30 September 2012
Last updated at 01:10
Dolls Never Die, at London’s October Gallery, is the latest exhibition by artist Gerard Quenum from Benin. Quenum is celebrated internationally for his sculptures made from discarded objects, in particular plastic dolls. Photos by Jonathan Greet.
So, why do dolls feature so prominently in Quenum’s work? “In Porto Novo, where I live, after a heavy rain storm, I saw a doll lying in the mud”, he told BBC Africa.
“This tiny face was looking at me. It was very intense. I pulled the doll out of the mud and took it back to my studio.”
“I always work with old things because in things which have been used for a long time there is a kind of life which inspires me, and with the head of the doll, when I put them together, it’s as if another life begins. The doll’s head animates all the other materials.”
This piece, called Flexing Muscle, was inspired by a doll’s head the artist was given. “When I saw this tiny head, there was also something big about it. So the large arm is like a force,” he said.
“There is something disproportionate about what man can achieve – even though we are tiny, our capacity to act is really enormous.”
The dolls Quenum uses are mass produced, imported and most were originally white, but what is important to him is that they have passed through the hands of African children. “Once they are played with by African children they change completely, they hold stories within them. They become unique.”
These two figures are entitled Babalawos - a babalawo being a diviner, a wise man, or healer in traditional West African culture. Benin is the birthplace of the voodoo religion but Quenum told BBC Africa that he sees his sculptures as totally different from voodoo figures.
This piece, New Cosmonaut, is not necessarily about someone going up into space, says Quenum. “Some people in Africa, when it’s incredibly hot, dress in jackets as if it was Europe. For me, this image is about the disproportionality of the clothing to the person who seems lost inside it.”
Works such as this one could be disturbing to some people, spooky even. Quenum agrees: “It’s not only in Benin, where people think these are something to do with voodoo, where some people don’t want these things in their homes. But there are people who like them and don’t see what lots of people see.”
Quenum says that voodoo figures are given power by someone who has intentionally possessed them, but his sculptures only have a powerful presence because of their journeys and the way they can captivate the viewer.
The little seeds on this piece, called Nomad on the Edge of the Desert, represent bees. Quenum says he finds nomads impressive: “They understand the laws of nature and can spend years in the desert, they know how to find something to eat, how to live without water. It was that doll’s face that made me think about all this.”
Benin, a tiny country in West Africa, punches above its weight in the art world, having produced creative and original talents such as Cyprien Tokoudagba, Georges Adeagbo, Romauld Hazoume, Edwige Aplogan, Tchif and Dominique Zinkpe. Quenum has a theory as to why Benin has so many great artists. “In voodoo everything spiritual is rooted in matter, so the material is very important in Benin. When I see something, I also see something else within which lots of people can’t see. Contemporary art is all about matter, and taking it, in a way, to a spiritual level.”