Africa Direct
Africa Direct


Location: Southern Benin and Togo
Population: Unknown

Arts: Historically speaking, the art of the Fon was a royal art, with impressive metal statues representing various gods produced for the royal court of the old Kingdom of Dahomey. Today the Fon still use "art," mostly small objects of worship known as "bochio." These enigmatic carvings are used in the practice of Vodun, a religion unique to West Africa, which during the slave trade was "exported" to the new World, to become "voodoo," though the two practices are no longer related in any substantive way. The Fon also produce larger, somewhat formal wood carvings, quite rare, and colorful applique textiles, reminiscent of the royal wallhangings from the Kingdom period. Today these hangings are displayed in homes and sold in markets as part of the tourist trade. Also found are small iron figures, from animals to people. Most of these small cast objects were originally attached to tall, "Asen" family shrines, individually crafted to represent the beliefs of the family or deceased relative. These are also collected, though they tend to be heavily rusted from exposure to the humid weather.

The "bochio," also spelled "boccio," is the most well-known carved object of the Fon. These small statuettes, many under 10 inches, are carved by known carvers and sold to villagers at local markets. At this point the carvings have no meaning, like a book without text. Though the variety in size and appearance is quite enormous, they all fall within a tradition that makes them readily identifiable in most cases: details of the face are vague, the arms are usually attached to the body, with a right angle where the hands extend to the torso. The wood is left unfinished, and the overall affect is crude and naive. Boccio are found with traditional rounded bases and also with pointed bases. They can be up to three or four feet tall. The more traditional statuettes tend to be smaller than those that are intended for outdoor use, but they also tend to have the largest variety of magical attachments. The larger, spike-like boccio, are often unadorned, but acquire a mystical weathering from being exposed to the elements. These are "planted" in the ground or elsewhere once they have been energized by the priest. This is where the word "art" essentially ceases to apply, as now the objects enter into another realm: the "vodun" world. A person might purchase one of these small carvings for any number of reasons, from the mundane to the profound. A believer in the "vodun" seeks out these objects and then consults a priest, who will empower or energize them, transforming their appearance as well as their importance. The bochio can have many layers of encrustation from sacrificial liquids, and many different types of magical attachments, depending on their intended function. They are used by individuals, families, or entire villages, and can be found almost anywhere in a town where vodun predominates. It is here that most Westerners encounter an alien world, a world of spirits and intrigue, of despair and hope, wonder and fright, a world not intended for their entry. But vodun is not, as is often thought, a malevolent force. In its most elemental terms, a bochio is a prayer, and vodun is a path to inner peace, and harmony with nature. Compared to the boccio, the larger statuary is quite rare and difficult to identify. The purpose of these large pieces is unknown, though they are no doubt housed in shrines, and are presumed to be ancestors. The applique textiles are popular with collectors for their folksy images and startling colors. The most familiar images, like fish and a variety of animals, are the "coats of arms" or "bo" of the ancient kings of Dahomey. The "Asen" family shrine posts can be very intricate and impressive, with small figural and animal castings attached by rivets to the top. These stylized adornments can often be confused with Ashanti or Dogon castings when they become detached, but they are loved by collectors.

History: The history of the Fon, and the Kingdom of Dahomey, can be traced back over two hundred years. The first king, subject to some debate, was Gangnihessou, who died in 1620(?). He was followed by Dakodonu. The last king was Behanzin, who reigned for about five years until the kingdom was absorbed by the French in 1894. It is an interesting footnote that many of the soldiers used by the French were native black Africans, supposedly Yoruba, and this has led to a rivalry and distrust between the two groups that festers even today.

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