There are bas-reliefs on most of the Danhomè royal palace walls.
The best preserved and most impressive are in the palaces of Guézo and Glèlè. The series, rather like a strip cartoon, describes in greater detail and depth than on appliquéd cloth, the history of the kingdom, its beliefs and gods, the bravery and actions of its people, the amazons or soldiers, who helped overcome enemies and contributed to the extension of the kingdom.
Where does this art come from and what is the technique? What do the bas-reliefs say? Did they evolve? We will try to answer these questions below.
1- Creative sources
Like all the arts at the court of the Danhomè kingdom the bas-reliefs were inspired by oral sources which were memorized as required by a group of specialists in the history of the kings, the "Kpanlingan", who were required to recite without mistake and down to the smallest detail all the verse-chronicles of each Danhomè king.
This basically historical source selected the information to be transmitted in a kind of teaching by progressive disclosure. It never refers to the kings' failures which were probably as many as their successes. The court artist's knowledge obtained from living in the royal circle and close to the palace with its ways and customs, its religious traditions and the Fon language were all precious additional tools giving access to a full understanding of the created form. Dependence on history is more or less emphasized according to the court art and crafts concerned. However, supported by official history, the bas-reliefs are those which open up perspectives of social history.
2- Origins of the bas-reliefs
There is little definitely known about the origin of the bas-reliefs. Nevertheless, elements for an understanding of this art can be found in the culture. The bas-reliefs are part of the Fon universe. In this culture, the earth is considered as being one of "God's" 41 children. It is, in any event, the best and foremost expression of Sakpata, divinity of the earth, responsible for eruptive diseases. The bas-relief, a decorative element of earth architecture, establishes the essential co-operation between this god and man. The god, in fact, accepts that his flesh is taken to construct and enhance buildings.
The least sophisticated bas-reliefs can be found on temple walls on the outskirts of Abomey, built well before those of the kingdom's capital city. There is a preponderance of geometrical designs, "sun" wheels and, more rarely, animal, vegetal and human forms.
It is difficult to give a date to the earliest bas-reliefs. Oral sources in Abomey maintain that they are contemporary with appliqué cloth and date from the reign of Agadja (1708-1740).
3- The technique
The technique used for the bas-reliefs in the Danhomè royal palaces is that of sunken relief. The artists cut out an alcove or recess - most frequently a square or rectangle - in a very thick wall, into which they placed clayey earth and then modelled it into the required shape. Once finished this took on the form of a semi-embossment protected from the rain. The semi-embossment integrated the design work into the building.
In order to obtain a high quality of modelling, the creators of the bas-reliefs sometimes used earth from ant-hills which is known to be waterproof and to have flexible qualities. To this or other types of earth they sometimes added the pulp of palm nuts and oil to ensure impermeability. The use of clayey earth gave extensive flexibility to the bas-reliefs thus easily allowing for moulding and movement to be given to human figures.
Since the 1980's artists have integrated the latest materials in existence. Their technology has therefore developed with these introductions. In fact they create a pattern of the form to be executed. This pattern allows them to cut wire-netting which is laid on an incomplete form of the relief. The whole block is then covered with a coat of earth and cement. Some of them go further and insert nails into the preliminary form and then fill in with mortar.
In all cases, finishing entails painting the bas-relief. Previously vegetal dyes produced muted colours which were less aggressive and garish than the predominantly acrylic colours used today.
4- The bas-reliefs in the palaces of Guézo and Glèlè
The transformation of the palace of Guézo (1818-1858) and of Glèlè (1858-1888) into a museum dates from 1943. The inscription of the site both on the World Heritage List and the World Heritage in Danger List has helped us to conserve the bas-reliefs which are on the walls better. The overall structure is presented here with an analysis of some essential images.
- Overall structure
The information transmitted by the bas-reliefs, witnesses of history, on the facades of the royal buildings is presented in three parts, horizontally and vertically. The Fon consider the number three as a synonym for great stability.
Bas-reliefs of Guézo's ajalala
The lowest part comprises the royal signature which enables Fon language speakers to identify the owner of the palace from his assumed name - buffalo for Guézo and lion for Glèlè.
The middle part is primarily devoted to war or to images recalling it, whilst the third part consists of images rendering homage to the ancestors and tutelary gods of the royal family.
These three parts evolve like a cartoon strip where each bas-relief is an element. As pillars are used as supports, the same ternary rhythm is reproduced on each one of them so they can be read both horizontally and vertically. I feel that the best way to read them is from down to up. The bas-reliefs in Glèlè's palace can be translated as "Glèlè, owner of this palace, waged a number of wars like my father Guézo; I have the protection of my ancestors and my gods".
