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My Paradise – Made in Porto-Novo. Exhibition at the Gerisch-Stiftung in Neumünster, Germany.By Martin Henatsch | Jun 2010
The work of an African artist too quickly becomes grist to the mill of ethnological categorization or development policy assessments. Like a reflex, the word ‘Africa’ triggers images of a continent that ultimately say more about the ignorance of the commentators than the object of discussion itself. The images range from the one extreme of a continent in crisis (wars, disasters, corruption, disease) to the equally distorted longing for a more ‘natural’, more ‘original’, more ‘authentic’ life, which is deeply rooted in the cultural consciousness of Europe. Africa still seems to be the counter-image of the advance of civilization, the ideal projection surface for the very different; secret, exotic, paradise. Every aspect of Romuald Hazoumè’s work opposes such a reductive approach by making the Western transformation of his homeland its subject with its own particular artistic language.
For three years, Gerisch-Stiftung in Neumünster has been investigating the cultural and social conditions of what we understand by Paradise or Arcadia, using its exhibition spaces in the Villa Wachholtz, the Gerisch Gallery and the Gerisch Sculpture Park. Why does a piece of the (so-called) natural world appear idyllic, whether it be the garden of Gerisch-Stiftung, laid out in 1924, or the beach of Porto-Novo in Benin, with its palm trees? How does this reflect our social reality? These are questions that were relevant also at the start of our partnership with Romuald Hazoumè. However, his work already deals directly with this mutual African and European longing for paradise in each other’s continents.
Hazoumè’s masks, for example, are, at first sight, nothing more than sections of plastic petrol cans, sculptural offerings to Western art lovers who primarily associate art from Africa south of the Sahara with masks and are willing to find their ideas of idyllic harmony between human beings and the divine reflected in the refuse of their own civilization, even if the refuse has been refined.
However, according to the artist, the petrol cans in his work also represent the people of his country Benin, where they are ubiquitous everyday objects. Looked at in this light, the masks not only continue a cultural tradition. They are also documents criticizing contemporary social development, a subtle play on the exclusive reception habits of the West in relation to the ‘dark continent’ and an appeal to his own people to have more cultural self-confidence, particularly under the conditions of the increasing pressure of a uniform global culture.
In addition to masks and the paintings on canvas dealing with the Fa oracle, Hazoumè’s photographic works will displayed in the interior spaces of Gerisch-Stiftung. These works document beach and market scenes as panoramas and the illegal trade in petrol from Nigeria to Benin. Virtually the entire population of Benin uses this petrol, which is mixed with cheaper oil and other additives. Up to 300 litres of petrol or 30 cans are transported on mopeds, a motorised time bomb. The petrol cans were mostly produced in Germany.
With his large-scale sculptures (of which four are on display in the park), made of petrol cans that have mostly been cut up, Hazoumè also refers to Africa’s continuing exclusion and exploitation (using the example of Benin as a former centre for the slave trade) and its culturalising transformation into a subject for art.
This exhibition, put together for the first time in Germany, comprises around 50 mostly recent works by the artist. In the exhibition, he creates a world-spanning synthesis between regional roots and international art discourse, between self-critical stocktaking and the reflection of tourist longing; a contemporary reflection on paradise, made in Porto-Novo and in the language of international, contemporary art.
Art historian, author and curator of numerous exhibitions (particularly in the public space). Since 2007, artistic director of the Gerisch-Stiftung in Neumünster.
My Paradise - Made in Porto-Novo
6 June - 17 October 2010
The exhibition is being staged in cooperation with the Africa project 'Who knows tomorrow’ of the National Gallery in Berlin.