adelaide damoah,  Romuald Hazoumè

Adelaide Damoah in Conversation with Romuald Hazoumè

Born in 1962 in Benin, West Africa, Romuald Hazoumè, is considered one of Africa’s leading visual artists.  A winner of the prestigious  2007 Arnold-Bode-Prize at Documenta 12 in Germany, Hazoumè first came to the attention of the wider art world in 1992, when his politically astute works were first exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery’s “Out of Africa” show. Already a full-time artist by then,  Hazoumè’s works have since been shown in major museums and galleries all over the world and has works in the collections of the likes of David Bowie and Iman.  

Hazoumè’s works appear to be humorous and witty commentaries on current political issues in his home country and indeed the rest of Africa, however, behind the humorous masks lies a powerful a message about current political and social issues which he feels deeply passionate about. His most recent work which will be exhibited at the October Gallery in June is entitled Cargoland. Using commonly found petrol cans from Benin,  Hazoumè places a stark light on the serious problem of the illegal transport of petrol between Nigeria and Benin. This activity often causes explosions that kill the people who engage in this illegal trade in a desperate bid to ensure their own survival. Hazoumè’s work pays homage to these men who are often disabled or homeless.

Romuald Hazoumè was kind enough to take time out from hanging work at another show to discuss his thoughts and feelings about art, his career and success, in the run up to his highly anticipated London show.

Romuald Hazoumè, Water Cargo, 2012, Mixed Media, variable dimensions. Photo the artist, courtesy October Gallery, London

Adelaide Damoah (AD): I read that you came to prominence in 1992 when you did the Saatchi Masks show. Could you tell me what lead you to that point?

Romuald Hazoumè (RH): When I was in my last year at school they lost my paper for the final exam. I was very angry and I left school. For four years after that, I just made art. I asked people to show what I was doing. They refused me many times, so it was about seven years before I had my first show. I was very surprised that André Mernier came and bought my work. André Mernier  was in Africa because he and Jean Picote, the owner of one of the most prominent collections of African art in the world,  were trying to find artists for an exhibition in Paris. That is how I ended up at the Saatchi show. David Bowie was there, saw my work and bought some later on. I now travel around the world and make exhibitions.

AD: That is excellent. You said that David Bowie was at that show and probably a few other notable people. How did that show then change your career, your life?

RH: My career is changed by me. The most important thing is how you work. If you follow money then no. But if you follow good quality and if you know what is better for you… That is why I still stay and work in Africa and I try to put our culture on top because that is what we know better than anybody. That is what made my career. I just show what I want to do because I know where I am from. I met David Bowie in 1995 in Johannesburg. It was very good for me because he bought two pieces of mine for Iman. It was a funny story because usually, you can not talk directly to David Bowie, you have to talk to his people! I played with that! I played and he needed to talk to me! He talked to me directly and said, “OK, lets talk, I will buy!” After that, we spoke for about one hour. It was crazy! It was fantastic. At that time, you would see the person in front of you, not a man who worked for him. I told him, I love your music and I hear your music and I never have a discount when I buy your music! I don’t want to put a discount on my work. He just said, “Forget it, I don’t want a discount, I will buy immediately.” And he paid me before he got the pieces. He paid me the same week and he did not get the pieces here in London until eight months after. I asked him why he trusted me like that. He said, “Because I know you and I know there will be no problem.” That was the story behind David Bowie and this story helped me a lot because when somebody who is well known buys your pieces, it is good for you. It makes some kind of publicity.

AD: Was it at the time of the Saatchi show that you became a full time artist or were you already full time?

RH: Oh, I was already full time. I just did it because I was very angry with the school. I wanted to prove to them that I was going to be well known and I was going to be good. I had to survive. I decided to be an artist because I had nothing else to do. I was very worried in the beginning because I didn’t know where I was going with this decision. But now, I am very happy that I took that decision. Those years made me strong and now, I am very proud.

AD: You should be! You have obviously achieved many things with many awards and international recognition. What does success in the art world mean to you?

