Asen Altar

Republic of Benin, Fon. Early 20th century
Iron, steel, wood, paint, sacrificial material
1999.3.2
Ex coll. William S. Arnett

An asen is an altar commemorating a deceased person in the Fon culture. Family members in the world of the dead maintain an active role in the world of their living relatives and asen facilitates communion between these two realms. Periodically, food offerings are placed upon the asen, or libations are poured over it, in order to please the deceased.

This asen was made in the coastal city of Ouidah, infamous as a slave port for France, Britain, Holland, and Portugal. By the end of the slave trade in the 19th century Ouidah’s most important inhabitants were Afro-Brazilians, freed slaves returning from the Portuguese plantations of Brazil. The Brazilian influence is seen in the tableau of objects on the platform. The commemorated person sits on an ornate chair instead of an African stool, wearing a European stovepipe hat and clothes (status symbols indicating the wealth and standing of the deceased).

The Christian cross indicates a familiarity with Portuguese Catholicism and coexists alongside older Fon symbolic motifs. For example, the banana tree, which dies after producing fruit, but not before replacing itself with a new shoot, suggests the continuity of the family. The lion is a symbol of the king of Dahomey and the chameleon atop the tree signifies transformation. The tethered goat and roosters represent food offerings made to the deceased.

JESSICA STEPHENSON, CURATOR OF AFRICAN ART: ASENS AT THE CARLOS MUSEUM