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Altar  (asen)
Date: Early to mid-20th century
Medium: Iron, wood, paint traces
Dimensions: H x W x D: 113 x 41.9 x 41.9 cm (44 1/2 x 16 1/2 x 16 1/2 in.)
Credit Line: Gift of Monique and Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller
Geography: Ouidah, Benin
Object Number: 93-2-2
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Object is not currently on exhibit

Fon artists create altars or memorial sculptures known as asen. In the coastal city of Ouidah, craftsmen developed a distinctive local style. Their works feature forged and cut-out iron figures riveted to a large iron disk set atop a cone of alternating serpentine and cylindrical iron support rods. Ouidah asen tend to be larger and more complex in design and iconography than the brass and sheet metal ones from other Fon centers. This is often attributed to the rich and turbulent history of Ouidah as a place where inland and coastal African cultures interacted with European and Afro-Brazilian ones. Each asen bears imagery that refers to a particular ancestor's occupation, religious beliefs and family heritage. The representational choices are analogous to an inscription on a tombstone or a newspaper obituary caption--"beloved husband and father" or "longtime area resident" or "noted author." Asen are more difficult to interpret, however, since the individual details refer to proverbs and personal names, often using puns. The Fon themselves say that the only people who can fully read the symbols of an asen are its maker and the donor who commissioned it. The central figure refers to the deceased; his attire and seated pose suggest high status and authority. His swords could refer to his occupation or to a particular affinity with the god of iron, Gun. The other human figures would be his family, those who commissioned the asen. The animals that appear on asen may refer to sacrifices, family lineage or proverbs. The goats shown following the man with a staff represent an offering. A flat cutout of a bull on this asen (but not visible in this photograph) may connect the family with King Gezo of Dahomey who reigned from 1818 to 1858. His emblem was a bull, and Gezo's ascension to the throne was particularly linked to events and individuals from Ouidah. The bird perched on a millet stalk probably refers to the proverb "If only one bird remains, he will find a field of millet and eat," meaning that even if an individual is survived by only one child, he or she will honor the parent and presumably pay for a suitable asen. While many Fon are Christian today, the cross on the asen is usually intended as a symbol of Mawu, the female half of the creator couple. Rather than having a following of worshipers, she is commonly invoked in solicitations rather like the English-language expression "such and such will happen, God willing." Although the name of the individual commemorated is now lost, a general sense of his identity and his value to his family and community can be felt. Similarly the name of the professional artist commissioned to create this work is not known, but his consummate skill can be recognized in this complex and impressive asen.

Large iron disk set atop an open cone of alternating serpentine and cylindrical iron support rods into a small disk over a wood ball on an iron rod shaft. On top of the disk are both sheet iron and forged three dimensional figures: in the center a seated male figure on a chair, wearing a top hat, holding two swords; bird on stalk, kneeling female with lidded spherical gourd, bull, cross, man with long staff leading two goats and a flat pig on a dish/platform. Crescents, disks and cones hang from the edge of the upper platform and crosses and cones hang from the lower disk.

Private collection, France, before 1975

Jean Paul Barbier and Monique Barbier-Mueller, Geneva, 1975 to 1993

Asen: Iron Altars from Ouidah, Republic of Benin, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., December 17, 1993-April 24, 1994

Freyer, Bryna. 1993. Asen: Iron Altars from Ouidah, Republic of Benin. Exhibition brochure. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, no. 5, details.

National Museum of African Art, 1987-1997: Celebrating 10 Years on the Mall. 1997. Museum brochure. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, no. 1993.

National Museum of African Art. 1999. Selected Works from the Collection of the National Museum of African Art. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, pp. 62-63.

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