Life & Afterlife in Benin

Life & Afterlife in Benin.
Edited with texts by Okwui Enwezor and Alex van Gelder.

Phaidon, London, 2005. 136 pp., 80 duotone illustrations, 9¾x11″.

In the same tradition as the well-known portrait photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, with backdrops and occasional props, the photographers in Life & Afterlife in Benin go beyond just the studio portrait. Nine Beninese photographers, Benoît Adjovi, Jean Agbétagbo, Joseph Moïse Agbodjélou, Bouraïma Akodji, Léon Ayékoni, Christophe Mahoukpé, Sébastien Méhinto AKA Pigeon, Edouard Méhomé, and Camille Tchawlassou, have been brought together by Alex Van Gelder. Their photographs show the viewer a varied spectrum of life and reverence of death in this small West African country in the latter half of the 20th-century. Included are family portraits, portraits of friends, spiritual photos and rites of passage, photographs of prisoners, theatrical portraits, personal portraits that show off the subject’s character or special possessions, and deathbed portraits. Commissioned locally and photographed by locals, it is true that there is an absence of an original ethnographic agenda. And Van Gelder writes, in the preface, that he “did not approach [these photographs] from the usual anthropological or sociological perspective.” However, many of the photographs are captioned by ethnicity and therefore do signify a specific perspective. In his essay, Okwui Enwezor, a leading scholar in African art and photography, begins the scholarly discourse by discussing the work from an art-historical perspective. Moved from private collections into a more public one, these records of existence have become art. And I would add that these photographs will have an impact on African photography in much the same way that Disfarmer’s images have had and continue to have on photography in the United States. Regardless, the images are simple, enticing and present the viewer with a telling portrait of Dahomey before independence and Benin after. Phaidon, with Life & Afterlife in Benin, continues to enrich our understanding of African photography. – Larissa Leclair

Originally published in the Photo-eye Booklist, Winter 2005.