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Last fall, Romuald Hazoumè had his first solo show in New York in nearly two decades, at Gagosian gallery. The Benin-based artist is known for the sculptural masks he creates out of refuse like jerrycans—a symbol of both a dependence on resources and the long-standing effects of colonialism. “I send back to the West that which belongs to them, which is to say, the refuse of consumer society that invades us every day,” said the artist.
The stories the masks tell are both social and political, asking questions about shared histories, the relationship between the West and Africa, and the role of politicians, but above all, addressing the human condition. It pleases Hazoumè to see visitors smile when they view his work. With upcoming an exhibition at the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College later this year, and a fall 2020 show at the Musée du Quai Branly on the horizon, the artist spoke with Whitewall about his next focus, the true face of immigrants.
WHITEWALL: What were some of your first interactions and memories of art?
ROMUALD HAZOUMÈ: My first memories date back to the drawings I was making when I was a child in my homework notebook—and that got me punished by my teacher. But the day he understood that I liked to draw, he came to school with pots of paint and that was a big day for me.
WW: When and how did you know you wanted to be an artist?
RH: I didn’t know. The teachers and my classmates from 1976 to 1977 at the Lycée Béhanzin in Porto-Novo knew that I would end up an artist, but I wanted to become a doctor and surgeon.
WW: You’ve said that you’ve made paintings in the past and people like them, but it’s not what you want to do. What draws you, then, to working in other mediums like sculpture, photography, film, and sound?
RH: The paintings you’re talking about are a reflection on the divinatory geomancy Fa. I keep many of those paintings hidden at home. It’s not an easy subject to render because it’s the basis of our culture. So it’s not easy for me to paint that. Everything in my work is linked to our culture. I’m not a painter—I’m an artist—and the medium is just a tool I need to express myself.
WW: How did you first start working with petrol jerrycans, something you’re now quite recognized for?
RH: It was unconscious at first. When it’s almost December in Porto-Novo in Benin, children form Kaléta groups that are out celebrating. The Kalétas are masks they wear during that time of year, and they dance with them on. Others accompany them by playing music using instruments made from empty cans and sheepskin and by singing. It’s a game that brings in some money, but it’s also a unit for learning about the initiation and secret. I used to make the masks and costumes from everything I could salvage—sugar boxes, bits of fabric, jute bags, and jerrycans.
After I was denied an exhibition at the Centre Culturel Français in Cotonou, the new director Yves Bourguignon offered me an exhibition at the same place in 1988. Monsieur André Magnin came through, and he’s the one who then showed my work all over the world.
WW: How has your work with that material evolved since then, would you say? Your recent show at Gagosian in New York (September 5–October 13, 2018) included some masks made in 2018, for instance.
RH: Making masks has become more and more difficult because I’m becoming more and more demanding. They have to talk less and they have to tell a story in a simple way. Before, they were busier. There were a lot of other things that served as decoration on top of the bases—jerrycans, radios, or other things evoking a mask.
WW: Incorporating items like feathers, pipes, telephone receivers, and other materials into your masks call attention to places, as well as social and political issues. How are you drawn to working in certain materials?
RH: It’s important to know that the mask remains the true face of an individual. The subject becomes people’s lives—that’s what interests me. I go through their garbage and I tell their story. But the selection of objects remains extremely difficult, and it’s a long process that leads to a stripping down: how to tell a political or social story with two objects?
WW: Your work addresses the issues and waste that comes from a global consumer society. And, as you’ve pointed out, this is a global problem, not just an African problem. Why is that a problem you want to address?
RH: Art is a lifelong engagement. To my knowledge, we consume less and therefore pollute less than the rest of the world. But the world sends us its waste, which ends up with us. I’m not an environmental activist, just an artist pointing to a problem on our continent, which has become the world’s garbage can. Birds eat plastic and later only feathers are left. Solving the problem is a pipe dream! But helping to limit the damage is quite possible through fundamental education.
WW: You’ve said, “I answer questions that preoccupy my people. I am compelled to respond in my way.” What are the questions you’re responding to today?
RH: There are several types of questions: Those related to our ignorance and to the lack of knowledge about our history and culture. Those related to our existence and those related to our political leaders. Those related to the relationship between Western countries and ours. The answers remain my answers, not other people’s. But even if they address issues on my continent, I believe they contain something universal, because I see visitors smiling when they see a mask in an exhibition. In the end, those questions, which are profoundly human, concern us all.
WW: You’ve made a point to keep your studio in Benin, to continue making work in Benin. Why is that essential to your practice?
RH: It’s simple—our “potato” has to be recognizable from a distance, and its basic flavor has to excrete our culture, the one we’re proud of and that we share with delight. Inspiration comes from there. Art is on every street. As long as we live here, we’re filled with it. If our “potato” tastes the same as the one in the West, it’ll become a Western by-product. That’s why I continue to live in Benin.
WW: Could you describe your studio for us?
RH: Two large twin houses measuring a thousand square meters, with some dozen small rooms. Two enclosure walls belonging to one of the houses are covered in black jerrycans; some are colored, the 50-liter size, and they look at you as if they were listening to you. They are my people. A roof orchid garden on one side, and on the other a shed where I make most of the large installations.
In the first house, there’s a large terrace protected by a roof, a hammock, a table made from a slice of mahogany. That’s where I entertain. There’s also a room where the masks come from. These days, you have to be careful where you walk when you enter.
WW: What is a typical day in the studio like for you?
RH: I don’t go all the time; I live in Cotonou now, which is an hour drive from Porto-Novo. My presence must be necessary. Once there, I hide my car in the house. You need a lot of bottles of water and the work begins. I have a small team of three people: a welder, a carpenter, and a manager. They only come if their presence is needed. I can spend the day looking at an object I’m working on and get back into the car to go home. But there are days when everyone is there, and it can go on for two months, nonstop.
WW: What are you currently working on there?
RH: Immigration, the true face of immigrants.
Translated from French by Molly Stevens.