The Humboldt Lab is exhibiting two works by the Beninese artist Romuald Hazoumè, who makes masks out of old plastic canisters – canisters But a that are used in his country to smuggle petrol in perilous conditions.
At a fleeting glance the colour of the masks recalls dark, noble wood. A second glance is irritating. One mask has light bulbs as horns on its head. The mouths are round holes that make them look like choirboys. The other has protruding, jagged ears and a spark plug in its left eye.
The details that Romuald Hazoumè adds disturb the initial impression of traditional African art – and refer to the material with which the artist works. The two masks that will be on show in the Humboldt Lab are made out of petrol canisters.
The artist from Benin in West Africa refers in his works made of junk to traditional African forms of artistic expression – while poking fun at Western expectations. “He once said, ‘You expect us to make masks. So I make masks,” says Dr Friedrich von Bose, Deputy Head Curator of the Humboldt Lab, the Humboldt-Universität’s exhibition in the Humboldt Forum.
The Background of the Masks
The renowned artist’s contribution enriches the exhibition in several respects. For one, the masks are eye-catching, von Bose says. “They look really good.” Above all, however, they offer a wide range of points of reference at the political, social and ecological level to topics of an exhibition entitled After Nature.
“The masks evoke the cliché of originality and stand for the desire for the exotic,” von Bose explains. The artist satirises Western enthusiasm about “African” art to which an “authentic” label is still all too often attached.
The masks also constitute a contribution to debate in the overall context. “We are here in the Humboldt Forum, where the question of the history of ethnological collecting and exhibiting is much discussed,” von Bose says. A total of 20,000 exhibits from Asia, Africa, America and Oceania are due to be exhibited in the reconstructed Berlin palace. They come from the extensive collections of the Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Art – both state museums in Berlin. That has led to a controversial debate on the provenance of exhibits, on possible claims for restitution and on dealing with ethnological collections in general. A case in point is the valuable Benin Bronzes, works of sculpture from West Africa that were stolen in colonial days in connection with the British conquest of the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 and subsequently in significant numbers found their way into the possession of German ethnological museums. The Benin Bronzes are a particularly salient example of the debate on the legality of ownership of works of art that were stolen in a colonial context.
The Hazoumè masks on show in the Humboldt Lab can also be interpreted in the context of this debate. It is not, however, a matter of passing judgment on neighbouring exhibitions but of making critical contributions to the debate, the curator says.
Romuald Hazoumè, born in Benin in 1962, made a name for himself in this country with, inter alia, his contribution to documenta 12 in Kassel, where in addition to masks he exhibited a refugee boat made of punctured plastic canisters.
The petrol canisters with which Hazoumè works are a symbol of the economic and social situation in his country. They are used to smuggle petrol to Benin from neighbouring Nigeria, a major petroleum-producing country. “The canisters are often inflated. That makes them larger but with thinner walls and more fragile,” says Friedrich von Bose. Transporting these containers can be life-threatening because leaking petrol can catch fire.
Relationship with the Environment
In contrast to traditional masks made of wood these works of art are not biodegradable. With his choice of material the artist also focuses on the problems of global waste disposal and plundering of nature. This links up with other exhibits in the science exhibition that deal with the challenges of the Anthropocene.
Hazoumè works with junk that Europeans have shipped to Africa. “For them Africa is nothing but a scrap heap where they can tip everything they want to get rid of. They know nothing about our pride and nothing about our culture. I basically revalue material that comes to us as waste by making works of art out of it,” Hazoumè said some years ago in an interview with the art magazine KUNSTFORUM International. For von Bose the global waste disposal and its revaluation to which Hazoumè referred are further interesting facets in the debate on provenance and ongoing colonial power structures.
Hazoumè’s work is now traded at high prices in the international art market.
“I first saw his canister masks in the early 2000s at the Museum of Ethnology in Munich,” Friedrich von Bose says. In those days exhibiting works of this kind in a German ethnological museum was unusual. The Munich art historian Dr Daniela Roth enabled to contact Martin Baumgart, a friend of the artist who works as an organic farmer near Bonn. Baumgart loaned the two gifts from Hazoumè to the Humboldt Lab for the exhibition.
Like 37 other special exhibits the masks are shown on so-called pantographs, suspended in the Great Hall of the exhibition. One of the masks is illuminated from the rear so that an engraved pattern can be seen, von Bose says.
Both masks are early works dating back to the 1990s. One is called Benin and the other Hope for Bonn. Hazoumè gave them to a friend after Berlin had replaced Bonn as the seat of government, the curator explains. So the masks relate not only to international history but also to intra-German history.
|Datum:||18. August 2020|