RH: As an African, we do not have to be like European people. The art scene is a big group for artists. They need you inside this group if you can show something very new, something very original, something very clever. But what we have to show today, is our culture, is our background. Because we have something we call art too you know! It is not only Western people who have that. We have very interesting, very strong pieces and we need to show that. When I become very well know, I think it will be because I have something to say. It is not about making a copy of art from the West and saying we need to go to the Academy of art or to say we have to copy the Impressionists or Cubists…  There are many stupid artists in Africa doing this and their work will stay there in Africa. But this work has shown me and many people have said that I am right to work as an artist in Africa to show our culture.

AD: So it seems that you closely identify your success as an artist with your identity as an African.

RH: Yes! Because we have a problem and the problem is the same problem we have everywhere. And we resolve this problem in our own way. Everybody has this oil problem, petrol problem. We have the same problem, for power. If you see my work, you can understand that because the petrol we use which comes from Nigeria comes through illegally in canisters. I use these canisters to make my masks and installations. I shoot (photograph) the people who carry the canisters into Benin. That is a war inside another war. If you think about it, it is the same thing that people are doing now in the US and in China. They use petrol and they have a lot of ways and if petrol is not in their path, they can kill people to get it. In our country, people just want to survive and that is why they carry about 500 litres of petrol on a motorbike. It is like a bomb and 10 days later, they are dead. That is our problem and this problem is a problem for the world because we are all inside this coca cola culture which is something you can find everywhere.

AD: Tell me a bit more about the petrol problem in Benin. There are homeless and sometimes disabled men carrying petrol across borders. How did you come to be inspired by that to the extent that you made the work that you have made for this exhibition?

Romuald Hazoumè, Moncongo 2011, Found Objects,H51 cm,L22 cm,P28 cm, photo Jonathan Greet,  courtesy October Gallery, London

RH: Contemporary art talks about what happens today, what we are doing today. But we can use what we had before to do that. The thing is, these problems have no solution. Your way to help your people is to try to find a solution, but you can’t find a solution because the problem is too heavy, it is too strong. 90 per cent of people in Benin use this illegal petrol in their cars.

AD: It is a necessity.

RH: It is a necessity yes. Because the day someone cuts that pipe line will be the day they will stop Benin. How people carry petrol is so clever. They call these canisters gold and medicine from Benin to Nigeria and from Nigeria to Benin, they call it petrol. Its a good trade. When I made the first mask, I did not know that I had made something interesting. It was a friend who said to me that what I had done was interesting and that I should continue doing it. I told him to forget it because it was not something I wanted to do. He asked me what I wanted to do and I said, well maybe I will make paintings because everybody asks me to make paintings! Maybe, I am meant to make paintings. When I make paintings people think they are gorgeous, but it is not what I want to do.  I sold every painting I made at that time, but it was not really what I needed. What I needed was to create something very clever and interesting. If you create something, but you have nothing to say, it is not very interesting. I found this trade from Nigeria to Benin a good thing to talk about.

AD: Art world experts have cited you as being a part of this rise in prominence of African visual art. This shift in art world thinking seems to me to be almost palpable. How do you think this change will affect African artists going forward, including yourself?

RH: The work we are doing now has a big problem. The most important problem we have is visa problems. We are very well known. We travel a lot. We can say that we are rich because we sell pieces of art and we have a lot of money. But, certain people don’t trust us because they consider us to be people who want to immigrate to their country. But this is not the fault of Western people. The problem is coming from Africa. Our leaders are so stupid that they can not be responsible for our countries. They can not  do something good for the countries by keeping hold of the money and using it for the better of the people. With leaders like that, how can we be respected outside? It is impossible! One day, you can be a very well known artist, but they do not respect you until the day that you get another passport. We continue to fight with this kind of problem because we continue to stay in Africa. But our fighting is not really helping our countries because we are fighting against our leaders who are very bad. We have everything in Africa, but things are bad because we have no good leaders. That is our first problem. We need to fight with them to get them to be just a little bit more responsible for what they are doing in Africa. The thing is that these leaders are so rich, yet so many of the people are still so poor. If we leave Africa, it will be a terrible thing because nobody will build Africa for us. That is why we stay and try to change everything, but it is very difficult.

