Beninese artist Romuald Hazoumè is best known for taking jerrycans—colorful containers used to transport gasoline—and transforming them into human likenesses reminiscent of African tribal masks. Romuald Hazoumè, a new exhibition catalogue published by the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in Dublin, covers not only these “masks,” but also a good deal of the artist’s other projects. Because the catalogue documents the first solo exhibition of an African artist at IMMA, it covers the full breadth of Hazoumè’s work, including paintings and drawings, photography, sound installations, and video art.
The genius behind Hazoumè’s projects lies in his ability to imagine the humanization of inanimate objects. In one particularly memorable anecdote, he is said to have added a piece to one of his shows at the very last minute. While at the curator’s house ironing out the final details, he suddenly noticed a blue-and-yellow-striped watering can. He picked it up, turned it sideways, revealing its likeness to a human face, and declared that this would be the final piece in his show. Hazoumè fittingly named his new piece after the original owner of the watering can, curator Felix Valk.
Falling somewhere between readymade and found object sculpture, Hazoumè’s masks are not only incredibly imaginative but also deeply symbolic. The fact that most of them are made from jerrycans in and of itself makes a statement about the importance of oil in Benin (and around the world). Zemi (1997), one of the masks featured in the catalogue, clearly displays the Texaco symbol on its cheek, like an imprint or a brand. This ironic meeting of traditional mask-making and big oil represents the postcolonial realities of West Africa in general and of Benin specifically.
Hazoumè’s everyday life is as fascinating as his work. He lives in Cotonou, Benin’s largest city, but has his studio in the capital city of Porto-Novo, about an hour to the north. Between the two cities, he travels a route littered with vendors selling goods of all kinds on the side of the road—much of their merchandise the product of illegal smuggling. This artery passes close to the Nigerian border: Nigeria being an oil-rich country (and Benin not), there is an overwhelming prevalence of gasoline smuggling. People ride their bikes to Benin with at least 10 full jerrycans carefully strapped to every conceivable part of their bodies and their cycles, returning with empty cans the following day. Hazoumè takes his creative inspiration from sights like these on his daily commute.
Interpretations of Hazoumè’s jerrycan sculptures range from sending “rubbish” reconstructed as art back to the West, from whence it originally came, to the global dependence on oil. Of the contributors to this catalogue, Seán Kissane, senior curator at IMMA, has the most intriguing thoughts on the subject. Although his analogy to the Orwellian idea of “doublethink” is a little far-fetched, he keenly points out that oil’s rise to the rank of most consequential natural resource occurred in tandem with the development of European ideas of primitivism, making Hazoumè’s jerrycan tribal masks all the more relevant to Beninese as well as European, and even global, culture. Kissane’s leading argument is that the masks are “Janus-faced,” looking to the past while simultaneously projecting into the future.
He compares Hazoumè’s work to that of Yinka Shonibare, MBE, the British-Nigerian artist famous for his use of Dutch wax-printed fabrics. Like Shonibare, Hazoumè takes a Western product that has become somehow representative of West Africa and reconfigures it, turning its perceived significance completely on its head. At the same time, though, I am not entirely convinced of the artists’ similarities. While Shonibare is a darling of the West—most recently having created a sculpture for the Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square—Hazoumè creates work that is much more raw and, in a certain sense, more personal. The similarities that Kissane points out seem to be based on little more than shared West African cultural histories. In fact, if one were to consider Hazoumè and Shonibare in concert with Jac Leirner, a Brazilian artist, the same parallels could be drawn. All three artists transform Western products. (Leirner’s strung-up, empty packs of Marlboros could be interpreted as projecting a similar significance as Hazoumè’s jerrycans and Shonibare’s Dutch wax.) The main problem here is that many art critics—especially those in the West—tend to over-generalize about work coming from the former colonies. Thinking of non-Western artists not as individuals, but instead as a somehow coherent postcolonial collective, is a hurdle we in the West must strive to overcome.
Perceptions of non-Western art aside, Romuald Hazoumè is a very complete and enlightening catalogue, whose greatest strength is its insightful examination of the intersections linking Beninese history, Hazoumè’s personal life and work, and the present-day realities in postcolonial states. There is no question as to the creativity of Hazoumè’s sculpture. As for its inherent meaning, the artist brilliantly leaves it up to us to decide.
by Enrique Juncosa, Seán Kissane, Gerard Houghton, Yacouba Konatè, and André Magnin
Dublin: Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2011
160 pages, illustrated throughout, $40.00