Whenever people anywhere talk about Africa they think about masks. . . . Today, they are the best way to represent my people, who continue to question their own identity.
—Romuald Hazoumé (Interview with Martin Henatsch, Neumunster, Germany, 2010)
Romuald Hazoumé conceives of his masques-bidon, or “jerrican masks,” as an homage to West Africa’s as well as layered and multifaceted reflections on the relationship between Africa and the West.
Hazoumé grew up in Porto-Novo, the capital of the Republic of Benin, where he continues to work. He has always been deeply aware of the central importance of masks as part of his Yoruba cultural heritage. As a child, he began constructing masks for Kaléta, a form of initiation for children that takes place annually in late December. Years later, he wore a mask of his own at a costume ball organized by a German friend, and realized its appeal to Europeans living in Benin who conceived of masks as the epitome of African art.
In a creative gesture that evokes Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, Hazoumé appropriates and reconfigures the commonly found gasoline jerrican as a mask. His deliberate choice of this material addresses the impact of Western consumerism on Africa. The Beninese rely upon Nigeria for petrol, supplied in jerricans via extensive black market trading between the neighboring countries. These nonbiodegradable canisters, usually made of black rubber from Germany, accumulate in the streets of Cotonou and Porto-Novo. Hazoumé relishes the irony of sending discarded matter back to Europe and the United States through his creations.
The works on view in the exhibition demonstrate Hazoumé’s commentary on a range of issues. Through the pair of closely related masks Ibedji (Nos.1 and 2) Twins, Hazoumé references his attachment to his Yoruba origins by evoking the high birth rate of twins—who are socially venerated—among the Yorubas. Both Internet and Coconut reflect on the impact of the West on Africa: Internet does so through its harnessing of imported matter in the form of electric cables; Coconut is a female representation defined by the crowning braid of straight, blonde hair, a reference to the trend among Beninese women to dye their hair. Ear Splitting was created for the Liverpool Biennale in 1999 and—inspired by the musical legacy of that city—features two large earphones worn as oversized goggles, as well as hair defined by a whirling brush. With Godomey, which means “the other side,” Hazoumé reveals what one hides about oneself from the outside world by showing the usual gasoline jerrican inside out. ‘My piece is not talking about old slave ships; it’s about what happens today.’ Romauald Hazoumé is absolutely clear that, in his view, slavery has not ended; it has merely changed its form and the installation ‘La Bouche du Roi’, recently purchased by the British Museum and exhibited this year in connection to the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, makes powerful connections between past and present.
The work was initially created in 1997, shown for the first time in Benin in 1999 and then toured through various European galleries. At that time it comprised the form of 304 ‘masks’ made from petrol cans laid out in the image of the woodcut of the Brookes slave ship produced in 1789 for the anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson.
‘I made it for my people,’ according to Hazoumé, people he thinks have ‘forgotten where they come from’ and the opening of the work in Benin was accompanied by traditional food, drink and music as a demonstration of what is being lost by those who are now ‘following Coca-Cola culture,’ he says. In 2005, when shown at the Menil Collection in Texas, Hazoumé added a film to the installation showing the smuggling of petrol between Nigeria and Benin using the same petrol cans. This has added a new dimension to the work for a European and American audience who may be ignorant of the oil business in West Africa. The work’s significance, according to Neil McGregor, director of the British Museum, is a documentation of how West Africans view the slave trade today.
It will be shown in five cities and six different venues in the UK over the next year or so, making an interesting intervention in the events commemorating abolition.
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