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Commemorative Altar (Asen)

For the Fon, an asen is a visual symbol of the connection between the living and the dead. Each asen commemorates one deceased family member, and traditionally all of a family’s asen would be kept in a special one-room structure opening into the family compound’s courtyard, where offerings were regularly made to ensure the help of the ancestors in giving their descendants health and prosperity.

This asen is typical in form, consisting of an iron staff that is topped by a small platform on which is arranged a figural tableau. Here, a figure sits on a stool, shaded by an umbrella held by a figure standing nearby. The seated figure holds a pair of tongs, similar to those used by blacksmiths, and a knife, one of a blacksmith’s most important products. The scene may indicate that the deceased was a blacksmith; it may refer to Gu, the Fon deity associated with iron and warfare; or it may be a reference to a proverb or praise song: according to Fon tradition, only the person who commissioned the asen and its maker can interpret it fully.

Fon peoples, Widah, Republic of Benin
Commemorative Altar (Asen)
First half of the 20th century (?)
H. 66 ½ in. (168.9 cm)
Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Gift of Rita and John Grunwald, 74.52