Hazoumè, Romuald


Beninese, b. 1962; lives and works in Porto-Novo, Benin


The oeuvre of Romuald Hazoumè forms an extended meditation on the complex web of interdependencies that laced—and continues to lace—his native Benin into global networks of exchange. Hazoumè; first came to prominence with a series of sculptural works called Masques Bidons, or jerry-can masks, dating to 1987. They nod formally to the African ritual masks so influential on European avant-gardes, but are constructed of the ubiquitous plastic canisters used in Benin to transport everything from water to black-market Nigerian oil. Objects with "worn-out destinies," as the artist calls them, these battered and scarred vessels are now at the end of the line in a long chain of exchange. There is a sad joy in their prominence on Benin's roads and sidewalks; elsewhere these lowly servants, always mere carriers, never commodity proper, disappear into pure utility.

During the 1990s, Hazoumè started juxtaposing masks with documentary photography in mixed-media installations. The slippage between human and inanimate here extends into the photographed scenes, mostly rear-view shots of people hauling cans on bicycles and motorcycles, their bodies obscured by and subservient to the looming, bulbous compositions strapped precariously to their backs. Once the fabled Kingdom of Dahomey, Benin still resonates with the history of the transatlantic slave trade, a recurring theme. Hazoumè's celebrated 1997 installation La Bouche du Roi (The Mouth of the King) arranged more than 300 masks after a 1789 print of the British slave ship Bookes, each one embodying an individual slave. Market Forces (Better to Sell Meat than Men), a large-scale panoramic view of a sleepy goat-market, approaches the subject in a more oblique way. Part of a series portraying the present condition of old slave trade sites, its scene refuses to settle into the comforts of pastoral cliché, the index of slavery as inescapable as the links between economies present and past.

Artworks by Hazoumè, Romuald

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