Create to Free Yourself: Georges Adéagbo’s Transformation of President Lincoln’s Cottage
In 1909 Leo Tolstoy said, “If one would know the greatness of Lincoln, one should listen to the stories which are told about him in other parts of the world.” 144 years later, West African artist Georges Adéagbo's lifetime fascination with installation art and Abraham Lincoln led him to President Lincoln's Cottage, a National Trust Historic Site in Washington, D.C.
The Cottage is where Abraham Lincoln lived with his family through many of the warmer months of his presidency, and more famously where he drafted that nation-changing document, the Emancipation Proclamation. Adéagbo’s site-wide visual portrait of Lincoln contributes to an understanding of the role the 16th president holds in the world’s imagination.
For Adéagbo it was the writing (quite literally) on the wall that intrigued him. Because the Cottage fills its rooms not with furniture, but with stories, it became the perfect canvas for Adéagbo to share his perspective on Lincoln. For Dr. Michael Atwood Mason, the CEO & executive director of President Lincoln’s Cottage, it was an opportunity to deepen visitors’ understanding. He said, “We welcomed the opportunity to share Georges' unique and kaleidoscopic vision of Abraham Lincoln and his role in the global struggle for freedom.”
Adéagbo’s vision is one of association, where a group of objects come together to tell a personal story both for artist and visitor. It is also a free association, where each individual walks away building their own connections and understanding of what they have witnessed.
To better explain the installation, we developed a photo essay to walk you through the project from conception to execution. Join us on this journey through inspiration, creation, and installation in order to Create to Free Yourself.
“Art is in nature: It is art that makes the artist, it is not the artist who makes art, the artist is a missionary.”Georges Adéagbo, translated from French by Stephan Köhler
In 2021, Adéagbo arrived in Washington for an Artist Research Fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution to study Abraham Lincoln. He collected images of objects and pictures related to Lincoln including his death mask, top hat, and pocket watch.
During the fellowship, he visited President Lincoln's Cottage and heard intimate stories of Lincoln's time there, which he in turn visualized: a careworn Lincoln watching the military graveyard across the street fill with the casualties of his war, all while grieving the loss of his son Willie; an animated Lincoln telling bawdy jokes and reciting Shakespearean passages in the drawing room; a reflective Lincoln seeking a quiet place to think, rethink, change his mind, and ultimately conceive of the Emancipation Proclamation. Adéagbo was inspired. He met with Mason, and they decided to move forward with a site-wide installation in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.
In 2022, Adéagbo began work on the installation in his studio in Benin. He used the images and knowledge he collected during his fellowship at the Smithsonian to create plans for original artwork.
Adéagbo's career was born out of an obsessive daily practice of creating installations in his courtyard. The practice was deemed eccentric by his neighbors for many years until it was labeled art by a curator traveling through Cotonou—an encounter that changed his life. He now helps neighboring artists transform their own lives through creativity, and it is this philosophy, the idea of creativity for transformation, that lent itself to the exhibit title: Create to Free Yourselves.
To bring the installation together, Adéagbo commissioned Beninese illustrator Benoît Adanhoumè to paint graphic artwork for the exhibit. A local sculptor, Hugues Hountondji, created a Beninese Lincoln based on the statue in front of President Lincoln's Cottage.
Adéagbo and his longtime collaborator, the curator Stephan Köhler, collected art and artifacts from flea markets in Cotonou along with books, records, DVDs, and other objects. Selecting these items, Adéagbo explained, is like casting a movie.
Adéagbo and Köhler arrived at the Cottage in January of 2023 with seven trunks filled with collected objects and art. They began work with the assembly team, including the staff of the historic site, and two graduate students from Howard University's Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts, Siah Prince and Mekbib Geberstadik.
Adéagbo and Köhler visited thrift stores in both Washington and Virginia, and incorporated their purchases into vignettes alongside African ancestral masks and other objects collected abroad. Adding local objects, he felt, created a point of entry for his viewers.
In the entryway to the Cottage, Adéagbo placed a traditional Egungun, a ceremonial Beninese dance costume to represent the ancestors. He hung the undercostume on the wall beside it. The Egungun is worn during a dance to call on the advice of the ancestors, and its placement here welcomes the spirit of Abraham Lincoln to join the installation. The Egungun undercostume can be seen outside of the Cottage, creating a ghostly impression for passersby.
He gave the Beninese Lincoln a place of honor on the mantel in the drawing room in front of the mirror. This is fitting because Adéagbo's installations are highly reflective; he invites people to see themselves in his work.
Near the Beninese Lincoln is a representation of a goat's head. Köhler explained that Adéagbo's art, in addition to being reflective, is also intuitive: it was selected before he consciously knew that the Lincoln family had two pet goats, Nanny and Nanko, while living at the Cottage.
The paintings crafted in Benin are displayed throughout the Cottage. They feature graphic renderings of historical images collected during the Smithsonian research fellowship. The images are coupled with Adéagbo's commentary, all in his own version of French. "There are 35 local languages in Benin, and French is the tongue of the colonizer," explained Köhler, "Georges took the French of the colonizer and made it all his own. His language is unique."
Create to Free Yourself
With the completed transformation, visitors were invited to see the work, which Adéagbo often described as a court session: "Witnesses are called to speak, lawyers bring a piece of evidence, and the jury—the audience—must make up their own minds," he said.
The opening reception on January 17, 2023, was lively and well-attended—including a welcome by the Ambassador of Benin to the United States of America, His Excellency, Mr. Jean-Claude do Rego. It featured an illustrious panel: Adéagbo, Köhler, National Museum of African Art director Ngaire Blankenberg, actress and dean of Howard University Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts Phylicia Rashad (who is also on the advisory council for the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund) retired diplomat Andrew Snow, and Mason. The panel discussed the exhibit and Adéagbo's "ability to draw from history a conclusion that is all his own."
As Karen Milbourne, a curator at the National Museum of African Art, explained, “[Engaging with Adéagbo work ] is like traveling the map of another person’s mind. He shares with us what he reads and sees, inviting us to join him on a journey of association and thought. And the journeys are always thoughtful, provocative, and visually stunning.”
Create to Free Your Self: Abraham Lincoln and the History of Freeing Slaves in America is open through February 15, 2023. For more information visit President Lincoln’s Cottage.
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