Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou: Egungun Project. A Sumptuous Masquerade
Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou (b.1965) is one of the pre-eminent photographers from the Republic of Benin, based in the capital Porto Novo close to the Nigerian border. Trained by his father, the world-renowned photographer Joseph Moise Agbodjelou (1912-2000), Leonce Raphael has since developed his own individual style in contemporary and innovative ways. Shooting with medium format in an outdoor studio, his recent project has focused on the Egungun masqueraders.
Egungun are both named and unnamed ancestral forbears of Yoruba-speaking lineages, found in the republic of Benin and in the Yoruba kingdoms of south-Western Nigeria. Beginning in the 11th to 14th centuries a.d., the masqueraders appear at funeral to mark and guide the passage of the deceased to the spirit world. Annual festivals are held in Yoruba-speaking communities at the beginning of the rainy season to cleanse the town, but Egungun can also appear at any time to avert major misfortune or affliction that threatens the local community. They occupy a range of roles that vary from recent deceased and historical forbears, to acting as community executioners of criminals and witches. Less important and junior performers, such as onidan (miracle workers) oloki (acrobats) and alaba (wearers of cloth) cam also entertain the onlookers with magical feats and the sumptuousness of visual display.