Friday, December 5, 2008

Romuald Hazoumé makes a difference

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

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

M.F.Husain's works "have survived" Taj Hotel siege

Contrary to the widely circulated news report covered by Express India and numerous other Asian media outlets (including, surprisingly enough, Taj Hotel owners, Tata Group, which reported it here), the three large paintings by Indian modernist M.F.Husain which have hung in the hotel's lobby since 2000, may not have been destroyed after all.

This morning I spoke with a leading Mumbai-based art consultant (indeed a member of the original team that catalogued the Taj collection in 2003) who confirmed off the record that the Husain works in question did survive last week's terrorist attack.

Requesting anonymity, he said it was too early to assess the precise extent of the damage to other works in the collection but given the circumstances of the siege some damage was "inevitable".

The news that his lobby paintings have emerged unscathed will doubtless be welcomed by 93 year-old M.F.Husain who, according to the same reports cited above, was preparing to paint a fresh series to replace those "destroyed" in the attack.

More on this over the next few days.

Mumbai terror attacks take their toll on Taj Hotel art collection

It might seem perverse to be monitoring the plight of works of art as a result of a terrorist attack but all too often the collateral cultural damage gets overlooked on these occasions. This was certainly the case with the nasty little war between Georgia and Russia earlier this year (the cultural heritage implications of which I reported here).

Meanwhile, as those two countries still squabble about who was responsible for the damage to their ancient sites and monuments, attention turns to the carnage in Mumbai.

One of the worst hit locations during last week's terrorist attacks was the Taj Hotel (lobby shown above left), an internationally acclaimed cultural icon and a symbol of India's thrusting new economy. Less well-known is that the Taj, owned by the Tata Group, has a vast collection of historical and contemporary works of art, an unknown number of which were damaged in the recent carnage.

Perhaps the most significant reported art casualty was a series of three paintings by Maqbul Fida Husain (born 1915), the grandfather of Indian modernism, whose auction record (for Battle of Ganga and Jamuna: Mahabharata 12, right) currently stands at $1.6m (Christie's NY, March 2008).

In 2000, Husain was commissioned by Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata (whose family are major art patrons) to make a work for the Taj Hotel. Husain took up temporary residence in the Taj for several months, painting three large works for the hotel lobby. A widely syndicated report (here) suggested that those paintings were destroyed in last week's 59-hour siege.

The plight of other works by important Indian artists such as Anjolie Ela Menon (born 1940), Vasudeo S. Gaitonde (1924-2001), Tyeb Mehta (born 1925), Jamini Roy (1887-1972), Syed Haider Raza (born 1922), and Krishnaji Howlaji Ara (born 1913) is unknown. When I phoned the company this morning a Tata Group spokesman confirmed that the Taj hotel's art collection is currently housed in the 'Palace wing', which is out of bounds until further notice. The company declined to comment on the state of any of the works in the art collection.

M.F.Husain, now 93, (left) has told reporters he will paint new works for the hotel as a tribute to the Tata family and the Taj hotel staff "who laid down their lives for others."

"I have decided to paint a series of paintings condemning the attack," Husain said. "I am sure some day the Taj will regain its glory and I hope to show these paintings there."

Built in 1903, the Taj is home to a collection of 2500 works of art. In 2003, the auction house Bowrings (now defunct) was called in to catalogue and value the collection as part of the hotel's centenary. They unearthed treasures that not even the Taj management was aware of, describing it as one of the "finest collections of contemporary Indian art in existence," and worth millions. They also found evidence that many works in the collection had suffered significant neglect (see New York Times report of 2004 here). A very fine quality work by K.H.Ara, for example, was found to have been damaged by other heavy canvases leaning against it.

Such depredations may fade into irrelevance in the light of last week's terrorist attacks, as M.F.Husain seemed to acknowledge. "The Taj has so many paintings apart from mine," he told reporters. "I shudder to think what has happened to them. The Taj is the only hotel in Mumbai which has given so much importance to modern art."