Musée Karo: Madlena de Popo – Histoire d’une esclave

Madlena de Popo – Histoire d’une esclave



Pictures: Jyri Pitkänen (2015)

The story of Madlena, based on real events, is reportedly the oldest documented story about the life of a slave woman and unique, as no similar timeline of the slave trade and life on the other side of the ocean has survived from this perspective. Madlena was taken from the village of Grand-Popo in Benin around 1700 to the Caribbean island of St.Thomas, which at that time belonged to Denmark. As a result of various events, she was given the opportunity to write a letter to Queen Sophie Magdalena of Denmark in the language of Gbe and signed her letter “Madlena de Popo”. The original letter has been preserved in the Danish National Museum and the events are documented in the dissertation of the Danish historian Louise Sebro “Mellem afrikaner og Kreol - Ethnic identity and social navigation in Dansk Vestindien 1730-1770”, (Lund University, 2010). Now the story - and Madlena’s soul - is taken back to Grand-Popo. Although the story goes through Madlena, it also tells the stories of others like her in modern times.


Thoughts of the Museum Committee


“No one has the right to wipe out a single page in the history of a nation, for a nation without history is like a world without a soul,” said the famous Cameroonian journalist Alain Foka. In reality, in addition to the driving force behind cultural development, we need to make our history educational and economical. With this principle, we have built our new museum. We spare no effort when we cherish this treasure: we organise various exhibitions, workshops and guided tours. The building of Musée Karo is a former bank, whose renovation to a museum started in 2012. Now the building will serve as an exhibition space to host art and cultural workshops. In addition, there is a storage space for items that are not yet on display. Let Musée Karo be a place for cultural exchange so that the torch of culture in Africa - and all over the world - can rise as high as possible! The first exhibition has four main themes: the model of a slave ship and slave trade routes, artefacts selected from Villa Karo’s collections, a 20-screen cartoon and finally a description of modern slavery. The theme of the exhibition is the same as in many other Beninese museums that tell about the slave trade. The name of the exhibition comes from Popo Madlene, whose story we tell with the help of a Beninese cartoonist Hector Sonon. There was also slave trade in Grand-Popo and Madlena is the heroine of the true story of the people of Grand-Popo. Our purpose is not to highlight the sad side of the slave trade but to open a spiritual and cultural debate through which we deal with this sad period in our history.

Georgette Bango



When the theme of the show was the African slave trade, it seemed like the right decision. Then a doubt arose as to whether we had tackled an overly sensitive subject - does slavery still affect the people of the locality or can we Finns even suggest such a subject? Meetings with Holger Weiss, Risto Marjomaa and Kalle Kananoja confirmed the notion that our material is based on researched information. Getting to know Madlena de Popo through the Danish historian Louise Sebro confirmed my own perception that we are on the right track. Right or not, the people of Grand-Popo themselves have not researched their own share of the slave trade or they have not wanted to do so. When the African members of our working group did not oppose the subject, Madlena’s story became the central theme of the exhibition. We have built an African exhibition above all for Africans. Personally, I fell in love with Madlena and with the help of Louise Sebro, my intention is to further complement the portrait of a Grandpopolese slave through her son Mingo. And perhaps we will still get an answer to Madlena’s question from the current Queen of Denmark, albeit 300 years later. When the show ends, more is known about Grand-Pop’s role in the slave trade.

Matti-Juhani Karila



The main museum committee, Matti-Juhani, Tintti and I arrived in Grand-Popo on October 22, Julia arrived a couple of days later. Construction work on the exhibition space was underway. The committee finalised the show in mind for 13 days until we got to 4.11. with drill holes in the walls. Our work was suspended for another two days from 7 to 8 November due to floor casting. The flooring was still in progress at the opening of November 11 however, much was completed for the opening. Special last-minute heroes were young local multi-talents Boris and Enoc, who climbed on and over the bamboo suspended ceiling last night. This is how we got the exhibition lighting installed (we had imported 60 spotlights from Finland). Painter Daté painted the texts on the walls day and night and pulled his ladder into hiding a minute before the guests entered. Hector Sonon’s cartoon was superb, he was a great choice for a drawer. The 137 wax-long clay slaves of the slave ship were each given magical individuality in the hands of master potter Marcellini and his assistant Agathe. The slaves are packed in a split scale model of the ship so that the viewer can feel involved. The creators of the ship model did not meet our expectations, but when painted black, it created the necessary framework for the appealing enchantment of the slave sculptures. The area of the exhibition hall is 127m2. The water roof is sloping. Before the suspended ceiling was made, the height of the space was 5.45mon one wall and 3.65m on the other. The suspended ceiling had been built as close as possible to the water roof. The ceiling beam was to be used to fix the lighting and to hang the works. My first work was on March 22nd with Kwassi to the construction site. The suspended ceiling was currently being made horizontal to a height of 3.1m. 30% of the space had been captured, as had all the hanging facilities. I wondered this. "But then the structures would have remained visible!"

Jouko Koskinen



When Musée Karo opened on 11.11.2015 at 11:00 am in Grand-Popo, numerologist and Fâ specialist Gratien Ahouanmenou assured this to mean good because number one appears so many times. The museum and the exhibition were built side by side: when the works were raised on the walls, another road was built to the museum. At times, the mind seemed to be blurred by how much the museum committee was expected to comment on the technical issues of the building itself and this was also due in part to the long distance between the Annankatu and Grand-Popo. It can be difficult to say from Kamppi what kind of floor or roof material should be, with what tools it will be implemented and on what schedule. The museum building is a former bank where the staff of Villa Karo also took care of their banking affairs. Today, the bank of Grand-Popo is at the intersection of the track and the highway, in Carrefour. After the bank had moved, the building housed a small cafe for a while. Later, the building became Villa Karo and the construction of new facilities began. The building expanded about threefold, which also allows for the erection of large exhibitions, storage facilities, workshop facilities, an office and an uncovered beautiful patio area in the middle of the building. Now only the lobby and the exhibition hall were opened and for the other facilities, the construction work continues. However, we can already proudly recommend Musée Karo to all visitors to Grand-Popo!

Julia Autio



On the walls of the new exhibition hall, we displayed artefacts related to the story of Popo Madlena from Villa Karo's own collections: old maps of 19th-century Africa, works depicting slavery and the slave trade and sculptures related to the vodun religion. According to Louise Sebro's research, after receiving baptism, Madlena did not abandon her vodun gods altogether but turned to Legba, Mami Wata, or Heviosson in addition to the god of Christianity. It was wildly interesting to dive into the collection as if looking through Madlena’s eyes. The exhibition also features new acquisitions, such as a sculpture resembling a crucified figure that proves the flexibility of vodun, and the ceramic Legba with three handsome heads discovered by Matti-Juhani Karila in Togo just before the opening. Vodun is closely part of everyday life in Grand-Popo, and you can see Legbas at several points along the route leading to the market. The three-headed Legba stands in the exhibition as a tribute to the past life story depicted by Hector Sonon in his comics, which has taken on a new direction with the slave trade. In addition to Madlena, the main characters of the exhibition also include the former child slave Komi. Unfortunately, the slave trade is not a thing of the past, as the report of a teenage boy in Benin shows today. Komi, who was not paid at the moped repair shop, eventually got a substitute home and the opportunity to go to school through the Future Foundation. We were all very happy to see Komi at the opening of the show too!

Katariina Timonen



The exhibition committee also includes Anna Ovaska, whom we especially thank for working on the timeline around the exhibition hall. The whole committee would like to express its warm thanks to everyone who helped to create the exhibition, both in Benin, Togo, Denmark, France and Finland.