Musclemen: ‘Strength, power, pride’

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Photographer Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou took portraits of West African bodybuilders

Leonce's studio has become a crossroads for Benin's people

CNN  — 

In West Africa, the bodybuilder is a popular subject for photographers. Since the 1950s, the musclemen have peered out from stark images, symbols of “strength, power, pride and status,” in the words of gallery owner Jack Bell.

In the photographs of Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou, the image goes deeper.

Leonce, who’s based in Porto-Novo, Benin, did a series of photographs called “Musclemen” in which he showcases the local bodybuilders. In one photo, a fit, smiling man holds … plastic flowers. In another, three men pose together, all with bouquets. That’s not all: The men pose in colorful, patterned pants and in front of equally dazzling backdrops.

In fact, in picture after picture, the strength of the musclemen is contrasted with the delicacy of the flowers – a traditional way to show style and taste, according to the artist – and the boldness of the fabric colors. It creates a vibrant, even impish twist on conventional strongman photographs.

That’s deliberate, says Bell.

Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou

“Benin is all about color – Porto Novo is like a visual assault,” he says in an email on behalf of his client. (Leonce does not speak English.) “The images are straight out of urban market scenes and the hurly burly of bars, street stalls and traffic jams. Leonce is part of a generation experiencing rapid change and his photographs capture this energy and unfettered zest for life.”

Leonce comes to photography naturally. His father was a renowned artist, Joseph Moise Agbodjelou, who opened a studio in Porto-Novo, Benin’s capital, in 1960. Leonce Agbodjelou has continued the family business and is also the founder and director of Benin’s first photographic school.

The bodybuilders are only one of his subjects. He has an ongoing project to photograph a variety of Porto-Novo’s citizens.

“Agbodjelou interprets the experience of a generation caught between tradition and progress. His studio has become a crossroads for Porto-Novo’s diverse population,” says Bell, who found out about the artist while traveling in Benin and Mali in 2010.

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    “The photographer’s studio is, like the hairdressing salons of Porto-Novo, a meeting place for a diverse demographic and a site of exchange,” he says.

    Father and son have their differences, Bell observes.

    “Joseph Moise shot in black and white using a 6 x 6 Rollieflex. Leonce’s use of vibrant color in his portraiture was a new development. It lent itself well to the young artist’s enquiries into voodoo and the mystical in West Africa and Benin’s colonial history,” he says.

    Leonce Raphael Agbodjelou is an African photographer based in Porto-Novo.