Romuald Hazoumè was born in Porto Novo in Benin, where he still lives and works. He is a multimedia artist, probably best-known for his masks that he makes from found objects, but also works in various other media – video, photography, painting and sculpture. He has been making these masks since the mid-1980s, and first came to the attention of the art world in international terms in 1992, when his work was exhibited at the Out of Africa exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London. Since then his work has been exhibited and collected by private collectors and institutions worldwide. Four of his works are offered for sale in the forthcoming Bowie/Collector Part II: Modern and Contemporary Art Day Auction. Sotheby's new Head of Modern & Contemporary African Art, Hannah O'Leary, sat down with him to discuss his work and his encounter with David Bowie.
Hannah O'Leary: Can you give me brief introduction to the backstory of your work, and what drives your practice?
Romauld Hazoumè: To begin, you need to know where Benin is, and that we are neighbours of Nigeria. We are a big democracy, and a very proud nation, but the system brings people down. When Nigeria is just a little bit sick, they stay at home like a schoolboy. When Benin and Cameroon are sick – they go to hospital. Such is the divide. Nigeria produces petroleum, and this petrol is at such a low price now it’s terrible. Into this jerrycan, we put rice, we put gold, we put maize, then we send that to Nigeria, and we come back with petrol; it's a situation we can't stop. The Nigerian mafia and the Benin mafia control everything, but people need this petrol; we need this trade. This photograph is called Bidon Armé, and the guy is carrying 520 litres of petrol. He's not trying to be dangerous, he just wants to survive, but it could explode at any time. He just wants to give food for his family, and he has no other way to survive; no job – nothing. He’s ready to die to survive – and that is the reality.
HO'L: How did this translate into the idea of creating masks from these Jerrycans?
RH: Everyone has rubbish in their house, and your rubbish talks a lot. If you are rich, if you are poor; these objects create a portrait of people.
HO'L: Is there any relationship between these masks and traditional, tribal Yoruba masks? Is there a cultural reference on that side?
RH: Yes, but these African masks are made for the community. The art I make is for all of us, for the 'we' and not the 'me' – which is often the case in Europe. We work for the community.
HO'L: La Bouche du Roi is possibly your best-known work. It's in the collection of the British Museum, and was shown at various locations around the UK to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. Can you talk about the inspiration for this work?
RH: La Bouche du Roi means 'mouth of the King'. I took about seven years to make this piece, because it was so hard to me to plan everything, to think about everything. I made this work in Benin, and I advertised for a number of people to come and work on the project with me. I offered to pay them, and also provide them with food. I made them wait for six hours, then eight, by which time they were getting hungry and angry. After they had been there for 12 hours, it was 6pm and then I said now we are ready to do the work. They were very angry and I said: ''Good – that's exactly what I want''. I had placed microphones all around the large studio, and we tied them together with chains and then they started to recognise something; they were in a slave situation. I said: ''Imagine you don't know how to speak French, you don't know how to speak English, you speak your own language. You don't know where you are going, but you know where you have come from.''
HO'L: I’m going to take you back 20 years now, to the first Johannesburg Biennale in 1995, where you were exhibiting. This event celebrated the new republic, the new South Africa, after the first democratic elections that signified the end of Apartheid – and artists from around the world were invited to Johannesburg. David Bowie attended the bienniale in his capacity on the editorial board of Modern Painters, and you wrote about meeting you. Can you describe the encounter?
RH: I actually saw David Bowie in a restaurant the day before we met – I was there with Anthony Bond from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and he pointed him out, but that's where the story ended for me. Until the next day, when a friend come running to me in a panic to say that David Bowie wanted to buy a piece of my work. And I thought; this is a joke. But I arrived, and sure enough - there he was. A man said to me: ''I represent David Bowie; he is very interested in buying your pieces''. I said: ''I need time''. I didn't have an agent and he did, so I felt a little exposed. In the end, we spoke for about thirty minutes and it was a great experience. It turned out we had a mutual friend – Johnny Pigozzi. Between him, me and Joseph (my friend who was 'standing in' as my agent) we came to an agreement on the price, and when I got back to Benin a week later somebody telephoned me and said: ''I'm calling to pay for the works that David Bowie bought''. After a week! That never happens.
HO'L: Something that ties David Bowie's collection at large together is the assemblage technique and ready-mades which you see in a lot of the works he collected. There are a couple of works by Duchamp in the sale, and I think your works –such as Miss Pretoria – relate to these pieces in his collection. You mentioned Johnny Pigozzi: can you to expand on that relationship, and how Pigozzi and his curator, André Magnin, really changed your career significantly very early on?
RH: I met André Magnin about 30 years ago. He was in Benin at the time I had an exhibition and he asked me if I was the artist: I said yes. The next day he was in my house and we talked at length about my work, and after we talked, he chose three pieces or four pieces, and he said: ''okay, how much do I need to pay you?'' I told him the price and he offered me double. The next time he came, he bought more work, and paid three times the price. I was confused, but he explained it simply: ''we want to put you in a good situation; so you can continue to work well. You're a good artist now, but you'll be better if you can solely concentrate on making interesting work''. What Pigozzi and Magnin have done for African art, through support and investment, is incredible.
HO'L: I'm now going to skip ahead again, 20 years to the present day and your current show at October Gallery. We've talked about the history of Benin and of the slave trade, but this show deals with the current humanitarian crisis of conflict and migration. How is that discussed in your work?
RH: Today we have a big problem, not only in Africa: in Syria too. Thousands of people are dying in the Mediterranean, and we as artists need to do something with our work to talk to people. The fabric used in Cry of the Whale is called damask. It’s originally from Damascus in Syria. In my culture, when somebody dies, every friend puts a small piece of cloth on the body. I found this damask and covered each of the canisters that are lined up in rows like passengers in the boat as a kind of mark of respect for those who have lost their lives. I made this piece for those people lost to the sea, and their families.
HO'L: A lot of people in the Western hemisphere are not necessarily aware of the breadth of African art. What do you think needs to be done to increase the awareness – what are the challenges?
RH: It's quite a sad situation because the Europeans will support European art; the Chinese support Chinese art; the American people support American art; but what do we in Africa do? We buy Bentleys. That role must be our role as Africans. There needs to be awareness that it's a better to buy artworks than expensive cars. The artwork will be a good investment, because every year it will increase in value, but one week after you've bought a Bentley you can’t sell it at the same price. First and foremost we need African support, but Europeans can also continue to support and buy good artists they like. There is such a wealth of African contemporary art that is on the rise, and it's rising in value all the time. I am grateful to those foreign collectors and curators who are paying attention to African art. I'm not just speaking for myself: I am here to represent my continent.