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Dahomey 1967: Photographs by Irving Penn
Irving Penn, Dahomey/Legba X, Dahomey, 1967, © 2003 by Irving Penn, Courtesy Vogue.

HOUSTON, TEXAS.- A group of extraordinary photographs of the Dahomey people, landscape, and deities by the legendary photographer Irving Penn opened in Houston with Dahomey 1967: Photographs by Irving Penn, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston under the guidance of Anne Wilkes Tucker, the Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography at the MFAH. Most of the photographs, which Penn took in Dahomey, Africa in 1967, have never before been printed, published, or exhibited. The international tour of the exhibition opened in Paris at the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie January 14, 2004, and travels to the Japan Folk Crafts Museum (Nihon Mingeikan) in Tokyo for exhibition August 17 through September 26. In Houston, the exhibition will be on view in the Cameron Foundation Gallery of the MFAH´s Audrey Jones Beck Building, 5601 Main Street, through January 17, 2005.

The exhibition derives from photography Penn took while on assignment in Africa for Vogue magazine, working in Dahomey, which is now called Benin Republic. His driving route took him past a village where he discovered enormous mud sculptures of the deity Legba, a trickster god. He returned soon after to photograph the Legba sculptures in situ. Largely composed of mud, Penn´s striking images capture sculpture that no longer exists. These photographs of the deity, 17 altogether, along with 11 images of the landscape, seascape, and village fishermen and young women in tribal regalia comprise the exhibition.

Penn used a portable studio to capture the likenesses of the villagers, but as he explained in the book Worlds in a Small Room, whose essay is reproduced in the exhibition catalogue, "putting them into the studio in front of a camera did not simply isolate them, it transformed them." Under Penn´s authority, the subjects become as sculpture, abstract and timeless. In contrast, Penn captured the Legba in the landscape and settings where the tribesmen created them, and where they were still in service to the Fon people of Dahomey. As Tucker notes in her introduction to the catalogue, "Penn captured their raw spiritual power and fierce expressions, with open mouths, shells or stones for eyes, feather beards. The visceral remains of sacrifices coat the faces and upper torsos. The tissue-laden juices drain down into the facial orifices, most especially the open mouths." Although many of his contemporaries photographed the Legba, none did so in the original setting.

There are visible ways in which Penn´s work in Dahomey influenced his later work in fashion photography, according to Tucker. "When Penn began to photograph Miyake´s designs in the early 1980s, he returned to his own Dahomey images as source material…The fierce, blank-faced but slender Amazons wearing Miyake´s armor in Penn´s photographs draw on both Penn´s interpretations of the Legba and on the 19th-century Amazon Fon women whose existence originally drew Penn to Dahomey," she writes. She adds further that the Legba photographs are evident in other fashion work where Penn draws on the memory of the sacrificial juices oozing from the Legba heads with images of milk flowing over a model´s face, a mouth smeared with lipstick, and a snake slithering across a model´s cheek.

Dahomey 1967: Photographs by Irving Penn is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Anne Wilkes Tucker, the Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography, is overseeing the project.

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