The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and the Getty Conservation Institute collaborated on Abomey: History Told on Walls, an exhibition at the Kennedy Center, February 10–March 8, 2000.

The exhibition focused on the 250-year-old tradition of polychrome earthen bas-relief art in Benin, West Africa, and on a GCI project to conserve the earliest surviving examples of this art form. From 1993 through 1997, the Republic of Benin’s Ministry of Culture and Communication and the GCI collaborated to conserve 50 heavily damaged bas-reliefs that once adorned the Salle des Bijoux, or Hall of Jewels, part of the palace of King Glélé in Abomey.

In the early 17th century, the powerful kings of Dahomey built a complex of earthen palaces in their capital city, Abomey. The palace walls were decorated with colorful low-relief sculptures, or bas-reliefs, recounting legends and battles to glorify the dynasty’s reign. The GCI project involved the conservation of the oldest surviving royal bas-reliefs and included documentation, training of Benin museum professionals, treatment and exhibit of the bas-reliefs, and development of a long-term maintenance plan. The project culminated in an international conference on the past, present, and future of the royal palaces and sites of Abomey.

The Kennedy Center exhibition illustrated the history of the conservation project and displayed examples of the richness of bas-reliefs in Benin. It also included demonstrations of bas-relief creation by renowned Benin artist Cyprien Tokoudagba.

Conservation image

The exhibition was part of the Kennedy Center African Odyssey—a festival of music, dance, theater, and graphic arts from Africa and the African Diaspora that has received support from the American Express Company. This is the second collaboration between the GCI and the Kennedy Center; in 1998, the two institutions created the exhibition The Painted Rocks of Africa: Other World Visions of the San. This exhibition, also mounted for the Center’s African Odyssey, depicted varied rock art in Southern Africa.

The Abomey conservation project is described in the recent GCI–Getty Museum publication, Palace Sculptures of Abomey: History Told on Walls, by Francesca Piqué and Leslie H. Rainer. The book combines color photographs of the Abomey bas-reliefs with a history of the Dahomey kingdom, complemented by period drawings and historical photographs. The book is available here. Also available is History Told on Walls, the GCI video documentary on the royal bas-reliefs of Abomey that won the Prix Coup de Coeur at the 1998 International Audiovisual Festival/Museums and Heritage and the Gold Award for documentaries at the 1997 Houston International Film Festival.