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Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou

Updated: Mar 10, 2019

Artist 79

Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou Egungun Masquerades Photography

Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou (Born 1965) is a photographer from Porto-Novo, Benin.

Photographic portraiture underwent impressive expansion in West Africa with the advent of independence that swept the continent in the 1950s and 1960s. It provided a sense of pride expressed in fashion, music and all aspects of social life that leaked into photographers’ studios.

In most coastal cities photographers played a significant role in creating an archive of these developments, making the movements immortal.

Leonce Agbodjelou founded the first Photography School in Benin. He serves as the President of the Photographer’s Association of Porto-Noevo.

Egungun Masquerades is Agbodjélou’s first solo exhibition in South Africa and our focus for today.

Agbodjelou explores his native tradition of Egungun: a religious festival among the Yoruba of Nigeria whose main aim is to appease dead spirits.

This series depicting incarnations of the Yoruba tribe’s ancestral forebears, who appear at funerals and annual festivals in ritualised parades, magical feats and colourful pageantry.

In these photographs, Agbodjélou explores the complex role of the Egungun, capturing both their individual personalities and mannerisms, while emphasising their unequivocal presence as enigmatic spiritual manifestations.

By depicting the divine ancestors of Yoruba-speaking people he has discovered, “I think what interested me the most about these performances were the dynamic tensions that occur between this world and the next. My individual portraits of Egungun try to confront this “betwixt and between” quality, as ancestral visitors are temporarily made manifest to aid and guide the lineages to which they belong.”

Today the Egungun masqueraders fulfill multiple functions in addition to being guides to the afterworld, performing the ceremony of cleansing the community prior to the rainy season, or delighting crowds with acrobatics and magical displays.

When questioned on the subject Agbodjélou has said, “Egungun masqueraders are a part of my local culture. For me, the Egungun use public performance to tap into a narrative of localised Yoruba memories, personalised histories and ritual. They play a fundamental role in upholding the ethical values of the community.”

Agbodjélou calls these portraits that capture both the individual personalities and quirks of the Egungun while marking out their power and elusiveness as liminal visitors from the world of the dead.


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