Beninese artist Romuald Hazoumè’s masks are humorous, playful and political — constructed from recycled waste — he began making the mask series in Benin in the mid 1980s.
Hazoumè’s ‘recycling’ refers to the inequitable history of exchange between Africa and Europe. Cultural artefacts such as masks were taken during the 20th-century artistic avant-gardes’ obsession with masks from the African continent, and more recently, industrialised countries have paid African nations to allow the dumping of their waste.
Hazoumè creates a subversive loop within this mixed history by recycling waste as masks to be exhibited in (primarily) European galleries. In his choice of materials, Hazoumè also underlines ongoing economic exploitation and ecological devastation by multinational oil companies.
As well as discarded household appliances and fabric, his assemblages often feature the plastic jerry cans or bidons used to smuggle petrol on the back of bikes from Nigeria to Benin as in Nest Violeta 2009. In Liberté 2009 African porcupine quills are used to create a halo of rays like those depicted around the Statue of Liberty in New York.
Hazoumé has kept close contact with his Vordun culture, a traditional animistic religion practiced by many of the Yoruba people in West Africa.
‘My influences derive from my people: the Yoruba, among whom various orders exist. My ancestors were Yoruba, from the Orisha cult, which defined the particular gods from the Yoruba pantheon that they venerated. For major ceremonies, masks were brought out that corresponded to each cult, of which, in our area, the most common were the Gelede. The Gelede is a cult of sculpted wooden masks. When we were children, at the end of each year we would get together in a group to perform the Kaleta. The Kaleta is a kind of apprenticeship to a secret society. Each group had a dancer and musicians. The dancer had to wear a mask that was made by one of the members of the group. At that time, I was in charge of making them for my group and for others. I quickly understood that I had to keep doing as my elders had done, to follow the tradition, but, as the Gelede is sacred, I had to find another direction through the making of my sculptures without neglecting my role in my society’.1
1 Interviewed and translated from French for ‘Sculpture is Everything’ in 2012 by Kathryn Weir former Curatorial Manager for International Art and Australian Cinémathèque, QAGOMA
Romuald Hazoume discusses his recycled masks
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