‘Water Cargo’

Romuald Hazoumé’s third solo exhibition at The October Gallery, Cargoland, is a re-appropriated and extended title — a familiar technique for those who follow his work. A play on  ‘cargo’, which translates in West African French to mean “anything of weight and value that needs to be transported,” the Cargoland presented within the gallery space is largely commanded by two mixed media installations entitled ‘Water Cargo’ and ‘Petrol Cargo’, two large tricycle scooters re-fashioned to bear the transportation of loads beyond their original design.

First in the gallery, ‘Water Cargo’, which has been redesigned to deliver fresh water, has feathered wings to accommodate its load. Its less avian partner, ‘Petrol Cargo’, which houses petrol vials of decreasing size evoke a memory of antiquated medicinal bottles made for the illegal trafficking of black market petrol — ‘kpayo’ — from Nigeria to the artists home country, Benin. These aged, wrinkled, wrought iron butterflies sit in conceptual opposition. Where ‘Petrol Cargo’ re-iterates the unpalatable consequence and human reality of our reliance on non-renewable fuels, ‘Water Cargo’ predicates an image of the future trade of drinkable water, reminding the viewer that much like the perishing oil reserves being plumbed in Africa and around the world, water may soon also be fiercely fought over.

Both flightless birds command gravity and sit onerously in the mind. Not merely because of the size and imagined mass of the scooter and its cargo, but for both objects representation of entrapment. Both are artefacts of the incessant demand for petrol that lures the driver and maintains them clasped in the illegal channels that distribute this ‘black gold’. It’s a global enslavement by proxy.

In a steely, surgical stare the artist bears witness to the realities of this illegal trade, presented in five panoramic, documentary style photographs. They depict the final destination of the illegal petrol. The photographs are detached; these amputated visions cold and judgmental.

Hazoumé as the bricoleur — the assembler of foraged objects. Further into the gallery, are seven of his recent ‘masks’ that brought the artist into prominence in the U.K. when they were included in the Saatchi Gallery’s show ‘Out of Africa’. Each ‘face’ is assembled from a variety of appropriated petrol vessels, with tightly wound hair woven into their plastic heads. Once the faces emerge, conjured from the blank palette of the white walls, a wry smile is helpless. However, that soon dissolves, as the potency in connotation and intent of the petrol canisters used, demands a secondary contemplation. As the ‘masks’ reconfigure in front of the eye, disheveled and contorted, wheezing rounded vowels from their mouths, the fuel vessels’ form and meaning are compounded, as the space the petrol once occupied is now full with Hazoumé’s commentary on the petrol that was once there.

One of the ‘masks’ was renamed ‘Fukoshima’, ‘out of respect for the pain of the Japanese people displaced by the twin natural disasters of March, 2011’ thereby forging a connection to another site and the horrific consequences of relying on non-renewables, strengthening the artist’s thematic discussion.

Hazoumé’s bond with his community is distinct and present. He takes the role of narrator of his community’s collective and of shared narratives with an ease. The humanism of his artistic practice reveals an indication to his ideas on the artist’s moral responsibility to their society, while simultaneously allowing the viewer to be easily enveloped in the place of the works birth, and his evaluation and subversion. He achieves a robust potency of voice and content while avoiding didacticism, instead warmly encouraging voyage, interpretation and critique. For after all, are these not just another collection of ‘exotic objects’. Hazoumé both addresses and subverts this viewpoint.

Although all the work in the exhibition is saturated with its geographic origin, Hazoumé’s discourse resonates far beyond. ‘As a reminder to everyone that Cargoland really exists — and we all belong to it.’

Cargoland is open till the 11th of August at October Gallery, 24 Old Gloucester Road, London.