“Avotita” or the applied canvas of the Fon: a multifunctional art
“Avotita” is the art of applied canvas also called wall hanging. It is a production of the material culture of the Fon, a socio-cultural group from the southern region of Benin, a country in West Africa. The Fon are the descendants of the powerful kingdom of Dànxòmέ (pronounced Danhomin) which developed in this part of Africa mainly between the 17th century and the end of the 19th century, with Abomey as its capital.
“Avotita” would be a cultural product borrowed from the Fon. In this hypothesis, its appearance in Abomey would be linked to the various contacts with foreign countries as well as to the expansionist and assimilative character of the kingdom of Dànxòmέ which tended to appropriate the cultural models of the conquered communities that it deems useful for its own. cultural influence.
The date of appearance of the applied canvas of the Fon remains imprecise, certain historical sources placing it under the reign of King Agadja (1685-1708) and others under that of King Agonglo (1789 -1797). However, the “avotita” experienced a certain boom thanks to King Agonglo, known for his pronounced taste for aesthetics and the art of weaving in particular. Dreaming of adding artistic talents to the warlike prowess of the kingdom of Dànxòmέ, this sovereign created favorable conditions for the promotion of artisanal and artistic creation in Abomey.
The art of “avotita” consists of the application of a series of patterns or drawings-images (pictograms or iconograms) on textile supports (fabric, fabric, canvas, etc.). The arrangement of the iconograms aims to produce a purely aesthetic effect or to develop a message. The pictograms used are figurative in nature, but they can also present a form of aesthetic realism. The motifs generally represent men, women, animals, trees, flowers and objects of various kinds. They thus refer to the human, animal and plant kingdoms.
The message of the “avotita” is often allegorical, that is a pictorial representation of metaphorical ideas or speeches. The emblems or coats of arms of the kings of Dànxòmέ, treated in the “avotita” and dealing for the most part with the notions of challenge and power, constitute a perfect illustration of this allegorical approach.
From a semiological point of view, the message of “avotita” is based on a mixed syntax. In other words, the iconograms can be read vertically or horizontally. It is facilitated by the relevance of the order of the patterns-drawings, that is to say their position in relation to each other. However, this order is not systematically relevant or logical, as evidenced by some wall hangings illustrating war scenes, on which the arrangement of the motifs does not seem based on internal consistency.
The applied canvas of the Fon is made on the basis of patchwork, a sewing technique that consists of assembling several pieces of fabric of different sizes, shapes and colors to make different types of work. But originally, the “avotita” was made from dried leaves or flowers, sewn onto a strip of woven raffia, using a twig serving as a needle and a raffia fiber as a wire.
Depending on the different uses, it is possible to classify the applied canvas by the Fon into seven (7) categories: (i) the original hanging, (ii) the royal “avotita” (realization of iconograms on outfits and accessories of royal pageantry including parasol, parasol, hammock, headgear, etc.), (iii) topographic map hanging (schematic representation on fabric of the enemy’s strategic locations serving as a plan of attack for the generals of the kingdom of Dànxòmέ), (iv) the hanging-message, (v) the hanging-story (illustration of great historical facts, scenes of war, raids as well as legendary or mythical characters), (vi) the hanging – decoration and (vii) the wall hanging-illustration.
The uses of “avotita” among the Fon allow us to identify six (6) main functions that this art helps to fulfill.
The aesthetic function consists in expressing the beautiful in an original way. The “avotita” is a work of creation in which the fertility of the imagination and the ingenuity of the mind find a space of expression allowing the artist-craftsman to “draw” his physical, socio-cultural or symbolic environment.
The art of “avotita” is part of the logic of what Reverend Father Engelbert Mveng calls the “universal law of Negro-African aesthetic creation” (Mveng, 1980: p.34).
The political function: the “avotita” constitutes an intermediary medium for the king’s political communication, mainly through his ceremonial clothes and the messages conveyed by the iconograms applied to it. The king being an extraordinary character is adorned with the most beautiful outfits, made by the most talented specialists. Such an aesthetic demonstration is intended to reinforce in the collective consciousness, the idea that the king constitutes the supreme authority, to whom belong all the goods and treasures. The royal authority is thus consolidated and legitimized with each official release. The aesthetics of the king’s ceremonial clothes also had the psychological effect of reinforcing among the people the feeling of nationalism and of belonging to a powerful and prosperous state. As C. Paulis emphasizes, “clothing is an active means of communication. It makes it possible to pass a message from oneself to others through a system of complicit knowledge “(Paulis in SFEZ et al., 1993: p. 452).
The cathartic function: catharsis is the mechanism by which a social, cultural or religious practice leads to the appeasement of tension at the level of the community or at the level of individuals. The cathartic function of applied art derives more or less from its political function. It is reflected in the process by which the king sends messages of appeasement to his adversaries in a roundabout and pictorial manner, through his emblems or the iconograms drawn on his ceremonial clothes.
The laudatory and / or educational function: the iconograms of the “avotita” relating to the royal emblems and to the representations of mythical or legendary figures of the kingdom allow a legitimization of the royal power by the constant reminder of historical deeds, currencies, promises and the ideology contained in each of these emblems. The people are thus led to always magnify the greatness and the power of kings, the feats accomplished by soldiers who particularly distinguished themselves in war by their courage and their bravery as well as the protective force of the gods and other mythical figures represented in the applied fabrics. The laudatory function of the “avotita” thus doubles as an educational one, because it is a question of signifying courage and bravery to arouse admiration and the desire to match the model.
The social function: thanks to its ability to convey allegorical messages, the “avotita” serves as a support for social intermediation in communication situations where the actors involved choose to speak to each other in a roundabout and pictorial manner. The areas where the hanging message is most observed are those of rivalry, wisdom and especially the language of love. The latter is the domain par excellence where language is poetic, therefore figurative.
The military function: it is associated with the specific type of “avotita” called the topographic map hanging. Its use as an instrument for topographical identification and support for an attack plan for enemy zones reflects its importance in the military strategy of Dànxòmέ’s army.
Comments on the topic
The “avotita” is more than just a piece of art. Its uses and functions linked to the diversity of its types go beyond its purely aesthetic dimension and reveal it as a medium, that is to say a communication medium.
In addition, the art of “avotita” based on pictogram drawings appears as pictographic, symbolic and meaningful writing. It thus turns out to be a mnemonic device for bypassing the fleeting nature of speech, fixing and preserving facts and ideas in time in a civilization of orality. Georges Jean writes to this end that “the sign-image, like the sign-writing, initially possesses qualities of conservation and transmission” (Jean, 1989: p.106).
Moreover, the art of “avotita” among the Fon can be appreciated from a dual heritage perspective, both tangible and intangible. It is a tangible heritage by its materiality as well as its ability to produce and preserve messages and ideas over time, thus establishing the bridge between the past and the present. The “avotita” is also part of the intangible dimension of heritage insofar as its different uses and functions as well as the decryption of its messages refer to the intangible cultural universe of the Fon. It is like an open door to the culture of the Fon, in its most abstract and profound, its beliefs, collective representations, norms and values.
The safeguard and the promotion of the “avotita” are essential to preserve this multifunctional art which constitutes an original and rich heritage among the Fon.
N.B. : This article was written on the basis of academic research. See METOGNON Epiphane Serge Marc-Aurèl, Communicational values of Avotita, tapestry Fon. Essay in the anthropology of communication, Master’s thesis in sociology-anthropology, National University of Benin, 2000.
Epiphane Serge Metognon