It was a perfect place to start. The point of departure for an exploration of memory and history with Queen Victoria at its core was a Victorian Institution, the National Portrait Gallery. Victorian idealism founded the museum in the mid 19th century and a generation later the Queen’s imperial image was etched into the minds of her colonial subjects, fixed in a million portraits, many of which hang still in the wood-panelled galleries not far from where Leo Asemota’s performance unfolds. 

One of these portraits, rarely displayed, usually sits in the Gallery’s archive, a photographic copy of a painting, it shows Victoria seated on a mediaeval throne, dressed in flowing ermine robes, clasping a scroll in her right hand.  The picture is a Victorian glass plate negative by Alexander Bassano of a portrait by 19th century French Orientalist painter Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant. It is not just the features and pose of the aging monarch that make her instantly recognisable, it is the air of moral certitude and historical authority that can be found in the icons of English rulers over centuries, a conviction that lingers even today in the power bases of this country’s monarchy and parliament. 

In ens memoralis, Leo Asemota’s ritual transformation of a print of this image is in part an attack on the values, then and now, that produced this portrait.  It is a live artwork that unfolds to become a profound meditation on the portrait as a signifier of history, memory and cultural identity.

Text © 2009 Sumantro Ghose. 

“ens memoralis” by Leo Asemota was presented at the National Portrait Gallery London on 26 June 2008. The work is part of First Principles (2005 - 2008) phase one of The Ens Project.

ens memoralis at the National Portrait Gallery

Whilst the last two texts refer to 1897 – a crucial date in this performance – Benjamin, the German literary critic and philosopher was active decades later in the 1930s. 'There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism' he wrote the year he died on the border of France and Spain, a stateless German Jew fleeing Nazi persecution.  It is however not these words, from his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, that the ‘black soldiers’ are reading from their scrolls, but those from his better-known essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”.    Benjamin’s landmark essay considered the future of the artwork in an era of mechanically made and freely-circulated images in the form of photographs and film.  The power of the image was no longer chained to its time and place of creation; it is free from its ritual and religious context. Asemota seems to celebrate this liberation of the image for his performance will freely reconfigure the portrait of Victoria, the reproduction of a photograph of a painting, and in doing so question the values of authenticity and authorship that so often are seen to reside in a work of art.


The performance begins with the occupation of the Gallery entrance hall by African soldiers in the 19th century uniforms of the Gold Coast Colonial Protectorate.  As their black webbed feet tread on the white marble of the shiny new hall with its ticket desks and escalator, visually they recall the dark-skinned subjects of Benjamin-Constant’s Orientalist fantasies, his paintings of Arab palace guards and turbaned African watchmen.  But the soldiers proceed to unfurl manuscripts, like the rolled document in Victoria’s hand, and read fragments of poetry, song and writing that seem wilfully random in their sources – Walter Benjamin, Rudyard Kipling, Oba Ovonramwen, King of Benin. 

Lest We Forget

Benjamin’s essay was published in 1936, the year that Rudyard Kipling died.  By then Kipling, the ‘prophet of British Imperialism’ (as Orwell described him) had been warning against the threat of Nazi Germany, and the refrain ‘Lest We Forget’, from the poem ‘Recessional’ was chiselled on a thousand war memorials, commemorating millions of dead.  As the characters, 19th century Africans in colonial military uniforms, read these words, so familiar from military remembrance services, one wonders whose memory they are summoning, what or whom they are calling on us to remember.  In fact Recessional was written to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, conceived as an anthem to England’s imperial might.  But the poem was also intended to be a warning on the hubristic risks and burdens of empire building.   The site of this performance, as the words ring through the marbled gallery hall, in the heart of Imperial London, a few hundred yards from the Cenotaph, suggest it is Britain’s military sacrifices, her glorious history that are being remembered.  Asemota has an astute understanding of urban spaces and the memories they hold, as a second performance The longMarch of Displacement, which follows the arc of Victoria Embankment to St Paul’ s Cathedral will later reveal.  At the steps of the Cathedral a stone commemorates the Jubilee and the date is there again, as it is in stations and squares, and on coins and portraits across the country.  1897.  Are these colonial Africans, Kipling’s ‘White Man’s Burden’, singing his anthem, celebrating his date? 


As the guards stand motionless, Asemota opens his metal hourglass and pours out two powders, white and black, orhue (kaolin) and coal, the materials in this ritual destruction and reconfiguration of the portrait, onto a diamond shaped mirror.  The artist smears his hands in the white powder, effecting a ritual purification, before he proceeds to mix the (orhue) kaolin and coal dust to make a substance as grey as dust.  The orhue is a chalky ritual substance used by the Edo people of Benin, whilst the coal powered the expansion of the British Empire that brought their civilisation to an end.  For the artist Leo Asemota, who was born in Benin City, this is the point where identities personal and cultural, histories individual and collective merge. He adds the powder to the portrait delicately, inscribing circles around the head and hand.

As the performance ends, the African soldiers march off, disappearing into the West End crowds.  The audience claps and remains quiet for a moment before moving in for a closer look at the modified portrait. Queen Victoria, unamused, stares up from the floor, her head encircled by a grey halo.  There is a sense that we have witnessed something significant and moving, yet there is uncertainty as to what Asemota’s action actually meant. Yet any viewer here will surely find any future response to Victoria’s image subtly, and irrevocably, disrupted.


The beauty of live art is its ephemeral nature. The direct experience it offers, the specifics of time, place and duration are integral to the performance, but the artwork will survive only through the memory of its participants, its audience and its own documentation. I am conscious that this essay, compiled months after the performance, is the product of memories, conversations and research particular to one writer. The connections outlined here, the references to individual and collective identities may not have been evident to the viewers or intended by the artist. 

This text must now join the multiple histories of Asemota’s project, in real and virtual form.  The essence of memory becoming a fragment of history.

The third text makes it clear that they are not – also dating from 1897, is a Praise Song to Oba Ovonramwen, the last king of pre-colonial Benin. It recalls a less glorious chapter in Britain’s colonial history than Victoria’s Jubilee - the invasion and looting of Benin City and the deposition of the King.  Ovonramwen’s palace was sacked, his treasures, including 900 relief sculptures, the Benin Bronzes, were seized; his kingdom was dissolved leaving its palm oil and rubber open to commercial exploitation.  Whilst much of the stolen ivory was sold by the Foreign office to fund the punitive expedition, the Bronzes were kept, valued only as cultural curios.  This episode is also commemorated in central London, half a mile north of the Gallery, where many of those looted items, the Benin Bronzes, are still displayed today, in the British Museum; its marble, glass and ticket desks that speak the same architectural language as the National Portrait Gallery.  The Benin Bronzes are now valuable, recognised for the influence they had on western modernism, restored in status to a canon of art to which Africa is now admitted.  The museum hangs on to them tenaciously (as it does the Parthenon Sculptures) refusing requests to return them to their place of creation.  Oba, the king, expelled from his palace didn’t see his artworks again: he died in exile in Calabar in 1914.

 © Leo Asemota / EoTLA   All Rights Reservedall_rights_reserved.html

Leo Asemota / EoTLA

Leo Asemota / EoTLA

Work in focus