KIFOULI DOSSOU Écoutez l’histoire ! Xwénouhô Nougnouin
Atlantic is pleased to present Kifouli Dossou’s exhibition « Écoutez l’histoire ! Xwénouhô Nougnouin ». Dossou has been sculpting Gelede masks since he was 8 and has become the most inventive and talented of all mask sculptors. In his work, more than in anybody else’s, the sacred meets the profane, the spiritual befriends reality. Art that is heritage becomes contemporary art.
Gelede is an ancient voruba cult that continues to be performed in certain parts of Benin and is listed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. These masks leave the family convents for important events such as weddings, births, deaths, annual celebrations. In these ceremonies, that take place during the day or at night, masks are worn by initiates performing dances and ritual chants. This is a secret society, and the only one where women play an active role. The Gelede portrays a yaruba woman’s face, with almond-shaped eyes and scarifications. These masks have simple or more complex sculptures built on top representing animals, characters destined to tease a rival clan and, more recently, everyday life scenes or community concerns destined to educate and create awareness.
Kifouli Dossou knows this tradition very well. Born in Cové in 1976, he lives and works in this small city where the Gelede cult lives on. The smell of wood in his courtyard welcomes the visitor, his elder son sands a future mask: the new generation is in the making. In the Dossou family it is all about transmission: the father made wooden toys, the uncle the Geledes, the oldest brother Amide, as well (NB: this talented artist, who passed away in 2013, took part in the 1989 acclaimed exhibition Magiciens de la Terre in Paris).
Today, Kifouli Dossou magnifies and transcends heritage through fine craft and the talent of his hands, able to create meticulously chiseled pieces out of a wood block or a tree trunk. At first, struck by the realism, beauty, sense of detail and the humor of his work we could almost overlook the sculptural performance. But he is not only an incredible skilled artist, he gives a modern twist to these representations, he innovates, and cuts loose from certain conventions.
Thus, he allows himself to create «epa» masks (imposing column masks) without the usual central equestrian figure. His epa masks tell stories and deliver messages. This is the case of two majestic pieces inspired by the city of Ouidah, and created for the exhibition.
With «Let’s nurture intelligence», he observes the Kpassé market, main exchange place in Ouidah (former trading post for palm oil and, on a more sinister note, for human beings during slave trade). Sales women, buyers, thieves, all of them mix together, and yet, each one has its own place. Kifouli Dossou, also speaks of the city’s religious tolerance that is often considered as an example. The Python Temple, a voodoo shrine devoted to this sacred animal, is located right across from the Immaculate Conception basilica. The story tells us that worshippers welcomed missionaries and offered them the land to create their basilica and even helped them build it. For this «epa» the artist makes sure to place pythons at the base of the mask so as to suggest that their ancestors’ spirituality is foundational.
His works are part of the Zinsou Fondation and the Pigozzi Fondation, amongst others. The exhibition runs from Saturday 3rd June to Sunday 17th September 2023.