The Vision of Georges Adéagbo
I do not work like a painter or sculptor, who finishes . . . works in his studio and then sends them . . . to galleries or museums. All my installations are custom made, and I realize them after months of preparing the components in the exhibition space, which becomes my studio. It is a dialogue of request and proposal.
Georges Adéagbo creates installations every day. Some are more elaborate than others, but each is a personal reflection, a musing upon the issues and encounters he faced that day. Trained in law and business administration, he began creating such installations of varying scale and complexity after he returned to Cotonou, Benin, following his father’s death in 1971. Pressured by his family to stay, he coped with his return by taking solitary walks, encountering objects—both discarded and lost—that appealed to him, and arranging them on the grounds of his compound. For 23 years, he wrote his thoughts and combined these notes with mementos, clippings, and the artifacts of everyday life in daily assemblages. A chance encounter with French curator Jean-Michel Rousset in 1993 led to his participation in the exhibition La Route de l’art sur la Route des esclaves in Besançon, France. Five years later, Adéagbo’s the Story of the Lion—a one-day installation examining Africa’s intellectual and material contributions to European, and particularly Venetian, history—was awarded an Honorable Mention at the 1999 Venice Biennale. He had been invited to create this installation by independent curator Stephan Köhler, who has since remained Adéagbo’s close collaborator and advocate.
—Georges Adéagbo, 2023
In the decades since, Adéagbo has maintained a robust international presence with exhibitions from Philadelphia to Tokyo. Each is site specific. Create to Free Yourselves: Abraham Lincoln and the History of Freeing Slaves in America was first installed at President Lincoln’s Cottage with the idea that the assemblage would come into the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. This exhibition is the artist’s vision for this museum.
Creating for Freedom: Georges Adéagbo and Abraham Lincoln
Images (captions at end of doc)
–preparatory drawing by Adéagbo
–Adanhoumè reproducing Adéagbo sketches
–installation at Lincoln’s Cottage
. . . Abraham Lincoln, the man who above all cared about reforging the union, not by force and repression, but by the warmth of his feelings and the generosity of his heart.
Many of Adéagbo’s installations are examinations of transformational historical figures. He considers them portraits. In issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln changed the trajectory of American history, and his actions reverberated around the world. Long after his death, full emancipation for all is unrealized, but this installation invites each of us to consider its implications and legacies.
—Georges Adéagbo, 2023
Adéagbo created the first of his public portraits of Abraham Lincoln in 2000. Abraham—L’ami de Dieu (Museum of Modern Art, New York) wove together visual and textual narratives that weighed the concepts of sacrifice and freedom, linking the freeing of slaves in the United States with global liberation movements.
Create to Free Yourselves began in 2021 as a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, during which National Museum of American History curator Nancy Bercaw showed Adéagbo Lincoln’s gold pocket watch, worn black coat, and casts of his face and hands. He also saw an announcement of Lincoln’s death, lithographs of Lincoln with his family, and satires written by Lincoln’s opponents. Throughout his research, Adéagbo created preparatory collages, often on brown butcher paper, that included photocopies, sketches, and handwritten thoughts about his findings. Upon returning to Benin, he commissioned Cotonou-based painter Benoît Adanhoumè to reproduce some of these. Viewing images of Lincoln on horseback, without bodyguards, inspired Adéagbo to commission a sculpture of a mounted Lincoln by Beninois carver Hugues Hountondji.
Each sculpture, painting, bathing suit, found object, book, and note holds memory—of songs played, of swimming pools visited, of thoughts written and read. Assembled, they unfold like a map of Adeagbo’s mind, inviting us to follow his thoughts and to find associations and meanings of our own.
Karen E. Milbourne