Irving Penn’s Legba

by Kiko Matsing

Dahomey Legba

18 December 2004, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Today, I discovered through the photographs of Irving Penn the Dionysian principle among the Dahomey people of Africa. In Legba, guardian of household entrances, bestower of sexual potency, seventh- and youngest-born son of Mawu, divine trickster, temperamental messenger and linguist of the gods, we discover an elemental disruptive force, “the personification of philosophical accident, of the way out in a world ruled by destiny”.

From Dahomey/Legba XI 1967: “Legba, the arch individualist, maybe thought of as the personification of the being who loves mischief, knows no inhibitions, recognizes no taboos, dares to challenge injustices, even on the part of the Creator, and to expose them…”

Legba is represented as a human figure made of red clay, with cowrie shells for eyes, giving it an appearance in-between a grinning Cheshire cat and a laughing Buddha. Often, it is stained with the blood of sacrificial animals or egg yolk, and sometimes portrayed with goatish horns or huge phalluses. The latter screams to mind the Greek satyr whom Nietzsche describes as “the offspring of a longing for the primitive and the natural… the archetype of man, the embodiment of his highest and most intense emotions, the ecstatic reveler… something sublime and divine”. (The Birth of Tragedy)

Is it coincidental that these symbols of life, death, and fecundity intersect in this playful African figure of Legba, as well as in the Greek Dionysian spirit? Or is this principle at the core of all cultures, in the manner of Jung’s archetypes buried in our collective unconscious–the primitive response to our primal encounter with Nature? Primitive and primal because it is a priori contemplation, before all science and philosophy.

For Nietzsche, knowledge will not do. Once we have looked into the essence of things, we can only react like Hamlet: nausea that inhibits action, “for… action cannot change anything in the eternal nature of things.” Only art “knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts about the horror or absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live: these are the sublime as the artistic taming of the horrible, and the comic as the artistic discharge of the nausea of absurdity.”

In so far as it quiets our fear of death, and allows us to come to terms with Nature, then art, and the aesthetic experience, serves somewhat as our form of Legba, our way out from the absurdities of life.