Romuald Hazoumè, Cocotamba, 2017. Mixed Media, 26 x 32 x 22 cm. Photo: Zarko Vijatovic, Courtesy Galerie Magnin-A, Paris, and Gagosian

Romuald Hazoumè

New York


Benin-born Romuald Hazoumè brings wit and formal rigor to his assemblage sculptures. His recent exhibition featured bidon, 50-liter plastic storage containers (often used to transport gasoline illegally from Nigeria), refashioned into masks, some spray-painted and others festooned with feathers, pipes, brushes, and even a broom. Maintaining an echo of the bidon’s original function, Hazoumè’s repurposed recycling allows for a range of readings and associations. Smashed flat or turned on end, some of the jerry cans become expressive faces, while the astutely placed shapes, textures, and colors of others delight the eye with pleasing designs and rhythmic patterns. While the seemingly rude bricolage technique draws from the make-do approach of outsider art, Hazoumè’s savvy allusions to Yoruba masks, used for religious rituals and ceremonies as symbolic conveyers of identity, bestow a humble nobility on these bespoke bidon.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the cultural and religious aspects of objects brought from African colonies for trade, sale, or display in European ethnographic museums went unacknowledged; they were likewise overlooked by successive generations of Western avant-garde artists who appropriated masks and figures from the Yoruba and other African tribes for their own creative ambitions. Jumbling perception and association, Hazoumè deliberately engages and disrupts this embedded narrative of domination and appropriation. Riffing on Modernist notions of primitivism and abstraction, his sly manipulations of these containers challenge viewers to engage with the troubled legacy of colonialism in Africa and its continuing impact on the present day.

Hazoumè clearly enjoys the bidon’s expressive potential, enthusiastically immersing us in the pleasure and disorder of discarded, abject vessels. Cocotamba (2017), a brown container topped with several wooden pipes, works as both mask and portrait, the arc of the handle alluding to a nose, the opening to a mouth, and the pipes to unruly dreadlocks. Toupieman (2018), an orange bottle with multiple apertures joined with a cleaning brush, suggests an open-mouthed scream or possibly a laugh; while Algoma (2016), with its horsehair broom, evokes the regal pose of a noble warrior even as it pays homage to Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar. In Curazao and L’éventail (both 2018), bidon are surrounded by feathers, intimating tribal costumes and performances. The blue container and red feathers of L’éventail (French for “fan”) might be an allusion to tribal or fan dancers, and possibly to Josephine Baker, whose nude performances with feathers, fans, and artificial bananas played to primitivistic, Jazz Age fantasies in the 1920s.

Recombination and repetition allow Hazoumè a certain irreverence, as he plays with and critiques the residue of Western colonial mastery. Twisting references to the commodity and exchange economy that drives our interdependent and interconnected world order—the black market trade of bidon transporting products that sustain corruption and exploit workers in African countries; the cheap, nearly non-biodegradable plastic polluting the environment of emerging economies; and the salvaged containers remade and assigned new value as marketable art products—Hazoumè upends the model that had previously subordinated African cultural expression to Western formalist ideals and gives Modernism an ironic spin.