All over the world, cultures create fabrics whose designs (woven, painted, or printed) are not merely decorative, but significant—that is, they tell histories, identify their villages of origin, incorporate information about the weaver or the wearer, possess sacred meaning, and so on.
Three of the West African fabric designs are bogolanfini (Mali), korhogo (Côte d’Ivoire) and Fon appliqué (Benin).
Fon appliqué is a traditional celebratory fabric art that has been associated with the court of Dahomey for some 300 years, achieving such status that Fon appliquéd cloths were given to other nations as tokens of friendship.
European accounts from the mid-nineteenth century illustrate the presence of appliquéd cloths for use as tents, umbrellas and wall hangings. Even since the 1890s, when the Fon kingdom was officially defeated by the French, appliqués continued to be used as emblems of power and authority for enduring royalty and other leadership contexts. For example, men’s social groups, which share work or expenses of funerals, still use appliquéd banners. Such cloths also console mourners at funerals, where the cloths are referred to as “the cloth to dry your tears.”
The appliqués were made by Fon men and boys belonging to a family guild that passed designs down generation by generation. The guilds maintained vast collections of visual images that a client could specify for a banner. The kings then controlled the production and use of these works of art for the purpose of presenting themselves in splendor to the people. The artisans executed these designs to the specifications of their kings and they were hung as banners of battle in the palaces. Each textile depicts the story of a king, chief or warrior and tells of their achievements in history, often in symbolic form.
Several steps are involved in making the appliquéd cloth. The shape of the objects is cut out and tacked onto a backcloth to hold them in position; this flexibility allows for easy changes of place in the design. When an artist is satisfied with his composition, he hems the pattern into its definite form after tucking in the edges. The artist also pays a lot of attention to the outside borders of the background cloth which are treated as though they were a picture frame.
The banners were displayed on special occasions on rooftops, on pavilions, on large umbrellas and on hats worn by royalty. The banner is read from left to right and from top to bottom, beginning with the oldest, most ancient kings and ending with the last kings before the country was claimed by France.
There were often many symbols for any particular king because the meaning of an image might reflect a distinctive characteristic of the king, such as his strength, or it might commemorate a specific event during the king’s reign, or it might relate to a magical story about the king. The artists design the composition, using the image against a dark or contrasting background. In terms of style, the images – birds, animals, people, weapons and, occasionally, plant life such as vines and trees and fruit – were simple, direct and minimal. They could be readily identified with the essence of the object. As such, they became symbols rather than detailed reproductions.
Some common symbols:
Tegbessou: the buffalo wearing a tunic. “A buffalo wearing clothing is difficult to disrobe.” Under King Tegbessou, Oyo (Yoruba) captured Abomey, and thereafter an annual tribute, including 41 young men and 41 young women to serve as slaves, had to be sent to Oyo.
Kpengla: the sparrow. “The stone in the water does not fear the cold.” This represents the king who died of smallpox, as did many Dahomean kings.
Agonglo: the pineapple. This means “Lightning falls on the palm tree, but the pineapple escapes it.”
Atagdoujiuhoun: the Yoruba king Atagdoujiuhoun being hanged. Glele had captured him as he had been selling Dahomeans as slaves. When Glele died, Behanzin hanged the Yoruba.
Behanzin: the shark and the egg. “The world holds the egg which the ground wants.” This represents the last great king of Dahomey. Conflict with the French led to his downfall. He was taken to Martinique where he died. Although his bones were returned to Abomey for burial, many Dahomeans preferred to believe he had changed himself into a bird and survived.
Houegbadja: the fish and the wicker fish trap. “The fish which escapes from the trap does not return.” The represents the second king of Dahomey who was also a cultural hero. He is credited with solidifying control of the plateau of Abomey and, among other things, introducing weaving to the people.
Ago-Li-Agbo: the foot, the pebble, the bow and the broom. “Allada tripped but did not fall.” This represents a king who was considered a puppet of the French, so he is not usually included in the list of true kings.
Gangnihuessou: the bird and the drum. This represents the older brother of the first king.
Ghezo: the buffalo without clothing. “No cardinal-bird with red tail and wings ever starts a brush-fire.” This represents a powerful king who freed Dahomey from Oyo in 1827. He was in direct contact with the Ashanti king. He was defeated by the Egba at Abeokuta in 1851. Although considered humane, he refused to stop the sale of slaves.
Spindle: the spindle is another symbol of Gezo. “As the thread comes close to the spindle, people should come close to Gezo for protection.”
Agadja: the ship “Nobody could set fire to the tree fallen with all its limbs and green leaves.” Agadja represents a king who conquered Whydah and extended his rule to the sea. The first to contact Europeans, his graphic symbol is a European vessel. He also conquered Allada, thus establishing the kingdom of Dahomey as it was known to the whites.
Akaba: the boar. “Slowly, softly, the chameleon reaches the top of the bombax tree.” This represents the son of Houegbadja the last king to rule before the coming of the Europeans.
Glele: the Lion. “The lion’s teeth are fully grown, and he is the terror of all.”
Dako: the jar of indigo and the flint (strike-a-light). “Dako kills his mother-in-law and the jar of indigo rolls.” In some traditional histories this is said to be a chief of the Fon who murdered a neighbouring chief named Da, cut open his belly, Home, and built a palace on the body at Abomey, thus the Kingdom of Dahomey.
The head of two enemy chiefs: these were defeated and ordered to live in Abomey. They refused to do so, and were killed. Their heads were set on the house which had been built for them.
Today in Benin and elsewhere the appliqué continues to contain the simple, symbolic images of the older traditions. However, the pieces are less likely to contain the aggressive and war-like images of the older royal messages. Now made both for tourists and local consumption, Fon appliquéd cloths are endearingly symbolic to the locals and as items of trade.
This profile is a condensed version of “Decoding The Symbolism Of Bogolanfini, Korhogo And Fon Fabrics” by M. Akrofi, S. P. Ocran, and R. Acquaye.
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