Appliquéd cloth or hangings
The kingdom of Danhomè is well known for its appliquéd cloth. Created at the court, it was especially devoted to the celebration of the Fon monarchs' assumed name and outstanding deeds, particularly during the 18th and 19th centuries. They attained a sufficiently high degree of art for them to be often given to other nations with which the kingdom had connections.
They served as marks of friendship at funerals. Since the conquest of the kingdom by the French in 1894, appliquéd cloth has portrayed a wider variety of subjects relating to daily life. They are also a source of inspiration for contemporary creators.
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Religious art converted to secular use:Oral tradition handed down by the families of artists at the Abomey court attribute the introduction of this art at the court of Danhomè to King Agadja (1708-1740).
Whilst on campaign in the Wémè, Agadja is said to have been impressed by Tedoe voodoo adepts in Gbozoummè whose skirts formed circles of colour like a rainbow during their dances. He decided to bring them to the court so he could be dressed in rainbow colours.
Because at first they did weaving only, they were restricted to decorating the royal clothing with simple designs having no link between them. After the conquest of Whydah in 1727 by King Agadja however, there was an upsurge in the art of appliquéd cloth due to the massive import of Western manufactured cloth. From this time on the court artists had access to a wide variety of plain cloth which is the basis of appliqué work.
Appliqué work is the basic technique of appliquéd cloth.
In short, it consists of sewing one cloth onto another. Here visual principles come into play for the artists. The term "nu ta do nu mè" (the highlighting of one thing by another) which is given to appliqué work helps us understand - they highlight a background cloth by others of difierent colours. The cut out pieces of coloured material spread over a backcloth enhance both it and them, rather like a photograph where the "positive" reveals the "negative". The Fon word also implies the "spreading" of patterns over the surface of the cloth. Black and white were the favourite background colours in the 19th century. An examination of the oldest pieces shows that the creators avoided leaving gaps by arranging the material.
Several steps are involved in making an appliquéd cloth: the shape of the objects is cut out and tacked onto a backcloth to hold them in position; this flexibility allows for easy changes of place in the design. When the artist is satisfied with his composition, he hems the pattern into its definite form after tucking in the edges. The artist also pays a lot of attention to the outside borders of the background cloth which are treated as though they were a picture frame.
The fact that these cloths can be hung up and looked at explains the word "hangings" applied to them. The Fon word "avo" is used both for appliquéd and plain cloth.
Appliquéd cloth in history:
1- At the kings' service
The most frequent use of appliquéd cloth was in the transcription of the king's assumed name and the representation of his feats of arms.
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The assumed name was the one chosen by the king on his accession to the throne. The name evoked a curiosity of nature, a divinity or an historic fact could also recall the intrigues which had to be overcome before the king acceded to the throne.
In order to transcribe this artistically, the artist used a series of designed signs or pictographs whose combination revealed the name, rather like in Egyptian hieroglyphs. Houégbadja for example can be broken down into houé (fish), gbe (refuse) and aja (net). The entire name signifies that the fish which escapes the net does not return to it. It would be transcribed by a fish facing a net. This type of transcription recalls a picture puzzle. Other ways of interpreting the assumed name used allegories of kings who identified themselves with wild animals for example or, less frequently with domestic animals, whose strength or wisdom have always impressed man -buffalo, lion, elephant, horse, whale, cardinal bird or chameleon for instance. In these cases the pictograph of the animal is sufficient.
The appliquéd cloth created to celebrate the king of Danhomè had to be complete. Because the Danhomè kings were renowned warriors it necessarily included the arms which they invented or introduced into the kingdom, or some of the battles they fought, making numerous slaves and victims. The size of an appliquéd cloth of this type was in proportion to the length of the reign.
Apart from the assumed name, appliqué work, a court prerogative, was used to make banners for the army. It made distinctions among the military ranks and helped identify various court dignitaries whose clothing was enhanced by discs having the characteristic seal of their office in the centre. Appliqué work was, however, also used outside the court in sacred places for example, or at funerals.
2 - At the people's service:
Appliquéd cloth was used by the Fon people when celebrating friendship. Custom required that on the death of a friend, friends of the same age group had to order an appliquéd cloth to tell the public about the merit and qualities of the deceased. The connection between the sound of a word and the form is often the basis of these coded messages whose meaning is unknown to us today.
3 - In national history:
As with every art, appliquéd cloth was influenced by the repercussions of history. Created by kings, conceived by families supported by real patrons, the disappearance of the royal household should have brought about its own. But this was not the case.
In order to diminish the memory of the kings in the Fon collective memory, the colonialists suggested new subjects. The artists turned towards scenes from daily life such as agriculture and hunting. But the memory of the kings and their imprint on local culture was so strong that their pictographs have survived, no longer retranscribed on large cloths detailing all the history of each reign, but on long rectangular bands where they accumulated. They are termed "gan djègui" or "kings in great number". This was probably a form of resistance. The appliquéd cloth had become easier to carry whilst continuing to perpetuate the message of power and magnitude contained in and borne by the assumed names and their visual representation.
Appliquéd cloth is still lively today in the south of the Benin Republic generally and in the Abomey area in particular. The descendants of 19th century artists, the Yèmadjè and their related families, continue the tradition. They have even moved to Whydah, well-known for its slave trade, which became a secondary court arts centre from the beginning of the 20th century. Up to the last few years a very pure traditional art form which respected the time-honoured colours of the art was maintained in Whydah.
In the Abomey workshops and elsewhere the old forms linked to the royal pictographs are copied, though there is also permanent innovation on the same themes. Tourist requirements have opened new directions - nature, and animals which are different from those accepted by royalty, are part of the new subjects in appliquéd cloths.
Since the Voodoo Cultures Festival held in Whydah in 1993, multicoloured material or Dutch wax cottons have been integrated into new creations. Appliquéd cloth which was in the past dedicated to an even surface is now adventuring into the third dimension through volume. The new "voodoo" cloths are distinguished by the addition of bracelets, sticks and chains to the portraits of the voodoo initiates they depict. New workshops have been set up where young creators are more attentive to colour as well as to voodoo symbolism on a transcultural level - Haitian voodoo signs and symbols are now part of the world explored by Benin creators.
A number of experiments have shown the creativity potential of styles such as the translation of La Fontaine's fables into local imagery.
Sales points exist in most large towns so that the tourist can benefit from quick service. Some of these are real co-operative stores where work is divided among the master craftsman who now uses patterns to cut out the shapes, women who do the tacking, apprentices who finalise the attachment and agents who transport the finished product to city clients.
It is possible to compare appliquéd cloth to writing. It functions through the signifier and the signified and is often based on the similarity of sound and form combining to make a word. This writing helps us evaluate Fon knowledge between the 18th and 19th centuries. They knew the needle and thimble without which sewing is impossible; all creators of appliquéd cloth have an altar in their compound dedicated to Gu, the god of the forge and of metal. Appliquéd cloth tells us that the Fon knew how to spin cotton and make lengths of cloth; they knew how to make parasols. Their botanical and zoological knowledge is evident in part from their creations. They knew how to combine colours harmoniously and were aware that they are a dimension of light, as appliquéd cloth illuminates and clarifies a chosen backcloth in consequence. The many cloths created show that the Danhomè kings sought after beauty and did everything in their means to be surrounded by it.
Assistant Professor of History of Art
Université Nationale du Bénin