Online Seminar

Terres Jumelles: a ceramic adventure between Benin and Japan by King Houndekpinkou

Can you please introduce yourself?

My name is King Houndekpinkou, I’m a French ceramic artist based in Paris, France. I base my practice around the vessel shape. I take a lot of inspiration from the Voodoo altars from Benin, in West Africa, which is the country of my heritage and where my parents come from. I’m very inspired by the textures that the Voodoo altars have, which are textures that are poured by the priests and the people that want to connect with the Gods.
They put offerings and libations, liquor, food onto earthen structures. I’m very inspired by those divine, spiritual textures that are basically done with the only intention of connecting with the Gods but not with an aesthetic purpose. And I’m very attracted to that. And that visceral aspect, you can find it in my work. That’s why my work is highly textured, I like to add a lot of clay, a lot of glaze on my pieces and they often become very heavy.
For me, it’s a way to express where I come from and also express my need for visceral interaction with the material. And another part of my work is about blending clays from different countries and mainly from Benin and Japan in order to give a new perspective. On what ceramics can actually do in terms of blending cultures, soils and clays together. That’s a huge message. Taking a clay from one country and another and blending them together to make one piece is a very strong message.

What is ‘Terres Jumelles’?

Terres Jumelles* is a project that consists in fostering cross-cultural communication between Benin and Japan through ceramics. It’s been going on since 2016. So far, I’ve done three chapters of that project.
Every year, I go to Benin and I meet a local potter or ceramic artist I interview them, I document their work, I write about them and do a short documentary.
Then I take their clay and I travel with it and bring it to Japan. In Japan, again, I meet a new potter on a new site and I also do the same work. I document their work, I do interviews and I do short videos and documentaries. And I take their local clay and I blend it with the one from the Beninese site.
That project has been going on since 2016 and so far I’ve done three twinnings. The first one was between the pottery village of Se, in South West Benin, and Bizen, in Japan. The second one was with Shigaraki (Japan) and Oumgbegame (Benin). And the third one is with Tamba, in Hyogo Prefecture (Japan), and Cotonou (Benin) with an artist called Glele.

What was the inspiration for this project?

Well, my inspiration for the project comes from Bizen, in Japan. I started to go to Bizen every year since 2013 and there I would see my close friends practice the ceramics of Bizen. And they had a certain attitude to it, which was very respectful towards the materials, the clay and the kiln.
Every time, before a firing they would do a prayer to the Kiln God to get a good firing. They would drink Sake and put salt and rice on the kiln. And to me, that mysticism was very reminiscent of the Voodoo culture.
And spirituality from Benin. And Benin is the cradle of Voodoo. So, I’ve noticed that somehow the way my friends where making ceramics in Bizen was also infused with the Shinto, animist and spirituality. And to me it was an epiphany, it was a revelation. These two countries are far from one another, seem very different culturally. However, they seem to share something very similar in terms of their animist beliefs. And their relationship with the matter, the materials and the four elements.
Voodoo is a belief system that is based on the four elements: fire, air, water and earth. Somehow, I felt there was a very strong bond between both countries spiritually. Therefore, I felt the need to materialize that feeling into a project, which is Terres Jumelles.

What is your relationship with Benin and Japan?

My parents are from Benin and they came to France in the 80’s. That’s where I was born, in the Eastern suburbs of Paris called Montreuil. Japan came to me through the Japanese Pop culture that was expending rapidly in the 90’s in Europe. So, I was introduced to Japan through Manga and video games (Super Mario, Zelda and Nintendo…). When I was younger, I would play theses games and I wanted to know who makes them. I wanted to know the people behind those games and therefore figured that it was mostly Japanese game studios. That was my first door to the Japanese culture.

Do you encounter challenges when carrying out this project?

There are few challenges. One of them is the language barrier. Sometimes it’s difficult because my Japanese is not so good and I don’t understand all the dialects from Benin. So I often need someone to translate for me during interviews.
And also, sometimes it takes time for people to open up themselves. And give personal insights whether it’s on their practice or their lives.
But I would say in the end that because I’m also a ceramic artist and I work with clay. There is a certain universal language that you all speak when you work with clay. And that is magical.

Do you work alone?

Yes, I do pretty much everything by myself, I don’t have a team with me to film, to do the pictures, to write or edit the videos. I do everything by myself. At some point, I think I’d love to have a team of people. I work with to make things easier, especially in terms of logistics. But I do have some help from people when I travel. For example, when I need someone to translate interviews then I have someone, a local, that speaks the language, French or English. That helps me to do the interviews.

Are there any interesting memories that you would like to share with us?

There are many memorable moments. I would say my favorite one was my first interview in Benin with the chief potter of the village of Se, who is Mrs. Adanglo. I ask her a very silly question: if there were no more clay to work with what would she do? She said that she would travel to Bizen to get the local clay from there and come back to Benin and work with it. Bear in mind that this woman has never left Benin and never traveled to Asia. And for me it was very touching to hear that from her. Because she kind of got the spirit of the whole project, which is being connected with other cultures that also work with clay.
Being connected to other artists and potters regardless their culture, the language that they speak or their customs.
We are all connected and we can all dialogue and converse through clay, which is our primary material as ceramic artists. And that was a very touching and memorable moment for me.

What is the next step for ‘Terres Jumelles’?

Well, I truly look forward to present this project at the 10th Korean International Ceramic Biennale. Because it will be the first time for me participating in the biennale and also sharing about that project on such a large scale. I truly look forward to get people’s feedback and continue the conversation. About what ceramics can do in order to improve our lives and help us live together in better ways.
And also I have applied for a membership at the International Academy of Ceramics (IAC) with that project. If the application goes through and I’m a member, I thing it will be a great opportunity for the project to grow further in the future.

One last word?

I truly look forward to meet everyone at the ceramic biennale in South Korea. And continue the conversations about how ceramics can help us improve our lives and help us live together in better ways.

Last day / Unloading day
July 15th, 2016
Bizen, Japan
So, this is the day we’re opening the kiln.
Today, we're opening the kiln and everybody is here.
This is Matono-san.
This is Shibuta-san. And this is Uchida-san.
And me.
OK, preparation of the unloading. We need preparation.
Let’s go!
Let’s go!

Excerpt of the talk show ‘In Our Time, Jung’
Prof. Andrew Samuels comments on the works of Dr. Carl Gustav Jung
ⓒ 2014 BBC Radio
He [Jung] went to India, he went to North Africa, he went to Kenya and he spent time with the Native Americans in South West of the United States.
Some people say he was trying to prove the existence of the collective unconscious.
Maybe he was but one of the things he was doing, seems to me, was building bridges between western perspectives and non-western perspectives.
Of course, we made all kinds of mistakes. He idealized these so called “primitive”, a word nobody uses anymore, but he used "primitive cultures".
Nevertheless, if you actually go into why he did this and what he saw the collective unconscious as doing as an idea.
He was finding out something wrong about the West.
He traveled to these exotic places to look into all these motifs and rituals and religious practices so different from Europe.
Not to collect anthropological material about India or North Africa but to throw light on what was going wrong in 1920's and 1930's Europe.
That’s a profoundly human and the political project. And that I think is one way of understanding how Jung used the idea of the collective unconscious.
To build these bridges.

‘Terres Jumelles’

A ceramic adventure between Benin and Japan

Chapter I. Se, Benin & Bizen, Japan