HAZOUME, Romuald; "Wax Rasta
Romuald HAZOUMÉ is a Beninese artist of Yoruba origin – one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa. He was brought up in a Catholic family but has kept close contact with the Vordun culture, a traditional animistic religion practiced by many of the Yoruba people.
Hazoumé’s work is at once humorous, playful and political. His practice embraces sculpture, painting and photography but he is best known for his ‘masks’ – an ongoing series commenced in the mid 1980s in which discarded materials (most commonly plastic jerry cans) are modified so that they take on the appearance of a face. As attested to by the artist’s photographs, these jerry cans are ubiquitous in Benin where they are often used to carry rice to the Nigerian border which is traded for black market petrol. Weakened from being expanded over flames to increase their capacities, the petrol-filled jerry cans are transported in gigantic clusters on motorbikes, often dwarfing the driver, and sometimes resulting in tragic accidents. A crucial yet expendable element in a system of trade and worked to breaking point, in the context of Hazoumé’s practice, the jerry cans can be read as a metaphor for slavery.
The particular forms taken by Hazoumé’s masks derive from a variety of forms including Catholic symbols and Yoruba gods. In addition to the plastic jerry cans, the artist employs a wide variety of other discarded materials including appliances, fabrics and natural materials such as feathers and porcupine quills. ‘Wax Rasta’ is one of seven masks exhibited in the artist’s 2009 exhibition at Alice Day Gallery, Brussels.
In an historical context, Hazoumé’s masks can be understood in relation to traditional Yoruba masks which were traditionally made for religious purposes. Following contact with the West, masks became a sought after trade commodity and were highly valued by European collectors. In the early twentieth century many European artists were exposed to African masks and they are recognised as having been a major influence on the formal innovations made by the Western avant-garde at this time.
Highly attuned to the West’s fascination with African masks, Hazoumé’s masks are emblems of what Gerard A Houghton has described as the artist’s ‘drolly subversive take on the ongoing inequalities of exchange between contemporary Africa and the Western world.’(1) The artist has observed that while the West has imported masks from Africa, it has in turn exported its rubbish, paying African nations to receive its waste. In Hazoumé’s words:
Today the Europeans have taken away all our masks and still they want more masks. In return they have left us their waste, which we do not manufacture ourselves. So, I recycle the rubbish which they send us everyday, as masks for which they have such a hunger and send it.(2)
At its heart, Hazoumé’s practice could be said to investigate the complexities of systems of trade: the relationships it establishes between different societies, its capacity to engender enslavement (economic and physical), and the potential for individuals to manipulate it to their own ends. The unapologetically humorous appearance of the masks, however, and their playful referencing of a wide range of cultural sources, serves to complicate the underlying political sentiment of the work and to open them to a wide range of possible interpretations.
Essay and biographical notes by Nicholas Chambers, Curator, Contemporary International Art, Nov. 2009.
1. Houghton, Gerard A. ‘Song of Life’. ‘Romuald Hazoume: Made in Porto-Novo’. October Gallery, London, 2009, np.
2. Hazoumé, Romulad. Cited in ‘Romuald Hazoumé: The art of resistance and transformation’. October Gallery, London, http://www.octobergallery.co.uk/education/hazoume-risc.pdf, viewed 09.10.2009.