Emerging from the "Gates of No Return"

Article excerpt

Timed to coincide with Britain's Black History Month in October, Benin's Julien Sinzogan brings his first solo art exhibition to the UK--Spirit Worlds--which explores an unexpected aspect of the Atlantic Slave Trade--its spiritual dimension. Sinzogan believes that the real crime of slavery was the loss to the communities that remained in Africa, including the protective spirits of ancestors who did not return. But as Juliet Highet reports, while Sinzogan's visionary work also reveals journeys between the "real" or tangible world and the invisible spirit world of the slave trade, this is not a tale of doom and gloom. His message has redemptive and healing qualities.

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JULIEN SINZOGAN'S POWERFUL art is showing at the appropriately named October Gallery, in a month that celebrates black history throughout the United Kingdom. In a previous exhibition at the same venue, called Voyages, Sinzogan depicted the "Gates of No Return"--forts, prisons and ports built by slave-trading nations that poisoned the West African coastline for so many centuries. The "gates" were the last prison gates through which so many millions of slaves were driven, before being forced to board ships, almost all of them never to return.

Sinzogan says: "There are voyages which should never have been--the Middle Passage for example. There are spiritual voyages, such as a meeting with a babalawo [a divining priest] well-known for travelling between visible and invisible worlds ... and there are imaginary voyages, through Gates of Return, and Gates of No Return."

Rather than depicting these gates as just desperate points of departure and loss, they are also triumphant arrival points for African spirits returning home, a rejection of the miserable legacy of slavery. The ships in Spirit Worlds are not the dark stinking hulks of the Middle Passage; they are glorious phantom galleons whose "cargo" is now lost spirits, diviners and ancestral ghosts from the Caribbean and America. Racing towards the African coast, their sails billow with colour and the rich patterns of the costumes of Egungun masqueraders. In the Yoruba theology of Benin and Nigeria, a direct interface between the realm of the spirit and the so-called "normal" world occurs during the Egungun masquerades at certain times of the year, during which dancers wearing masks and elaborate costumes ritually re-enact the compact between ancestor spirits and their living "mortal" descendants.

Wole Soyinka describes the Yoruba spiritual world-view as "a cyclical reality", in which life is seen as a trajectory through which an individual arrives from another world, that of unborn spirits, experiences the tangible realm (aye), then departs to the spirit world (orun), and is either reborn or becomes an ancestor spirit. As long as the ancestors are properly remembered and venerated by those on earth, all will be well. But if an ancestor spirit is insulted, or worse still, forgotten, it can bequeath a disastrous impact. This is where the Egungun serve humanity, renewing the bond between ancestor spirits and their living descendants. One of the tableau in Spirit Worlds, entitled "Those on High", depicts Egungun spirits floating above humans. Sinzogan deploys his customary curious colour palette--the ships are monochrome drawn with pen and ink, their sails throb with painted colour, a flock of living birds are just white silhouettes, while the Egungun spirits are clothed in the symbolic patterns of specific lineages and families, writhing in apparent chaos--here a leg, there an arm, there a ghostly face, their Gate of Return longed for, but not yet entered.

Sinzogan was born in Porto Novo, Republic of Benin, once one of the largest slave-trading ports on the West African coast. …