Artist Ishola Akpo’s museum show reveals the silenced history of African Queens

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Ishola Akpo, Exhibition Agbara Women, at the Musée de la Fondation Zinsou, Courtesy the Artist
Ishola Akpo, Exhibition Agbara Women, at the Musée de la Fondation Zinsou, Courtesy the Artist

Forgotten no more. At The Musée de la Fondation Zinsou in Ouidah (Benin), artist Ishola Akpo thwarts the silences of history and revives the memory and legacy of pre-colonial African Queens, Tassi Hangbé of Dahomey (Benin), Queen Nzinga of Angola, and others.

The image is arresting. At its center and drawing all the attention is a fearless ruler with a piercing gaze, gripping a long spear. For now, the monarch, surrounded by four members of the royal guard, is seated but appears ready to leap up into combat mode at any moment.

This could be a banal scene of royal life if the fierce look and the fearlessness emanated from a male body. After all, African history abounds with narratives of heroic acts of brave and courageous Kings such as Behanzin, Sundiata Keita, or Shaka Zulu. This image’s peculiarity lies in the gender of its central figure: a woman, an African Queen. You have probably never heard her name, Tassi Hangbé. Neither have the school children of the Republic of Benin, the country whose territory today encompasses the Kingdom she briefly ruled over in the 18th century: the Kingdom of Dahomey (or Danhomey).

The Queen’s representation is a contemporary picture, deftly cut out and stitched with a bold red thread onto archival imagery of a pre-colonial court scene. The composite image is part of the series “Traces d’une Reine” (Traces of a Queen) at the center of artist Ishola Akpo’s current show at the Museum Zinsou in Ouidah (Republic of Benin). The exhibition Agbara Women (Women of Power) seeks simultaneously to reverse a severe case of a systemic erasure of pre-colonial African Queens and investigates the gender power dynamics at play in African societies today.

Tassi Hangbé was far from being the only warrior Queen in pre-colonial Africa. “The Queens in Europe were in their palaces and gave orders. However, in the cases of Tassi Hangbé, Nzinga, or Ndete Yalla, these Queens went to the front. They fought like men. That was what was interesting in this project. Finding out how these women gave all they had to protect their territories, determined to win,” explains artist Ishola Akpo.

In a phone conversation, the artist explained that the figures of Tassi Hangbé and Queen Nzinga of Angola were “the anchors of this project” situated at the nexus of art, history, and memory. The research he conducted into the lives and legacies of these two Queens led him to other forgotten African Queens: Ndete Yalla (current day Senegal), Yaa Asantewaa (present-day Ghana), and some Yoruba Queens (current-day Nigeria).  

 

Ishola Akpo, Exhibition Agbara Women at The Musée de la Fondation Zinsou, Courtesy the Artist
Ishola Akpo, Exhibition Agbara Women at The Musée de la Fondation Zinsou, Courtesy the Artist

As such, the contemporary art exhibition has transmogrified into a compelling pan-African, pre-colonial history lesson. And this revised visual history hinges on three new bodies of work that saw the artist stretch his practice far beyond the realm of his traditional medium of photography to experiment with new materials (textiles) and new forms of expression (collage and sculpture).

For the photographic series “Agbara Women” (the project the exhibition is named after), Ishola Akpo sought out middle-aged women who could conjure up the spirits of defiance and bravery of the African Queens. “You need to understand,” he said, “that I am about representation, and my work revolves around identity. In Africa, there isn’t a painting of these Queens in a museum where anyone can go and see them. All we have are oral accounts and barely any written or visual records.”

The artist’s concern with representation – or lack thereof – is particularly pertinent in our contemporary culture, disproportionally tilted towards visual expressions. For better or worse, images have become a critical component in comprehending the world, recalling the past, and imagining the future. So historical figures who have remained faceless and whose names can only be remembered by a select group of people stand the greater chance of falling into oblivion. The issue is compounded if these historical figures are women whose visible positions of power stand at odds with a contemporary social construct favoring men. By anchoring these women’s names into a body of visual work, Ishola Akpo has set in motion a powerful historical corrective, distilling a 21st-century antidote against an affliction that stretches back to the 18th century.

The evanescent oral history now reinterpreted in a medium more suitable for our current technological times can be widely disseminated to challenge the monolithic version of history, which glorifies almost exclusively men, and remains the version that is taught until now. 

“When you look up those who ruled in Benin, Togo, or in Nigeria, you will hear about the men, but there is no mention of the women. Their memories have almost been erased. In Benin at school, we were never told there was a Queen who ruled over the Kingdom of Dahomey for three years. But they always talk about Behanzin” (the King whose emblem and royal artworks are at the center of the repatriation claims between France and Benin) “or Glele.”

