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La Porte du Retour en couleur (The Door of Return in Color)

Sunday 4 November 2012

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The Gulf of Benin, still known by the sadly famous name of the "Slave Coast" has, since the seventeenth-century, been the site of one of the most awful instances of human trafficking: the transatlantic slave trade, still referred to as the "slave trade" (traite négrière). Men, women, and children, the commodities of this disgraceful business, were sold across the oceans as slaves to serve as the workforce in plantations or house servants in the Americas.

The ports of Badagry in present-day Nigeria and Porto-Novo and Ouidah in the present-day Republic of Benin were the boarding points for slaves leaving for the Americas. The port of Ouidah was under the control of the King of Abomey since he annexed it in the middle of the eighteenth-century. In this city, a series of rituals were performed to facilitate the departure of the captives and make them forget their homeland. The different rituals and steps that marked the captive’s road towards a slave’s destiny have today been materialized across the city of Ouidah all the way up to the beach, the location of the final memorial of the "Slave Road": The Door of No Return.

According to tradition, at the edge of the ocean was a hut that the captives had to cross to reach the beach where they boarded the slave ships. This last step marked the end of their lives as free men and women and sealed their inescapable destiny as slaves. After this step, no return was possible. The materialization of this crucial moment took the form of a commemorative monument, an archway on which bas-reliefs depict the sad destiny of these thousands of men, women, and children who were sold like animals and exiled far from their homeland.

Beginning in the nineteenth-century, Bahia slave revolts in Brazil brought a large number of emancipated slaves, or slaves who could buy their freedom, to the Gulf of Guinea coast. Thus, several thousand former slaves returned and dispersed, mostly in Lagos, Porto-Novo, Ouidah, and Grand-Popo. Mastering commerce, they rapidly began competing with the established merchants. The knowledge acquired by these Afro-Brazilians in Brazil allowed them to acquire a privileged social status in the African trading posts, to the detriment of established Africans leaders and the Portuguese. They mastered construction trades they learned in Brazil and created small enterprises. The Brazilian culture introduced by Afro-Brazilians does not end with architecture, but pervades clothing style, cuisine, music, and various lifestyles.

If the Door of No Return in Ouidah symbolizes the departure towards the unknown, The Door of Return signifies the return of the descendants of those who left and the welcome of their native land. The Port of Return monument, created a few years after the one at Ouidah, has remained unfinished, as if the return of the children of the diaspora had been interrupted.

It is to symbolically complete this door and this return, and thus to turn the page on a dark past, that the artists of the Association APJ-CAP have initiated the project "La Porte du Retour en Couleur" ("The Door of Return in Color"). The goal of the artists is to highlight this highly symbolic unfinished monument through a decorative covering in trompe l’oeil style and to use a minimum of conveniences on the site. "This will allow the Beninese people to visit it and contemplate it as a major work of our country" as Guy Domingo and Philippe Abayi have emphasized. It is also, and most of all, about sensitizing the politico-administrative authorities to the completion of a monument that commemorates an extremely important part of Benin’s history.

D.H.