The extraordinary multi-media installation – La Bouche du Roi (1997-2005) by Benin-born sculptor Romuald Hazoumé (left) went on display last night at the marvellous Horniman Museum in south east London. This is the penultimate venue on the work’s UK tour before it takes up permanent residence in the British Museum, which recently acquired it for its permanent collection (with help from The Art Fund). Hazoumé is represented by London’s October Gallery. There is no equivalent term in the art world for what in music is known as ‘world music’, but whatever you call it, The October Gallery is its spiritual home and centre of operations.
La Bouche du Roi (Mouth of the King) is a symbolic representation of an Atlantic slave ship that for three hundred years transported slaves from Africa to North America and Europe. The work employs the plastic petrol cans (right) that have long been a prominent feature of Hazoumé’s work. Like Picasso, who with the subtlest manipulation transformed a bicycle saddle and handlebars into a bull’s head, so Hazoumé shows us the petrol can as African mask.
This is the great power of so many Nigerian contemporary artists – their ability to identify pure sculptural form in the most humble and neglected objects and materials. El Anatsui has done it with tin bottle tops; Nnenna Okore is doing it with newspaper, string and burlap; Hazoumé does it with petrol cans. It's tempting to see this as part of the legacy of European modernism and its discovery of the objet trouvé or ‘readymade’ – Picasso and Duchamp being the obvious grand masters. But of course they in turn took their lead from ‘primitive’ or ‘tribal’ objects. So the true source of the river was, and remains, Africa.
But Hazoumé is not interested in settling old historical scores or exacting revenge on Africa’s former colonial looters and tormentors. He is more concerned with what Africa can do today to address what he sees as modern forms of slavery. Hazoumé’s slave ship is not the stinking hulk that plied the waters off West Africa in 1700, but the edifice of economic exploitation that every day forces thousands of African men and women to risk their lives transporting black market petrol from Benin to Nigeria for a pittance. What makes La Bouche du Roi so important is its contemporary resonance, the way it draws attention to the immiseration and impoverishment visited upon countless millions of Africans by bankers and vulture capitalists.
The floor-based arrangement of La Bouche du Roi (aerial view shown left) comprises 304 black plastic petrol can ‘masks’ (which have assumed the colour and patina of bronze) stacked in serried overlapping rows to evoke the cramped conditions on board a slave ship. The masks are juxtaposed with sheaves of tobacco, spices, old gin bottles and a musket to represent the goods traded for slaves. These historical references provide the critical underpinning for the installation’s main contemporary theme, revealed in a short accompanying video documenting the petrol-couriers of modern-day Benin.
Shown in subdued lighting and with various ripe smells piped into the gallery to lend an evocative ambience, the installation is further animated by a background soundtrack of cacophonous voices speaking the Benin languages of Yoruba, Idaacha, Mahi, Mina and Holli to signify the slaves on board ship.
When I met Hazoumé at the Horniman yesterday he spoke passionately about the meaning and purpose of the work. “La Bouche du Roi is about what is happening now. Slavery continues today but in different forms. Now it is run by the bankers who oppress the weak people in the pursuit of profit, profit, profit.”
I asked him how he felt about the installation being shown at the Horniman Museum, and indeed owned by the British Museum, both institutions which, controversially, continue to hold important collections of the royal brasses looted from Benin by the British in the infamous Punitive Expedition of 1897 (right).
“I have no problem with that!” he exclaims. “It is better that they are in the British Museum right now. If they were sent back to Benin they would be immediately sold to the Japanese and copies would be put in the Benin museum in their place. In Benin they need the money, you see, to buy votes. There is still too much corruption.” I ask if this is a view shared by many of his compatriots. “Of course! Everyone believes this!”
Well, not quite everyone. Barely a day goes by without another polemical essay appearing on the internet condemning the British Museum’s retention of the Benin brasses and calling for their return. Athens may now be in a position to look after the Parthenon Marbles more effectively and responsibly than the British Museum has ever done, but is Benin yet ready to take back and look after its own historical treasures? Not according to Romuald Hazoumé.
Although it focuses attention on the plight of many contemporary West Africans, La Bouche du Roi does not wallow in post-colonial angst or self-pity. Instead it comes across as a rallying cry, a call to arms.
At the same time, it provides a welcome critical contrast to the apparent willingness on the part of many bling-addled British contemporary artists to shore up the values of an unethical marketplace and pander to the vapid cult of celebrity.
Personally I’m delighted the British Museum had the vision to purchase La Bouche du Roi. It will look marvellous alongside the Benin bronzes…until Benin is in a position to receive them back.
La Bouche du Roi is at the Horniman Museum, Forest Hill, south east London, until 1st March 2009 and at The Herbert, Coventry from 3rd April to 31st May.
Portrait of Romuald Hazoume courtesy October Gallery. Photo credit: Erick-Christian Ahounou