- Asen, Ancestors and Vodun: Tracing Change in African Art
Edna Bay’s voice is important among the dedicated chorus of scholars of the Dahomey kingdom. Now part of the territory comprising modern-day Benin on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, Dahomey served as one of the major West African trading and export partners for Europeans before and during the colonial era. Bay draws from the colonial archives and her own deep scholarly engagement with Dahomey over the past thirty years to trace the changing historical role of a single object type—the iron Asen staff—from its first appearance in the colonial texts, where it was sometimes correctly identified as a tool to venerate and communicate with ancestral spirits, but more typically portrayed simply as a “fetish” or religious “idol.” She then moves on to discuss the changing uses and appearances of Asen ever since, up to their slow and, according to Bay, natural decline in Benin cultural production today.
As used in ceremonies for Vodun (the local religion predating Christianity in the region), Asen consist of a long metal staff surmounted by an inverted metal cone that serves as a stage for small figures arranged in tableau narratives (a single sculpted animal or human element, or in some cases, abstract shapes). These stagelike platforms are frequently fringed [End Page 217] with cast or hammered bells or other decorative shapes, which dangle from the object and swing freely with the movement of the Asen. Bay documents some staffs that contain Christian religious imagery on their tops, indicating the flexibility and adaptiveness of the Vodun religion as it expanded to accommodate Christian symbols during the era of colonial contact.
Bay’s long engagement with the history of Dahomey—and with the work of her colleagues working on Dahomey cultural history—is amply demonstrated here in the breadth of her footnotes and her generous acknowledgment of the contributions of others (past and present) to her own findings. But an additional strength is in the way Bay makes this cultural history accessible to nonspecialists in the field. Her focused approach makes the historical material of a complex society more manageable for those less familiar with Dahomey. In addition, the writing is clear and free of jargon, making this text one that could be used with undergraduate students. Most gratifying is Bay’s honest approach to the decline of Asen production in recent times. Rather than continuing to embrace the “salvage” methodology previously espoused in African studies (whereby scholars held to a moral obligation to document a “declining” culture’s history from the destructive influences of the modern West), Bay simply acknowledges that the world changes, and traditions die only when they cease to accommodate the demands of changing social conditions. With the disappearance of monarchical rule in Dahomey and the transition to colonial and postcolonial governments and religion, the most powerful patronage group for Asen—the royal court—disappeared as well.
But Asen did not disappear; it simply changed. Bay notes that the colonial period democratized the use of Asen, as the decline of monarchical patrons meant that artists reached out to the lower classes, making more affordable and smaller Asen, and thus allowing more people to possess these objects. Yet as only the wealthy could afford a truly spectacular Asen staff, with the demise of the wealthy monarchy came the decline of artistic Asen masterpieces. Finally, with colonialism came a new religious tradition (Christianity) along with interest in new types of religious objects. Bay argues, therefore, that a two-layered change occurred: as Asen proliferated among less-elite groups, the quality and expense of the objects declined; meanwhile, the concurrent introduction of Christian practices meant that the spiritual significance of Asen within the tradition of Vodun declined as well. While some Asen incorporated Christian imagery, the objects found little favor among Christian patrons, and metalworkers subsequently turned their energies toward producing Christian ceremonial objects. As with the history of other classes of African aesthetic objects...