tokoudagba’s illustrious artistic career began in 1980 when he was commissioned to decorate the walls of a vodun temple in his hometown, Abomey; he was himself an initiate of several vodun societies.
His repertoire of images and designs proved so popular that he earned permanent employment as a restorer of the bas-reliefs of the ancient royal palaces of Abomey.
This assignment gave him unfettered and exceptional access to the remaining artifacts of royal power, the fading traditions and symbolic systems of the Fon kings.
Tokoudagba started painting on canvas in 1989 and his visual language mined the traditional and evolving symbology of the Fon to transmit the complex and dynamic world view therein contained.
The results are colorful striking images that emphatically place characters from the Fon cosmos on the world stage.
These include Dangbé, the python goddess, with her cousin Hébiosso (or Shango) the god of thunder.
Hébiosso is often associated with the holy animal, the ram, and the holy colors red and white. His symbol is the oshe (double-headed axe) which represents swift and balanced justice.
The religio-philosophical implications are nuanced and deep but only available to those willing to be taught, study and engage in serious contemplation.
Takoudagba’s canvases reference his early temple and palace murals; strange menacing animals and poignant symbols suspended against a white backdrop, making them timeless and mystical; each a reverential ode to the resilience of Fon ideas and true African philosophy.