Asen: Forged Memories of Iron in Dahomey Vodun Art

Geneva, 18 January 2019

The Musée Barbier-Mueller in Geneva is presenting until 26 May 2019 a special exhibition focused on its collection of asen, portable metal altars from the former kingdom of Dahomey, in what is now the Republic of Benin.

Asen are characterized by a circular tray adorned with iron pendants on its perimeter and decorated with figurative scenes of humans, animals and plants alluding to the honoured dead and to southern Benin’s history. The tray rests on a shaft planted in the ground of the asenxo (asen house) where the family’s deceased are commemorated and evoked in annual ceremonies. In front of the asen, the living meet the dead, speak to them and question them, and offer them propitiatory sacrifices.

In local tradition, asen were also closely identified with healing rites, protection and divination, as well as the transfer of knowledge from the spirit world to the earthly world in Vodun temples and other settings. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, as the Dahomey court grew in power, this function shifted towards a more commemorative role exclusively for the royal family. At the Abomey court, capital of the Fon kingdom of the Dahomey, each king and kpojito (the woman who personifies the ruler after his death) was identified with their own asen. The royal asen were brought out during annual “custom” rites. Historically they were positioned near the spirit house of the royal ancestors and initially covered with a cloth. Once the cloth was removed, the asen received, against a backdrop of incantations or songs, libations and other offerings, including yam, corn, and beans, from the dadasi (paternal aunt).

Detail of an asen by the Master of the Curved Horn Ram. Ouidah, Republic of Benin. Mid to late nineteenth century. Iron. H. 154 cm; diam. 33.5 cm. Inv. 1010-67. Musée Barbier-Mueller, photo Luis Lourenço.

With colonization, asen were no longer the royal family’s privilege and their use became widespread. Iron, delicately forged, suggesting metal as soft as paper or cloth, as Harvard professor Suzanne Preston Blier, exhibition curator and author of the catalog noted, was not, from the early twentieth century, the only material of choice. Fon artists mastered the lost wax casting method after 1906, enabling them to produce series of copper alloy figures.

Detail of an asen by the Hountondji royal guild members. Abomey, Republic of Benin. Twentieth century. Iron and copper alloy. H. 139 cm; diam. 30 cm. Inv. 1010-66. Musée Barbier-Mueller, photo Luis Lourenço.

In Vodun the deceased are part of the living world. In order to honour a deceased relative’s memory, a family orders the fashioning of an asen twelve to eighteen months after death. A celebration is organized and all the descendants gather. A song to the deceased’s memory is composed and the asen is planted in the ground. This tradition is still alive. Dr Blier looked at the detailed delicacy as well as the figurative characteristics to identify five artists who created the sixty-five asen in the exhibition, dating from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1950s.

Detail of an asen by the Master of the Long Tunic. Ouidah, Republic of Benin. Late nineteenth century. Iron. H. 108 cm; diam. 32 cm. Inv. 1010-38. Musée Barbier-Mueller, photo Luis Lourenço.


Asen: Forged Memories of Iron in Dahomey Vodun ArtMusée Barbier-Mueller Rue Jean Calvin, 10. 1204 Genève / +41 22 312 02 70 / Until May 26, 2019

  • The Musée Barbier-Mueller is open 365 days per year, from 11 am to 5 pm.
  • Entrance fee: adults 8.-Frs; students, seniors, disabled, unemployed, groups: 5.-Frs; children younger than 12 years old and schools: FREE.
  • Guided tours once in the month and on demand.
  • The exhibition catalogue Asen : mémoires de fer forgé, art vodun du Danhomè by Dr Suzanne Preston Blier is on sale at the museum bookshop and online For any request for high resolution images: or +41 22 312 02 73.