Juliet Highet looks at the Beninois artist, Romuald Hazoume, and how his unique genre, which focuses on problems at home, has turned heads around the world.
The long dark shadow of slavery haunts Romuald Hazoume’s work like a spectre, stretching from the historic trade to its modern equivalent of exploitation of African labour and natural resources. Hazoume was born in the capital, Porto Novo, in what is now the Republic of Benin, formerly known as Dahomey.
In much of his recent work, Hazoume makes a virulent connection between past and present, concentrating on the role of young petrol carriers who convey massive loads of contraband fuel from Nigeria to Benin precariously suspended around motorbikes and scooters. A large percentage of petrol consumed in Benin travels via this method known as Kpayo, making fortunes for a few, exploiting most and causing hideous accidents for some, since the loads frequently explode. Hazoume’s signature icon is the petrol cans used for this blackmarket trade. The slave ships of yore smuggled people out of Benin and now the jerry cans smuggle fuel – the essential component remaining is exploitation.
“Who does the petrol run?” asks Hazoume. “It’s farmers in our lovely country. If the government would only do something for them, do you think they would keep doing this? But if they stop, nothing would last a week, it’s so corrupt. These traders aren’t robbers, not even new slaves; they have to survive, and like everyone else they need proper support.”
The petrol cans pervade Hazoume’s work, whether transformed into masks and installations, or captured in photographs and on film of the carriers who ferry these loads of petrol in hugely inflated plastic containers – the cans – which have been heated over flames until they are soft and can be stretched to convey even more fuel.
“Both the boys and containers are faceless units within commercial systems, dangerously worked to breaking point,” says Hazoume. “A lot of these boys are blown up in explosions – it’s highly dangerous.”
Hazoume is a Yoruba, for whom the divination system of Ifa is significant and whose symbols are often present in his work. “Before these boys go out to collect the gasoline,” he reveals, “they go to the babalao (Ifa priest) who asks the oracle if today is good for them or not. If he says it’s not, they stay at home.”
However, some die every day. Since the mid-1980s Hazoume’s signature has been his modification of plastic containers, particularly those petrol cans, into masks which satirically reveal his subtle yet devastating social and political commentary. This critique is both local and global, using the detritus of urban “civilisation”.
“I send back to the West that which belongs to them, that is to say, the refuse of consumer society that invades us everyday,” Hazoume says. However, he repudiates the idea that this is just Africa’s burden. “We need to understand that we have the same problems all over the world on different levels. We all take up this Coca-Cola culture, which makes us unaware of our own culture.”
He argues that we exist within a global situation in which we are all unaware of our direction and origins, a present and a future which he addresses in his work. The petrol cans are transformed into masks with the addition of “found” objects, such as a fragment of cloth which becomes a head-tie, or porcupine quills which morph into dreadlocks. “I don’t recycle – I hate that word! I use found objects,” Hazoume insists. The actual shape of the cans, such as the gaping spout and handle, suggests somewhat sinister facial features – an open mouth, a nose, plaited hair attachments that resemble a Tarantula spider. Mask-making, of course, is an indelible aspect of the African aesthetic, but a dying art today. Hazoume is passionately committed to maintain it.
“If I don’t,” he seethes, “it will disappear. Today, if you want to see the old masks from Africa, you need to go to the British Museum or shops in Paris and London. So I make new ones with the rubbish people send us from Europe, and I send them back to galleries with my culture inside them. We in Africa are losing our culture and if we don’t regain it, we’re dead. We think European culture is better than ours, but our culture is so rich.”
Unlike so many fellow African artists who gravitate to live amongst the supposedly rich pickings of the Western art scene, Hazoume continues to live and work in Benin. “You know what,” comes the vehement declaration, “When we all leave Africa, it’s terrible. I need to stay to work, to fight for politicians to make it better for my people.”
Remaining at home is nurturing too – drawing on his heritage and the land as a source of inspiration. And his local community is receptive to his work. “They know it, because they know me. I am in the midst of them,” Hazoume says. “I answer questions that preoccupy my people. I am compelled to respond in my own way. I’m not like Western artists; my art – our art – is for the community, talking about our people and the answers for their questions. These questions were raised with the old masks; we continue the same role in a different way.”
In Cotonou, Benin’s commercial centre and largest city, Hazoume has collaborated in founding the Zinsou Foundation, a contemporary art space co-sponsored by Sotheby’s auction house. “Our most important visitors are children,” he discloses. “We were given a bus which can be booked to bring them from anywhere to participate freely.” The specific aim of the foundation is to promote contemporary African and world art.
Marie-Cecile Zinsou declares: “Art today is the best metaphor of Africa tomorrow. Nothing is more urgent than to access it. Let’s look at ourselves in the mirror that Romuald hands us.”
Hazoume agrees: “The issue for African art is not whether people say it’s good or bad, it’s when they don’t say anything.” In fact recently there has been a blossoming of interest in, and sales of, contemporary African art internationally. But many of the artists themselves reject the label “African”; they want to be exhibited as “artists”, and Hazoume is one of them. He resists the implied categorisation and stereotyping of a “contemporary African art scene”.
He argues that: “This very thought is a misunderstanding of what contemporary art and art in general mean. People forget that art is essentially like a potato: it grows everywhere in the world, but it has different tastes.” He makes an exception for Andre Magnin, who collects and curates on behalf on Jean Pigozzi, one of the most significant collectors of art from Africa. According to Hazoume, Magnin always treats his [Hazoume’s] work as “art, not African art”. Magnin helped to kick-start what is now Hazoume’s stellar career.
In the early 1980s Magnin arrived in Benin to select work for an exhibition titled Magiciens de la Terre, which opened in Paris and then toured the world from 1986 to 1989. He bought several of Hazoume’s masks, which he later showed in the Saatchi Gallery’s Out of Africa exhibition in 1992, attracting the critical attention of the global art world, which responded to the subtle critique of Hazoume’s plastic “masks”, satirising the Western reverence for “exotic” traditional African masks.
In the past 20 years Hazoume’s work has been exhibited in Europe, the US and Asia, and is represented in important collections around the world, including the permanent collection of the British Museum.
Speaking of Africans transported during the slave trade and those of today, Hazoume says: “They didn’t know where they were going, but they knew where they had come from. Today they still don’t know where they are going, and they have forgotten where they come from. In many ways, slavery has never ended – many people are bound to work their whole lives for rich bosses, who use them without regard for their humanity, and who then throw them away like refuse.”