Georges Adéagbo

Article Bio Projects
Visual Arts (installation art)
Africa, Western
created on:
April 26, 2003
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Archive of a sleuth

The complex installations of the artist Georges Adéagbo, born in 1942 in Cotonou in Benin, range from documentation to narration. Starting with a central group of themes – historical and cultural references, and autobiographical experiences – he puts carefully chosen items like pictures, wooden sculpture, books, T-shirts, decorations, newspaper-cuttings and stones into new relationships often including the site of the exhibition.
For a long time, African puppet-makers and sign-painters were the only artists whose works found their way into western art-museums. The fact that the situation has recently changed has a lot to do with exhibitions like ´Magiciens de la terre´ in the Centre Pompidou in Paris (1989) – exhibitions which have drawn a lot of public and commercial interest to new art from Africa. The biennials in Dakar in Senegal, in Barnako, in Mali and in Johannesburg in South Africa have become important events in the international art-calendar, and agents are travelling across Africa in search of new talent. It is thanks to one of them that the West African artist Georges Adéagbo has found access to the international art-world.

Already in 1971 he created in the yard of his home his first installations, which he himself called ´installations éphémères´ (ephemeral installations), but for twenty years he lived in extreme poverty and isolation, lavishing more attention on his artefacts than on his sizeable family, who sent him several times into psychiatric care. It was not till 1993 that a French curator and collector happened to meet him and take an interest in his work, then a year later his complex works were to be seen in an exhibition in Besançon in the south of France.

Nearly all these installations centre upon a certain group of themes. These include historical events, cultural developments and autobiographical experiences. Often his starting-point is a newspaper-article or text, and he is careful not only in his choice of themes but also in his choice and arrangement of items like wooden sculptures, books, photographs, clothes, decorations, texts written by the artist himself, empty cigarette-packets and matchboxes and stones. The arrangements are temporary and liable to be changed as needed. They are first set up in the yard of his home in Cotonou, then are taken to pieces, packed and set up again at the place of presentation. For the latter he needs no plans, since each item has its own definite place in relationship to others. The artist never switches them round.

For the central starting-point of the installation ´The Age of Pythagoras´ for the gallery in the Taxis Palace in Innsbruck, George Adéagbo developed a speculative structure for correlating the histories of Central Europe and Africa. ´Just as Pythagoras found numerical equivalents for things, so as to determine their nature and structure by means of numerical relationships, Adéagbo arranges, in a kind of gallery of pictures or forebears, fifty portraits of historical figures, pioneers and ´heroes´ (monsters), who in fact or fiction have left their mark on the history of cities, lands and continents and now, through the magic of a numerical system, enter into a kind of incommensurable relationship to each other´ (2001, extract from Catalogue).

A wooden boat with a Kassel number-plate stands in the middle of the space-installation which Adéagbo devised for Documenta 11. Starting with the central object he laid books, magazines, newspaper-articles, record-covers, advertising materials and photographs on the ground or stuck them to walls. Viewers are shown the sequence in which these are to be read by means of lines, links and arrows. This work was careful related to the exhibition´s site and purpose in including portraits of Arnold Bode, who founded Documenta in the 1950s, and of Harald Szeemann, the head of Documenta 5 in 1972. Adéagbo also chose books by Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm, who had taught at Kassel University. Many further objects point to the artist´s personal experiences or to the traditional handiwork of his homeland. Thus Adéagbo created an archive between documentation and narration - an archive which establishes links between the biography of the artist, the history of Documenta and the history of the exhibition´s site.

As he himself says: "I spent ten years on this work – one year for the preparation alone, and in saying ´preparation for Documenta´ I mean I had to pay attention to all elements which show that this is a comprehensive documentation of anything and everything."

(Translated by Phil Stanway)
Author: Bärbel Müller


Georges Adéagbo was born in 1942 in Cotonou in Benin (West Africa) as the first of eleven children. He studied law and economics in Paris and was just about to take his final examinations in 1971 when the startling news of his father´s death forced him to go home to Cotonou. It was then that he made the first of his installations in the yard of his home. For 23 years he then lived and worked in nearly complete isolation, till a meeting with a French collector drew international attention to his work. Outside his homeland, his complex installations were first exhibited in Besançon in France.


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

Georges Adéagbo: Le Socialisme Africain

(18 November 04 - 23 January 05)

The Short Century

Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa

(18 May 01 - 29 July 01)

The other Modernism

Contemporary Art from Africa, Asia & Latin America

(08 May 97 - 27 July 97)