Romuald Hazoumè, Djiogoma,2011,Found Objects,H 38 cm L 30 cm P 29 cm, Photo Jonathan Greet, courtesy October Gallery, London

AD: What would you say is your biggest success to date?

RH: I just want to thank a few people who trust me and have trusted me from the beginning. There have been people who have followed me for the past 25 years. People like Johnny Picote, Andre Mernier, the October Gallery… You know, there are many people in the world who have helped me a lot. I just want to say thank you to them and they can be proud of my work and they can be proud of me. I will never be somebody who forgets what people do for me. We need to work together with our galleries and collectors because they put us on top today and we need to continue to support them to help them too.

AD: Are you saying that your biggest success is that you recognise that it is through these people that you are at the point you are at now?

RH: Yes, yes, definitely. They trusted me at the beginning and they brought me into galleries at the beginning. Without them, I would not be so well known. I have worked hard to be here. When I won the Documenta prize, I was so happy that I cried. I cried because it was so hard to get there. I just had to thank so many people because this was a very well known prize. When I got another prize, again, I said thank you. It pushed me to get better. That is why today, I never make stupid pieces. I say thank you a lot before I do any new pieces because when I agree to show these pieces, it must be powerful.

AD: Would you say that the Documenta prize was your biggest achievement?

RH: Yes.

AD: What would you say was the hardest set back that you have had and how did you overcome it?

RH: Well, every well known person has somebody behind him. If it is a man, it may be a wife that he has behind him who helps him to be well known and helps with other things so that he can work. What I regret the most is the loss of my first wife. She helped me to be a success because she took care of our children so that I could work peacefully and travel a lot. However, one day, ten years ago, she just died suddenly. It happened so quick. Within five minutes, I lost my wife. We were at a party and she had an aneurysm. I was left with two children, one was 11 months old and the other was four years old. It was a very difficult time, but I did not stop working. If I had stopped working, I don’t think I would be the artist that I am today. I continued to work but it was very hard.

AD: It must have been difficult. I am so sorry to hear about that…

RH: Thank you.

AD: What would you say is your biggest aspiration going forward for your work?

RH: It is not about art because today, one of my dreams has been made reality in Benin. It was the possibility to show our work in Benin and we achieved that with a new foundation which has been working in Benin for the past seven years. That was my dream, to have a museum where we could put on exhibitions. So today, my big dream is not really about art, it is about how we can get leaders in Africa to be more responsible. How can we get leaders in Africa to be less corrupt and more respectable? That is my dream and it is a big dream.

AD: It is a big dream.

RH: I don’t want to be a politician. I don’t know how to lie to people so I can’t be a politician. In Moscow, people say, “the dream will be dead before you.” Meaning, you will never have this dream. But I hope to have that in Africa, because our future will be much better if we can work on that dream. Because we have our own resources, we are so rich and the Western people disturb us, but we fail to understand that we are being manipulated.

AD: But in a way, your work is all about that.

RH: Yes! All of my work is about our reality.

AD: Your work could somehow contribute to your dream becoming a reality.

RH: Yes! That is what I try to do.

AD: What advice would you give to an up and coming artist wishing to follow in your footsteps?

RH:  The first thing is never follow money, just be yourself. Never think that what people are doing in Western art is what you need to do. Have something to say, but know that it will be very very difficult.

AD: And to accept that but still keep going.

RH. Yes. Yes.

Romuald Hazoumè, Fukoshima 2011,Found Objects,H 52 cm L 24 cm, P 14 cm, photo Jonathan Greet, courtesy October Gallery, London

Romuald Hazoumè’s exhibition Cargoland, runs from 28th June till the 11th August 2012 at the October gallery in London. For more information on the artist and the exhibition, please see the gallery website.

An abridged version of this interview will be published in the July edition of Lime Magazine with thanks to editor Vernia Mengot.
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