« I have to be a jack-of-all-trades »

Interview with Erick Ahounou, Beninese photographer, by Oliver Barlet

Cotonou, November 2000
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You would appear to be the only  » artistic  » photographer in Benin?
Yes, I’m the only photographer to have held an exhibition for the moment. There is quite a group of us but maybe the other photographers don’t want to take the plunge in the same way that I have. Each person puts in the time they need to.
What prompted you do this?
Without being xenophobic, I do have to say that the outsiders shouldn’t always be the ones who come to exploit a signature, or exploit what we consider our cultural richness. There are lots of books on Benin, but unfortunately none by Beninese photographers. No matter how sincere the outsider’s intentions are when photographing typically Beninese subjects, they will always have an outsider’s gaze, which is not always best. So, I figured I might as well give it a go!
My current project – facial scarifications – is very financially demanding. Up until now, I’ve worked without grants but I’m not sure that I can do this on my own. All the same, I decided to start it so that I can show what I want to do and what I’ve already done when asking for a grant to finish it.
Why did you choose this subject?
The project isn’t just about facial scarifications. Having already done an exhibition on The Naked Body, I didn’t want to work on the same kind of subject about the body again, since scarifications are done all over the body. For the moment, I only want to work on the scarifications and tattoos that are disappearing – for history’s sake and for our young people, so they aren’t lost. As I progressed, I realised that we had miscalculated because, for the moment, we don’t know exactly how many scarifications and tattoos there are in Benin, although there are close to 50 different socio-cultural groups. There are ritual scarifications, non-identity-related scarifications that adhere to medicinal principles in order to heal or protect the wearer, and identity-related scarifications. Identity-related scarifications are more closely related to those corresponding to socio-cultural groups. There is another type of scarification, called abikou, which is performed on newborn babies of mothers that have already lost several children, to help them survive. Since cultural traditions vary around the country (there are several types of abikou scarifications, for example), which makes it a pretty big task. I am going to have to focus my work and be quite specific about what I want to do.
The objective is to produce a catalogue of all scarifications, in order to preserve their memory?
Yes. My biggest aim is to identify – for each of the 50 or so socio-cultural groups – all the scarifications in our culture. My real aim is to create a veritable inventory that historians and sociologists can subsequently work on in more depth. I don’t want to tread on their toes. My task is one of conservation.
But the photos are far from standardised. You have used a different frame and have a different approach for each person. You have introduced an artistic touch to your work.
This is true. I have to introduce a slightly personal touch and try and avoid making them look like identity or prison photos because our ancestors were veritable artists with what they managed to draw on the body. Sometimes the subject’s right profile is different to their left profile and you have to choose one. Furthermore, the photo has to be aesthetically pleasing, for the person to accept to having it exhibited. Personally, I don’t like the term « photogenic ». The important thing is that I succeed in rendering the person, that is, show the person as they are.
It would appear that you have chosen quite a different theme to Zemidjans or The Naked Body, that you previously chose to work on, and yet, there also seems to be a certain continuity …
The Naked Body, Zemidjans and the portraits I am working on at the moment all concern people. The human factor is present in all of these subjects.
The Naked Body was very popular – 3000 people visited the exhibition. Scarifications won’t be quite as successful, will it?
The Naked Body was only successful because it is forbidden. I will continue work on the naked body when I can find Beninese women willing to pose without their faces covered. However, if I manage to do what I want to with Scarifications I have a good chance of attracting an audience as well. I also want to make a 26-minute documentary and a book on it. With this theme, maturity is the subject now.
Is it possible to make a living from artistic photography in Benin?
It’s too hard to specialise. Personally, I have to be a jack-of-all-trades, have to do everything. I try – while avoiding the trap of vulgarity – to choose subjects that I can treat in depth. The Naked Body had that kind of success. People bought the photos, and I’ve been lucky enough to exhibit a part of the full exhibition in other places. But for Scarifications, I won’t be able to sell the photos – unless the book is made.
You were recently at a photo exhibition of African photographers in Holland. What was your impression when you saw the works of other African photographers?
This shows that in Africa, with the meagre means available to us, we still manage to produce quality work. The West needs to understand that African photographers are worth using. This is one of the struggles that I want to be involved in.
You do something not often seen in Europe – a pre-exhibition. Before you have completed your project you invite criticism.
I’ve done this for each exhibition. Making my work public is a way of creating a relationship built on trust and transparency, a way of proving that I have done what I said I would do. It’s also a safety measure that enables me to maintain ownership of my subject. It could have a very negative effect, but that’s a risk that I’m prepared to take.
Scarifications are marks imposed by a particular culture, the community’s mark. Do you regard them as a sign of beauty?
Initially, I wanted to remain neutral and not make any value judgements, but in all honesty I was touched by how much scarifications added to the bearer’s beauty. Sometimes, the bearer thinks they’re ugly. People who have travelled to Europe have noticed that Westerners find scarifications intriguing and they are often seen as lending a touch of « savageness » to the person. Nevertheless, in Europe, some people have tattoos done voluntarily!
For example, I have a photo of a father and son. The father has a scarification but his son doesn’t. The son would like to have scarifications but the father, who doesn’t like his, doesn’t want his son to have any! It is true that for the sake of modernity we shouldn’t go quite so far, but whether we like it or not, they are a part of our culture!

Contact: Telephone 00229-95 21 51 – Email: [email protected]///Article N° : 5539

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