- Analysis of Detail
1 - Daghesu
This creature with a man's body and a ram's head holds a gun and a gu or gubasa sabre in his hands. He has put on a cartridge pouch... For the Fon this personage is a god - Daghesu. He went in front of the kingdom's armies and helped them to victory when he did not secure it. The way in which the artist has designed movement is noticeable on this bas-relief. Daghesu is in action here. His body leans forward and he puts his weight on his gun. The picture is not full front. The artist used foreshortening to illustrate how the god moved his legs one after the other.
2 - Warrior's promise
Before going into battle Danhomè soldiers took various types of medicinal precautions, but above all they made promises to the king. They set themselves real challenges such as promising to bring back the enemy king's head as a prize, or asserting that they would grapple with the enemy in an unprecedented way.
This bas-relief reminds us of a promise made and kept by a Danhomè soldier to approach his enemy and stick the barrel of the gun into his mouth before firing. And he kept his word. It should be noted, however, that hand to hand fighting was the technique mastered best by the soldiers of the kingdom before the introduction of guns which, in fact, were not very reliable.
3 - Taking a village in Mahi country
This bas-relief is an attempt at perspective. A house can be seen at the foot of a hill. Behind the house there is a staff, belonging to Sofignan according to Waterlot.
A number of names have been given to the place - Kenglo (Mahi), Atakpamè, Gbowèlè. I prefer to tell you about the taking of Gbowèlè because of its rich historical content.
Gbowèlè was just as feared as Danhomè, no doubt as much for its rather hilly terrain as for the courage of its inhabitants. Agadja was the first to make war on them because they had detained a hunchback, son of the king of Gbowèlè. This hunchback had been sold to Agadja who appreciated him because he danced well and was an excellent jester.
But one day the court heard news of the death of the hunchback's father. Agadja was saddened by this event and asked to join his jester in paying the last honours to his father. Agadja was generous to him, drawing deeply from his treasures of cowries, cloth, beads, etc. But at the end of the ceremonies the inhabitants of Gbowèlè elected the hunchback, Agadja's former jester, king. Agadja was furious and led two fruitless campaigns against Gbowèlè. He died before accomplishing his vow of getting back "his" hunchback. Agonglo, to whom Agadja was Joto* , did not do any better. Guézo, to whom the same Agadja was also joto, wanted to avenge the cause of his ancestors. He sent warning of imminent war to the king of Gbowèlè. Two of the king's wives replied respectively:
- Awotèkihn ? which means "What fortune-teller has predicted it?" and the other,
- Du bi na vo bo agba bi na vo... i.e. "Unless gunpowder and canons no longer exist !"
King Guézo made an attack on Gbowèlè and overcame it. The house at the bottom of the hill is the king of Gbowèlè's. Guézo ordered that it should be passed through to hoist the Danhomè flag at the top of the hill. An amazon did this. The captive king of Gbowèlè was taken back to Danhomè, and made a cowherd in the king's service.
4 - Takunjèhun
This bas-relief represents the hanging, by order of Gbêhanzin, of Takunjèhun, a Yoruba living in the kingdom who was a slave trader. This commerce was strictly reserved for the king. Consequently Takunjèhun was hanged.
5 - Ayidohwèdo
Here is a male snake biting its tail. The Fon recognise him as Dan Ayidohwèdo and he also has the rainbow as emblem.
Dan Ayidohwèdo is a sacred symbol for the Fon. He is always benefecent and showers great riches.
- The artists' families
There do not appear to have been families in Abomey organized in craftsmen's guilds and transmitting their knowledge from father to son. The people who made the bas-reliefs relied more on their dexterity and personal curiosity. However, the Hountondji, directly linked to the royal family, and the Atimbasu Glèlè have contributed to the restoration of the bas-reliefs or to their positioning.
Fon culture is one of bas-reliefs. These are found not only on the walls of royal palaces but also on temples or on the houses of artists. In most of these places the inmates shared royalty's privileges.
Contrary to what might be thought, the bas-reliefs contained no disparagement or humiliation of others. The illustrations, primarily intended for the people, showed the great deeds which their kings had performed, even if this entailed fighting with neighbouring kings whose names are known. Their positioning on the walls of personal palaces is proof of this. These walls are situated on the other side of two interior courtyards where visitors were selected and authorized to penetrate into the king's privacy.
At present the architecture in the south of the country frequently uses bas-relief techniques to decorate the walls of well-to-do houses. The artists profit from the availability of new materials such as cement or synthetic fibre. The inhabitants must certainly be proud that their houses are like the palaces of the former kings of Danhomè, if only on the outside.
Assistant Professor of History of Art
Université Nationale du Bénin
* The joto is the ancestor who is supposed to have taken the clay necessary for the creation of your physical and moral being; you are therefore like him, particularly as regards character.