SIMON CONWAY meets artist Romuald Hazoumé


Back in London for a matter of days and modestly disclaiming his most recent prizes (at the Third Moscow Biennale, at documenta 12), his collectors and exhibitors (the Bowies, the Guggenheim, the British Museum) Romuald Hazoumé – dissatisfied, engaged, delighted – is taking a startling new glance at language and art in the global world.

“Yesterday,” he says with a sleepy sigh (his accent, a rich béninois drawl, bounces off the tables), “we didn’t know where we are going, but we know where we are from.”  He looks quickly around at his collection on the walls of the gallery, “today we still don’t know where we are going … but we have forgotten where we are from”.

Hazoumé – as a thinker, as a creator – is, no doubt, one of the most important artists working today.  His spiritual and political philosophies (at the centre of every one of his most important works) is leading him swiftly into a weariness he feels at the current obsession with money in the art-world (“they want money, money, money, money, money” he cries, of the current art collector).

His own pieces, including the spectacular and deeply troubling La Bouche du Roi (mixed media, 1997 – 2005), now in the British Museum, have engaged deeply and without flinching at slavery, nationalism and race; his rigorously complex mask sculptures have become a byword for the most intelligent of contemporary African art.

Showing at the October Gallery to the 28th November, this is an exciting opportunity to see Hazoumé in London at the most stimulating point in his career.  His most exhilarating new works are a series of bold glyphs in unsettling shapes and colours; these are a detailed meditation upon iFa, the central linguistic construction that developed within the Yoruba civilisation.  Acadja (2009) and Avanti (2009) sit against Pot a Eau (1997).  Unlike the twists and outward densities of the other works in the show, they mask their complexities beneath calm, water-colour tones.  The shapes – simple and aggressive – nestling in the richest of contextual frames, are breathtaking.

Hazoumé is a forceful, energetic artist (though still a little jet-lagged, he launches excitedly into his explanations).  He talks me through a couple of the masks – placed one-up, one-down across one entire wall of the gallery.  In a magnificent, astonishing twist – these masks – so unmistakably Hazoumé – have developed in tremendously exciting directions: Liberte (2009), with its take on the Statue of Liberty, is a clever discussion of the movement of Africa towards the global world.  ‘Bye Bye’ (2009), his portrait of George W Bush is as neat and imposing a piece of satire as you might find anywhere.

Liberte (2009)

Liberté (2009, Found Objects)

Dominating the space in the October Gallery is ‘Made in Porto Novo’ (2009), an intricate dialogue on modern life in Benin.  This sits in a dialogue with his photographic work – picture follows picture of the dangerous impossible life of those that remove the plastic canisters carrying fuel. Hazoumé disclaims these works as art; he finds himself frustrated and astonished at those that seek beauty from the images: “I just want to show the reality,” he sighs again.

It’s part of a broader concern for him: “when people here talk about aestheticism […] it means nothing for me.”  With a final glance at the densely signified glyphs, he explains, “It’s what I have inside, I just put that outside.  I don’t care if it’s beauty or not.  If you like it then it’s good for you.”

Simon Conway

Romuald Hazoumé, at the October Gallery, 24 Old Gloucester Street, London WC1N 3AL (0207 242 7367), to 28th November 2009.

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