Applique Cloth with Lion
The Fon peoples of Benin (in pre-colonial times called Dahomey) have a special tradition of textile art that reaches back 300 years. These works are cotton banners, some quite large, on which the symbols of the kings of Dahomey and other symbols of their political power were appliqued. The kings controlled the use and production of these works of art for the purpose of presenting themselves in splendor to the people. The banners were displayed on special occasions on rooftops, on pavilions, on large umbrellas and on hats worn by royalty.
The banners were created by family guilds that specialized in textile applique. The guilds maintained vast collections of visual images that a client could specify for a banner. A frequent subject matter for banners were the symbols of the twelve kings of Dahomey.
The banner was to be read from left to right and from top to bottom, beginning with the oldest, most ancient kings and ending with the last kings before the country was claimed by France. There were often many symbols for any particular king because the meaning of an image might reflect a distinctive characteristic of the king, such as his strength, or it might commemorate a specific event during the king's reign, or it might relate a magical story about the king.
The guild's artist would then design the composition, using the image against a dark or contrasting background. In terms of style, the images - birds, animals, people, weapons and, occasionally, plant life such as vines and trees and fruit - were simple, direct and minimal. They could be readily identified with the essence of the object. As such, they became symbols rather than detailed reproductions.
While the symbols for many of the kings were animals or birds or the head of a defeated enemy placed in a pot, the symbol for King Agadja was quite special. King Agadja ruled during the period when slaves from Dahomey were taken to Louisiana, that is, between 1719 and 1732. His symbol was a huge sailing ship, a European caravel boat.
Appliqued cloths made today in Benin and in the US continue to contain the simple, symbolic images of the older traditions. However, the works are less likely to contain the aggressive and war like images of the older royal messages.