Benin, exploitation and art

Romuald Hazoume, installation

By Christine Lindey in London, England:

Made In Porto-Novo

October Gallery, London WC1

Wednesday 21 October 2009

The Benin Republic’s Romuald Hazoumé is one of Africa’s most eminent artists.

He addresses contemporary life while also drawing upon his Yoruba cultural tradition to create works which are visually accessible yet redolent with multilayered allusions to historical, cultural and political issues.

He works with a wide variety of mediums but the petrol cans from which the Benin people get their fuel unite most of them. …

The spiked headdress on Liberty recalls the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of the so-called free world which has so damaged post-colonial African economies that also evokes Christ’s crown of thorns, symbol of the religion of the Portuguese slave-traders and French colonists who ravaged the Benin region.

The discovery of traditional African wooden carvings had inspired early 20th century artists like Picasso to liberate themselves from a tired European classicism to create the Modernist aesthetic. Hazoumé‘s masks made from contemporary found materials playfully challenge western preconceptions about African and Western art.

In contrast, his photographs bear witness to social injustice in Beninese life.

Their subjects are the Kpayo, young farmers, dispossessed of their land by agribusiness, who are forced to scrape a living by transporting contraband petrol across the Nigerian border. Pedalling their bicycles with loads as heavy as 250 litres of cans strapped to their bodies, they are human bombs. Many lose their lives as their cargo explodes in street accidents.

Known by locals as Benin Roulette – the title of one of Hazoumé’s images – this shameful job provides 90 per cent of Benin’s fuel. Hazoumé uses his influential status to draw attention to the exploitation of “the little people.” “At home I am a rebel,” he says, “because I am not afraid to speak out. No government has paid them any attention.” …

Bristling with intelligence and pertinence to contemporary issues, this is art which exposes human exploitation while affirming the will to combat it with humour and subtlety.

Exhibition runs until November 28 (closed Sundays and Mondays). Admission free.

Archaeology course unlocks silent history of the slave trade in West Africa: here.

French-speaking Africa: “Half-a-Century of Non-Sovereignty”: here.

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