ASHÈ ISHOLA AKPO
Atlantic is pleased to present Ashè, a solo exhibition by Beninese multidisciplinary artist Ishola Akpo. Addressing our relationship with time, territory and power, Ishola Akpo’s work unfolds in photographs, collages, installations, and embroideries that the artist organizes into series, with an overt documentary approach. In Yoruba, ashè designates a force enclosed in things, that a ritual can awaken: with the present exhibition, the artist confronts us with the power of traces that History has left in our modernity, a power effective even when these traces are already almost erased.
First and foremost, this question manifests itself in intimacy. The installation Ashè, which lends its name to the exhibition, is made up of over a hundred plates known as Kpanou, that are traditionally given to brides as dowries by their husbands’ families, and used by women as percussion instruments during celebrations, to perform the Kpanouhoum rhythm. The echo of this music reaches us, with a subtle dissonance: attached to the edges of the plates like bells, pennies of CFA Francs and Euros attract our attention. This crockery, a symbol of domestic heritage as well as a witness to the durability of a tradition in contemporary, post-colonial daily life, has been devalued. The enameled metal plates are nowadays made in China and have lost much of their material value. Embodied in less durable objects, tradition gives way to economic and political constraints that fracture identities; yet tradition endures, and still resonates at the very heart of the home.
The composite reality of our present is linked to our understanding of history. Three recent collages from the series Traces d’une reine introduce Ishola Akpo’s years long questioning of our relationship with the ancestral past. The artist glues and sews women embodying the queens and queen-mothers of Africa on ancient prints from the colonial era, depicting the courts of African kings. Often absent from the archives, erased from narratives, anonymized, these queens held powers that were decisive for the protection of their kingdoms, and therefore for the perpetuation of their cultures. Their powers were political and military, but also linked to the supernatural world of spirits. By reconstructing the image of their power, Ishola Akpo includes these women in the collective African narrative, and formulates a new and radical approach to history; for in this narrative, the artist does not conceal the superimposition of the eras he evokes: on the contrary, his meticulous red-thread embroidery signals the link that must be established between the stratifications of time.
A unique print of the collage Défilé des troupes, 2023, is presented in dimensions comparable to those of a history painting. The queen’s monumental stature contrasts with a deep perspective, where, under the gaze of wealthy colonists, military preparations are taking place. But the queen faces us - her gaze confronts us, head-on. Her face is familiar, imbued with dignity, as if inhabited by a heroic spirit. To what time does this queen belong ? To the pre-colonial past, which she embodied for her contemporaries ? To the colonial era, which she faced ? Or, to our contemporary era, the one in which her image is appearing ? Roland Barthes wrote that photographed people become spectres, forever inhabiting a suspended moment in time. Ishola Akpo’s queens have this fragile existence, made of words and paper; but they have lived through the ages. They bear witness, before our very eyes, to the undiminished power of collective narratives, when they can be transmitted, shared, and reappropriated.
In 2024, Ishola Akpo, will represent Benin at the 60th Venice Biennale alongside Moufouli Bello, Chloé Quenum, and Romuald Hazoumè. The artist is currently presenting the monographic exhibition “Léedi” at the Fondation Donwahi in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, from September 22 to November 18, 2023.
- Marguerite Hennebelle