Focus on the Collection: Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou
Discover works recently acquired by the Canadian Photography Institute.
Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou is a Beninese photographer whose works abound in references to Africa, Benin, the Yorùbá people, and the history of Porto-Novo. His ongoing Citizens of Porto-Novo project depicts the people of the capital, capturing elements of both traditional and modern life. The Citizens of Porto-Novo project incorporates a number of series, including Demoiselles de Porto-Novo and Musclemen.
Demoiselles de Porto-Novo is an allusion to Pablo Picasso's 1907 painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, in which the women's features reference African masks. Agbodjélou has re-appropriated the subject matter as squarely African in his photographs of semi-nude women wearing traditional masks, set against the backdrop of a former colonial residence — today his family home.
Musclemen plays upon the conventions of African studio photography. Agbodjélou's tableaux, posed in an outdoor studio setting, often incorporate props and decorative fabrics. In this series, he has captured three bodybuilders from Porto-Novo, wearing trousers with typical Beninese patterns. The bright colours of the fabrics, along with vases of flowers, contrast with the macho attitude implied in their poses.
To see the Musclemen series, purchased by the Canadian Photography Institute, visit the International Indigenous Art Exhibition, Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel, from November 8, 2019 to April 5, 2020, at the National Gallery of Canada.
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Agbodjélou (Porto-Novo, Benin, 1965–) learned photography from his father, Joseph Moise Agbodjélou (1912–2000), who in 1960 founded a highly successful commercial photography studio in Porto-Novo. After his father’s death, Agbodjélou managed the studio and, although continuing to do commercial work, he has increasingly turned his attention to art photography. He is also the founder and director of Benin's first photography school.
In the Artist's Own Words
On Demoiselles de Porto-Novo:
Given my awareness of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the topic of cultural appropriation was certainly a major factor when I was working on this series. That being said, most of the elements in these images are deeply personal to me, to my family, and to my country's history. The photographs were shot on location in my family home. [...] The girls come from nearby villages, and are dressed in traditional clothing. The masks they wear were sourced from voodoo fetish markets in and around Porto-Novo.
On Musclemen :
Their makeshift gym is an auto salvage yard, where they build their own equipment and weights out of old car parts. The models arrived in clothes with typical Beninese patterns; I then chose a backdrop and created the composition. They were very proud when they saw themselves in the photographs. To them, the images are beautiful, depicting both strength and achievement.