Life and Death in Bénin – African Photographers from the Alex Van Gelder Collection
Whereas it was above all the French colonial lords who used photography, which they had introduced into the country at the beginning of the century after political independence had been gained, the photographers who had hitherto been trained in Bénin took over the abandoned studios and founded some of their own. And these photographers made portraits of children, of First Communions, of weddings and the one central portrait; and they photographed deathbeds, the union of the relatives in the final ceremony, and the ritual at the bedside of the dead person. They were itinerant photographers who took portraits of people in front of their own homes, they were studio photographers in the towns who placed people in front of their self-painted backgrounds, in front of airplanes and household furnishings.
All the photographers whose work is contained in the collection of Alex van Gelder worked in Bénin between the 1960s and the 1980s, among them the photographers represented in the exhibition, such as Benoît Adjovi, Jean Agbétagbo, Joseph Moïse Agbodjélou, Bouraïma Akodji, Léon Ayékoni, Jean Dotonou, Christophe Mahoukpé, Sébastien Méhinto (known as Pigeon), Edouard Méhomé and Camille Tchawlassou. And for many of the people portrayed, the moment of being photographed remained unforgettable because, firstly, it was usually the only time that they could ever afford a portrait and secondly, it was the portrait that would be placed on or beside their deathbed at the final ceremony, because the soul of the deceased appeared to emanate from it once again. These particularly intensive portraits show different people and tribes in Bénin during the transition to the postcolonial era.
The exhibition was curated by Urs Stahel.
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