Romuald Hazoumé's Cargoland brings Benin to the October Gallery

By Jennie Gillions | 09 July 2012
A sculpture of a circular silver mask of a female figure with a lock of black hair around it
Romuald Hazoumè, Djiogom (2011). Found objects© Courtesy Romuald Hazoumé
Exhibition: Romuald Hazoumé: Cargoland, October Gallery, London, until August 11 2012

Cargoland is Benin native Hazoumé’s third solo exhibition at the October Gallery. He has been asked why, now his international reputation is cemented, he stays in Africa. It's an arrogant question, and one that nobody who’s seen Hazoumé’s work should feel the need to ask.

An image of a circular silver sculpture in the form of the face of a woman with a lock of black hair
Fukoshima (2011).Found objects© Courtesy Romuald Hazoumé
The aforementioned “masks” that are this show’s first exhibit could not have been created by someone outside of the culture they reference. They are droll, beautiful and important for our understanding of both Beninese society and Hazoumé’s own artistic viewpoint.

In Hazoumé’s own words, the majority of the masks are “portraits of real people”; they reference unspoken language, particularly of female hairstyles. Hazoumé has created them out of plastic containers, whose dents and spouts effortlessly evoke realistic facial expressions. They are delightfully wry.

The one exception is Fukoshima, which pays homage to both Japanese community spirit following the nuclear disaster in 2011, and Hiroshima. This is the only work that explicitly references non-African concerns but, out-of-place as it might initially seem, the message of Cargoland makes Fukoshima painfully relevant.

An image of a sculpture of a small brown shape representing a face with hair coming out of it
Moncongo (2011). Found objects© Courtesy Romuald Hazoumé
Two installations, Water Cargo and Petrol Cargo, are the artist’s comment on illegal petrol smuggling between Benin and Nigeria. This dangerous trade is responsible for horrific injuries and, potentially, an ecological catastrophe if the exploitation of oil reserves is permitted to continue damaging Benin’s water supply.

The excellent exhibition catalogue features an interview with Hazoume, and explains the background far better than we have space for here. Suffice to say, the beautiful, stripped-down winged scooters are a sobering reminder of what damage can be inflicted by economic growth and demand for commodities.

The remainder of the exhibition comprises prints of photographs. Two full-colour works titled ARTicle 14, Débrouille-toi, toi-même! were originally used as the backdrop to a 2005 installation of the same name, which referenced the mythical “fourteenth article” in African constitutions. The “article” translates as “look out for yourself because no one else will”, and is pivotal to Hazoumé’s work.

An image of a bike on sand with what appear to be black stone barrels either side of it
Water Cargo (2012)© Courtesy Romuald Hazoumé
Hazoumé is concerned with the evolution of Benin’s own culture and self-sufficiency. He sees himself as a leader in his community, taking responsibility for showcasing, both to Beninese people and to outsiders, how resource-rich Benin is in terms of culture, community and economic potential. The ARTicle 14 pictures demonstrate his pride in local richness, and subtly emphasise his frustration that it is insufficiently utilised.

Panoramic photograph Station d’essence d’Abomey Calavi returns to the central tenet of over-reliance on foreign petrol. Bottles (originally brought to West Africa by Western slave owners as alcohol containers) line the shelves, and in the foreground a woman struggles with the weight of one.

The titles of his black and white shots of petrol smuggling are deliberately ironic. Pied à terre takes the literal translation of “foot on the ground” to play with the idea of a vendor’s scooter being his livelihood and home away from home. Croissant de lune (Crescent moon) is a much more romantic image than the reality of a girl carrying heavy containers.

Hazoumé says he “may have softened the impact” of his message, but his cynical humour rams it home none the less. He needs people to see what Benin is, what it can be, and – with the inclusion of Fukoshima – what it cannot be allowed to become.

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