Romuald Hazoumé, born in Benin in West Africa in 1963, is considered one of the most important contemporary artists coming out of Africa today. He has exhibited widely throughout Europe and Asia. His work consists of two sorts of expression: his highly esoteric paintings, which attempt a visual iconography of divination symbols, and his delightful masks, made of found objects. Two of the masks, a clever and humorous response to the detritus of civilization and the waste that accompanies it, have become part of the Duke University Museum of Art's collection.
The artworks were created during Hazoumé's first visit to the United States in the summer of 1999. He searched the streets of Harlem for found objects that he then assembled into sculptures--sculptures that commented on the consumerist culture and society he encountered. The New York Times reviewed his exhibit at The Project in Harlem, calling his work suggestive of traditional African masks, labeling him a "deft and witty assemblagist," and describing his paintings as "airy and light" and "visually beguiling." The Times proclaimed his exhibition a welcome addition to a season in which contemporary art from Africa already had created an unusually strong presence.
Hazoumé takes objects like old brooms, plastic drums, and broken telephones and transforms them into faces with titles. In C.I.A., he took a discarded chrome electric shoe polisher and turned, mounted, and positioned the inner piece of black hose to make a configuration that strongly suggests a face. In his creation, the handle becomes the nose; the red button juts out as a pupil for the one eye; the designs on the sides become ears; the hose hangs as a mouth; and the buffer forms a hat.
This use of materials is by no means frivolous. It fits in with the title of a recent exhibition, "Je sais d'os je viens" ("I know where I come from"). In the international exhibition, Benin designated both Hazoumé and Dakpogan Calixte (who exhibits sculptures made from scrap metal) to represent the country.
The artists take literally the Beninois proverb "He who digs in filth is doing pig's work--the cleanest work of all." Nothing is useless in their hands, and any object can be reclaimed and recycled as art.
Although Hazoumé's artworks may be viewed as "masks," similar to the African ceremonial pieces also in DUMA's African gallery, Hazoumé identifies himself as an assemblage artist rather than a ritual carver. Nonetheless, the influence of traditional designs and abstract formulations is present in his contemporary visions. The Hazoumé pieces are a permanent addition to the African Gallery, acquired after the "Christian Haye Curates" exhibition in January 2000.