The exhibition at the Galerie Vallois from 2 November to 2 December 2023 brings together two photographers, Eric Bottero and Gopal Amah, whose work is rooted in the cultural and spiritual traditions of Benin.
Their respective series reflect an approach to photography that can be described as ‘conceptualising’, in that it goes beyond the simple representation of reality to question the concepts underlying the practices photographed.
In his series shot in the sacred forest of Ouidah, Eric Bottero offers a rereading of voodoo rituals through pared-down, almost abstract images that condense all the symbolism of the place. The use of black and white and the printing of certain images on gold leaf give these photographs a spiritual and meditative dimension. The photographer’s approach here is conceptualist in the sense that he is not simply seeking to document voodoo rites, but to capture their deepest essence. He focuses on the details, textures and play of light that reveal the importance of the sacred in this place.
For his part, Gopal Amah spent two years immersing himself in the world of the Égungún, the ancestral spirits celebrated in Benin during various ceremonies. His colour photographs explore the mysteries and paradoxes of these entities through the shimmering ritual costumes that embody them. Her resolutely aesthetic approach reveals the complexity of the Égungún as symbols of both life and death. By capturing the gradual transformations of these ephemeral costumes, the photographer questions the cycle of life and the cultural heritage handed down from generation to generation. Here too, beyond the documentary dimension, the approach is intended to be conceptual, inviting the viewer to reflect on universal themes such as memory, loss and resilience.
These two photographic series reflect a shared desire to approach photography not just as a medium of objective representation, but as a tool for conceptual exploration. It’s about going beyond the surface of things to reveal their true essence. In this approach we find certain principles of conceptualist photography as it developed in the 60s and 70s, but applied here to a singular cultural and ethnographic terrain.
Where American conceptualists such as John Baldessari and Douglas Huebler sought to deconstruct the photographic medium itself, Eric Bottero and Gopal Amah use it to highlight fundamental elements of the Beninese imagination. Their work is part of a more contemporary approach to conceptualist photography, concerned with reactivating the symbolic and meditative power of the image.
In their own way, they appropriate conceptualist processes to open up new perspectives on the sacred imagination of voodoo.
Their joint exhibition reveals the extent to which photography, when stripped of its narrative role, can become a ‘resonator of the unconscious’. By condensing layers of symbols and meanings, photography becomes an art of suggestion rather than description. Above all, it can be a privileged medium for revisiting traditions that are sometimes misunderstood from a conceptual angle.
The power of conceptual photography lies in its ability to reactivate the way we look at familiar realities. Through the shifting prism of the lens, she reintegrates these sacred objects – masks, altars, costumes – into a visual contemporaneity. She endows them with a surplus of meaning that questions both the past and the present. It opens up a fertile dialogue between primitive arts and postmodernism.
Ultimately, Eric Bottero and Gopal Amah‘s exhibition is a brilliant testament to the potential of photography when it becomes conceptual and reflexive. Their images plunge us into the heart of mysterious rituals, while taking a sharp look at the very meaning of these traditions. Their respective series, in all their diversity, reveal the richness of a sacred imagination that the conceptualist approach sublimates at every moment.