Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou became acquainted with photography at an early age, thanks to his father, Joseph Moise Agbodjelou (1912–2000), one of Benin’s most senior photographers. The father had learnt his photographic skills during the 1930s in France, when he was conscripted to the army. Upon returning to Benin he opened a studio, France Photo, and photographed weddings, funerals, religious ceremonies, political meetings and, of course, portraits
Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou began his photographic career together with his father, as they travelled around with a portable studio, inviting people to have their portrait taken against a background of colorful fabrics and various objects. He continues his father’s heritage not only in his ongoing documentation of his native Porto-Novo, but also in his commitment to photography: he founded Benin’s first Photography School. He exchanges his father’s black-and-white photographs with vibrantly colorful photographs that reflect various aspects of a society undergoing change. The “Musclemen” series is a clear reference to the staged studio photographs popular not only in Benin but throughout western Africa. Agbodjelou takes the liberty of presenting his subjects in an amused manner—the bodybuilders are draped in traditional fabrics with flowered motifs, with sunglasses and plastic flowers, blatantly externalizing both their muscles and their vanity. They are simultaneously too masculine and too feminine, as they merge into the resplendent background that envelops them.
The Untitled Triptych from the series “Les Demoiselles de Porto-Novo” holds a layered dialogue with artistic influences that shift back and forth between Africa and the West. Its structure and the deep perspective gaze are typically linked with iconic Christian traditions, and the title directly refers to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), a painting that makes references to African masks and sculptures. The photograph was taken in Agbodjelou’s 19th-century colonial-Portuguese family home, whose walls echo Porto-Novo’s past as a port for the slave trade. On the triptych’s right, a black-and-white photograph taken by Agbodjelou’s father is attached to the murky mirror. In the center, a female figure is naked, wearing a mask, seemingly protesting her symbolic-African identity as it is viewed through western eyes. On the blue wall behind her, an old calendar-poster bearing the image of Samuel Bilehou Joseph Oshoffa, an eminent priest in Porto-Novo, Yoruba-born and founder of the Celestial Church of Christ, active mostly in Benin and Nigeria. The photograph, with its multitude of visual political, religious and cultural signs, builds up to a complex portrait of a post-colonial society that redefines its past and identity through awareness of the western gaze it faces.
1965 Porto-Novo, Republic of Benin
Porto-Novo, Republic of Benin