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Photo credit: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University

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Culture: Fon (Benin)
Title: Altar (Asen)
Medium: Iron
Dimensions: 40 x 11 inches (101.6 x 27.9 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Amyas Naegele, Class of 1978
Object Number: 99.092.020
Label Text: BRIEF DESCRIPTION
This is a commemorative altar, made to honor a particular Fon ancestor.

WHERE WAS IT MADE?
In the case of this Fon altar, the particulars of its style tell an informed eye what city it came from; this iron structure was made to honor a deceased Fon man from Ouidah, a city located near the coast of Benin in West Africa. Although altars similar in structure to this asen are made throughout southern Benin, the construction of this asen is unique to 20th-century Ouidah. Elsewhere, asen contain cast forms and figures, but only those made in Ouidah exclusively feature elements fashioned from cut iron. Ouidah asen are also known for their numerous figures and large, circular platforms.

HOW WAS IT MADE?
A blacksmith made this asen. To make the figures that you see on the top of the altar, he most likely cut or punched shapes from sheet metal and then hammered incised lines for added detail. Look at the base. Soldered to the platform are iron spokes, which are attached to the iron stake used to secure the asen in the ground. The blacksmith used rivets and bolts to attach the figures and decorative edges and objects that you see hanging from the sides of the platform.

HOW WAS IT USED?
This iron structure was made to honor a deceased Fon man from Ouidah, a city located near the coast of Benin in West Africa.

Although they were originally made for the exclusive use of the Fon elite, asens are now found within all social levels. In every Fon compound, there is a building called a dehoho, or family shrine. Within the building, asens honoring each deceased family member are stuck into the ground along with wooden figures called bocio (or bochio) that are covered with magical substances. To see a bocio in the Johnson Museum’s collection, search for object number 86.089.015 in the keyword search box.

At least once a year, the family “feeds” or honors the ancestors by offering drink, sacrificial libations such as animal blood, and finally food, to the asens. The family kneels and pays its respects to the spirits and then communes with them.

WHY DOES IT LOOK LIKE THIS?
Although altars similar in structure to this asen are made throughout southern Benin, the construction of this asen is unique to 20th-century Ouidah. Elsewhere, asen contain cast forms and figures, but only those made in Ouidah exclusively feature elements fashioned from cut iron.

Asen tableaux do not have a single corresponding meaning that is readily understood by a viewer. It is widely believed that only the maker and the family member who commissioned the asen fully comprehend its full significance. One constant, however, lies with the importance of the central, often seated, figure. He represents the deceased. The objects and figures that surround him may reference his occupation, his contributions to society or his family, or may simply be a playful pun of his name.

As a motif, a figure offering a calabash regularly appears on asen. The calabash is the vehicle by which the living make offerings of food and water to the dead. In fact, an asen is best understood as symbolically representing a calabash in form and function. The asen provides a smooth round “stage” upon which the figures act, and is an object that mediates between the living and the dead. In addition to its otherworld significance, the calabash is often associated with creation. Two halves are joined to make a whole, just as the creator couple, Mawu (female) and Lisa (male), joined to form the universe.

Notice the thick vertical column with the forked top; it represents a guardian spirit. It serves to thank the dead for his interaction with the living and to pray for continued support.

Look at the cross form. Although the Fon of Ouidah have long had communication with Europeans, the cross is not believed to have derived from Christianity. It references Mawu, the female creator figure, to whom the Fon turn for protection.

What appears at first glance to be a rounded archway behind the figures is actually the horned rainbow serpent, Dan Aido-huEdo. “Ni,” the Fon word for both rainbow and name, suggests that the serpent represents a pun. Arched over the deceased, the pun may be interpreted as symbolizing his personal resolve to honor the lineage name. The rainbow serpent may have further layers of significance: Dan connects thunder and the earth, thus transmitting souls to earth; and grants happiness and well-being to individuals.
The frog in a snake’s mouth refers to a Fon proverb in which a frog is saved by an invisible hand. Interpreted broadly, the saying suggests ancestral protection.

Notice the pig; it often recalls the proverb, “As long as the pig is free, no grass will grow in front of my father’s house.” In other words, the progeny of the deceased promise to tend to his altar and perform appropriate ceremonies to honor him.

In the past, the pendants that dangle from the rim of the asen often served as the artisan’s personal signature. This form of identification is rarely practiced today; the pendants’ forms merely replicate a popular motif.

Notice the paired disk and crescent; they may suggest the strength of the family: “All things grow large like the moon.” The pairing may also refer to dualism and the creator couple, Mawu and Lisa.

To see other Fon altars in the Johnson Museum’s collection, search for object numbers 2006.068.019 and 2007.089.001 in the keyword search box.

NOTE: This electronic record is compiled from historic documentation which may not reflect the Johnson Museum's complete or current knowledge of the object. Review and refinement of such records is ongoing.