Ishola Akpo, Exhibition Agbara Women at the Musée de la Fondation Zinsou, Courtesy the Artist
Ishola Akpo, Exhibition Agbara Women at the Musée de la Fondation Zinsou, Courtesy the Artist

To devise and compose this new visual narrative, Ishola Akpo drew on extensive research of fragmented written records, oral accounts, archival materials in Europe and Africa. That expansive process of reconstruction is best mirrored in what he called “the collage and sewing” series titled “Traces of a Queen,” which incidentally constitutes some of his most compelling work to date.

The photography series draws on the representation of monarchs in art history. The figure of each Queen, dressed in regal clothes, is captured as a lone embodiment of power. In contrast, the mixed-media series intricately re-inserts the Queen within the historical context she has been so consistently erased from. The red thread that binds the contemporary image of the Queen to the archival background emphasises the painstaking surgical repair work the artist is operating on the collective memory to bring back to life the legacy of these African Queens.

But stitching is not only about restoration. It carries an element of trauma intrinsically. And through the work, the stitching connects the violence women endured to ascend to the throne, to the necessity for them, to this day, to exercise power in utter secrecy. Despite all the trappings of power wielded publicly by men, “real power,” the artist says, resides with women. “In my opinion,” he says, “we live in a matriarchal society, and we are led to believe that we are in a patriarchal society, and I wanted to denounce all that.”

Ishola Akpo, Exhibition Agbara Women at the Musée de la Fondation Zinsou, Courtesy the Artist
Ishola Akpo, Exhibition Agbara Women at the Musée de la Fondation Zinsou, Courtesy the Artist

He continued with real-life examples. “At night, men and the whole society know that women hold the main power.” He points to their roles within families, their advisory roles to men in power, and how they mediate the spiritual relationship between the material world and the invisible world within traditional African religions. “Women already have power. However, for men to openly recognize that power, women are called on to deny their true identities and deny who they are. They have to let part of themselves die before they can be given the crown.” Citing Tassi Hangbé of Dahomey Kingdom, he explained that she had to dress up as a man and pretend to be a male to rule.

The cloak of secrecy that shrouds women’s identity and their power is rendered through twelve woven works. Each is embedded with powerful words, “power,” “resist,” “freedom” written in various African languages. Together they resonate like a Pan-African manifesto, a call to women to move from the shadows they have been confined into and assume power conspicuously.

It is uncertain whether that call will be heeded. Still, Ishola Akpo has undoubtedly rolled back the near collective amnesia that erased the African Queens’ names and existence. The cohesion between the exhibition, its content, and location unintentionally raises fundamental questions about the role of art, the current effervescence about Contemporary African Art, and the modality of its integration in the art world. Despite the rapid creation of a record number of commercial galleries, museums, and art institutions on the continent, the market for contemporary African art is still in the West. Influential galleries and the most attended art fairs are in New York, London, Miami, and to a lesser degree Paris. News of new records at auctions for African artists often comes from New York or London. This state of affairs has left many to question who is the art for, particularly in light of the subject matter of some of the figurative works. In the case of Agbara Women, it is unquestionably first and foremost for people from Benin, West Africa, and the whole continent who have the equivalent of Queen sized holes in their histories. And it felt right that they were the primary audience of this exhibition.

Without being drawn into the inner works of the art world, the artist is prompt to reject all labels “African artist” “Contemporary African art” and insists he is just “an artist.” However, he points to the support granted by the Zinsou foundation through extended residencies and through his near 18 months of research to bring this project to fruition and insists similar support is vital for young artists like him to create.

He remains laser-focused on his work, undisturbed by the growing speculation about Contemporary African Art. He is driven, he says, by legacy. “I choose my projects so they can stand the test of time. [..] Even if I die tomorrow, I want the next generation to build upon my work. [..] I confront history. I look for histories connected to the collective memory of a group of people or a country. I don’t work for me. I work for a whole nation. Evoking his past photographic series, he positions his work as “an invitation to reconcile with our culture, our identity.”

In these testing times, when people weaponize a health crisis to challenge funding to the arts, particularly on a continent struggling with a lack of infrastructure, Ishola Akpo’s latest work stands as a resounding rebuttal. The revival of the memory of forgotten African Queens should be enough to remind us all of the vital role art plays in our lives, the construction of our individual and national identities. Long live African Queens.

The interview was conducted in French and condensed for clarity.

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