Artist Romuald Hazoumè’s modern day reinterpretations of a traditional practice – masking – speaks volumes on cultural imperialism, black markets and death.
© Romuald Hazoumè, Ma Poule, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and October Gallery, London.
Bold and commanding, the plastic containers of Porto Novo born Romauld Hazoumè have become his visual signature. There is an inherent lifelessness to this material, yet these inanimate façades hold a myriad of personality types.
© Romuald Hazoumè. Kucoback, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and October Gallery, London.
These sculptures are but mimicry of traditional West African disguise, a pastiche of discarded materials actualised in mask form. In Benin, masks are godly vessels of power whose captivating aesthetics are imbued with cultural significance. Hazoumè redesigns this perception of masking with the addition of political sentiments, while preserving the Vodun belief that material goods are capable of spirituality. The multi faceted Hazoumè has infiltrated the long-standing Western fascination with the ‘African mask’ by adhering to a historical expectancy associated with the continent in his own tongue-in-cheek way.
I send back to the West that which belongs there, that is to say, the refuse of a consumer society that invades us (in Africa) every day.
These are not the effigies of powerful deities; manifesting from Hazoumè’s oeuvre are the specific members of a present-day community. It is with potent simplicity that such extensive character can be injected into a hollow jerry can. For instance, the careful consideration of personal adornment and a solid understanding of the Beninese language of hair facilitate a transformation from mask to portraiture.
© Romuald Hazoumè, Miss France, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and October Gallery, London.
The jerry cans now synonymous with Romuald Hazoumè embark on a journey fraught with peril upon leaving the West as waste. At the Nigerian-Benin border, it is estimated that up to 90% of Benin’s petrol enters through the black market. The cans are stretched and stressed for optimum volume, to become a constant danger to those who carry them. Countless men are drafted into forced labour to become, according to October Gallery, “faceless units within commercial systems, dangerously worked to breaking point before being discarded”. But this is not the slavery that the nation’s history is steeped in and such as explored by fellow Beninese artist Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou, this is the contemporary equivalent. The aforementioned veracious account is exposed by utilising the jerry can as the face of modern slavery in Benin. It is such experiences of living people that have become the motivation of Romuald Hazoumè.
© Romuald Hazoumè. OFNI, 2011. Private Collection. Courtesy of the artist and October Gallery, London
No longer fit for purpose, Hazoumè reassigns these two-time waste products into tools of his exactitude. These ‘masks’ are delivered back into the world to speak the truth, as is often an artist’s responsibility, but not without a hefty dose of irony and a dash of humour.
The work of Romuald Hazoumè will be featured in London next month at art fair, 1:54 from October 15 – 19 and in the group show Interwoven Histories at October Gallery from 30 October – 29 November.
© Romuald Hazoumè, Petit wax, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and October Gallery, London.
© Romuald Hazoumè, Bodjou-Bodjou, 2013 Courtesy of the artist and October Gallery, London.
Romuald Hazoumè (b. 1962 Porto Novo, Benin) lives and works in Porto Novo and Cotonou. Hazoumè’s astute and sardonically political oeuvre is realised in a diverse and often unconventional range of media, including multi-media installation, sculpture, video, photography and painting. Using the ubiquitous plastic petrol-can as his iconic signature, Hazoumè undertakes monumental installations that act as metaphors of African place, history and identity. Arnold Bode prize-winner at documenta 12, Hazoumè is part of the leading ranks of the international artistic community. He has been shown in major international galleries and museums, including the British Museum, London, UK; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA; Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Brisbane, Australia; the National Museum of African Art – Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, USA and the Kunsthaus Graz, Graz, Austria. Most recently, Hazoumè was included in the 2014 International Biennial of Contemporary Art of Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.
All images courtesy of the artist and October Gallery.
Written by Keiron Le Vine.