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Altar

Object Name
asen
Maker
Fon artist
Date
Mid-20th century
Type
Sculpture
Medium
Iron, paint, raffia
Dimensions
H x W x D: 76.5 x 23.3 x 22.9 cm (30 1/8 x 9 3/16 x 9 in.)
Credit Line
Gift of Walt Disney World Co., a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company
Object number
2005-6-265
Label Text
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 iron support rods. Significant amounts of paint still survive on this example, although the application of water as a sacrifice and the resulting rust has removed much of the color.
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. Asen are more difficult to interpret, however, since the individual details often use puns and refer to proverbs and personal names. The Fon say that the only people who can fully read the symbols of an asen are its maker and the donor who commissioned it. The snake swallowing the frog could have several meanings.
The seated figure represents the deceased. Here he wears a flared tunic that very likely depicts an intra-African import. So called warrior tunics reflect the transformation of Islamic-influenced garb into a ceremonial costume found from Sierra Leone to Nigeria. This type of garment is documented in the Kingdom of Dahomey in both royal costumes and on depictions of the god of war.
The stool reflects the 20th-century reality that anyone can borrow royal idiom or literally sit on a royal throne on an asen. The stool was a traditional royal symbol of rank. Here the stool is emphasized, its scale greater than its occupant.
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." It also has a chameleon climbing a tree, emblem of Lisa, the male half of the creator couple.
The banana tree is a common Ouidah motif and refers to the proverb "After the banana tree remains its child." This metaphor refers to the plant's growth cycle, since the mature banana tree dies after producing fruit and a new shoot. The Fon hope is that an elder who dies will be succeeded by the next generation.
Description
Altar composed of an iron disk on an iron rod supported by radiating umbrella rods. The disk supports a male figure seated on a stool, a green painted banana tree, a cross, a snake swallowing a frog and a chameleon on a tree (symbol of Lisa). Flat triangular forms depend from the edge of the disk.
Data Source
National Museum of African Art
See more items in
National Museum of African Art Collection
Geography
Benin