La Bouche du Roi: An artwork by Romuald Hazoumé

22 March – 13 May 2007
Room 35
Admission free

“They didn’t know where they were going, but they knew where they had come from. Today they still don’t know where they are going, and they have forgotten where they come from”. Romuald Hazoumé

Recently acquired by the British Museum with the assistance of the Art Fund, the UK’s leading independent art charity, and the British Museum Friends, La Bouche du Roi is a remarkable multi-media artwork created between 1997 and 2005 by  Romuald Hazoumé, an artist from the Republic of Benin, West Africa. The structure of La Bouche du Roi is based on a famous late-18th century print of the Liverpool slave ship the Brookes, and is both a powerful memorial to the horrors of the Atlantic Slave Trade and a reminder of its terrible legacy. The work will be displayed to coincide with the bicentenary of the Parliamentary Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade on 25 March 2007. At the beginning of June it will embark on a British Museum Partnership UK tour to Hull, Liverpool, Bristol, Newcastle and the Horniman Museum, London, funded by Arts Council England, with additional support from the Dorset Foundation

Literally translated as ‘The Mouth of the King’, La Bouche du Roi is a place in Benin from where enslaved people were transported across the Atlantic during the 17th and 18th centuries. The work’s main components are 304 ‘masks’ made from plastic petrol cans, each with an open mouth, eyes and a nose. The petrol cans mirror the images of the enslaved people in the Brookes print, but instead of suggesting de-humanized commodities, the empty vessels are literally given a voice through concealed microphones. Many cans also have painted symbols or small objects attached to them which relate to the gods, vodun or orisha, to which the enslaved people might have prayed, thus giving the work a powerful cultural context which is heightened by the inclusion of the artist’s superb photographs of modern day vodun priests and cult followers. Liquor bottles, beads and cowrie shells are included as examples of material which was used to barter for slaves, as are tobacco and spices, their aroma mixing disturbingly with the terrible sounds and smells of a slave ship.

The exhibition includes Hazoumé’s film featuring motorcyclists who run black market petrol between Benin and Nigeria. The petrol cans they carry – expanded by fire, worked to breaking point, then discarded - act as a potent metaphor for spirits lost to the Atlantic Slave Trade, and as a powerful commentary on modern forms of economic oppression. However, La Bouche du Roi is not just a warning against enslavement, but against all kinds of human greed, exploitation and oppression, both past and present. If the petrol cans are a metaphor for enslavement and exploitation, the motorcyclists who carry them symbolize heroic resistance to this oppression, clawing back some of Africa’s natural resources which make fortunes for a few while leaving the majority in desperate poverty.

Sustainable materials will be crucial to the British Museum’s installation of this work, in keeping with the message it conveys about the exploitation of both natural and human resources.

Artist’s biography

Romuald Hazoumé was born in Porto Novo, Republic of Bénin in 1962 and continues to live and work in the region. Hazoumé is of Yoruba ancestry and was raised in a Catholic family in Porto Novo. He wanted to dedicate himself to a medical career, then contemplated a career as a professional sportsman before turning full time to art in the early 1980s; he has recently collaborated in founding a gallery and cultural centre, the Fondation Zinsou in Cotonou, Benin, with the specific aim of promoting contemporary African and world art. In addition to the exhibitions of La Bouche du Roi at the Menil Collection, Houston (2005) and at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris (2006), Hazoumé has had more than a dozen solo exhibitions since 1989. He contributed to Africa Remix at the Hayward Gallery, London, as part of Africa 05. Other exhibitions that feature his work this year include From Courage to Freedom at the October Gallery, until the 28 April and Uncomfortable Truths - The Shadow of Slave trading on Contemporary Art and Design at the V&A until the 17 June. La Bouche du Roi is being shown for the first time in Britain.

For more information or images please contact Hannah Boulton on 020 7323 8522 or hboulton@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk

Notes to editors:

  • The Dorset Foundation has supported the British Museum's touring programme since 2003.
  • Arts Council England is the national development agency for the arts in England that aims to put the arts at the heart of national life and people at the heart of arts.
  • La Bouche du Roi is part of a season which includes a series of special exhibitions and displays and an extensive public programme. On Sunday 25 March 2007 an afternoon of reflection and acknowledgement is planned to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Parliamentary Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Placing a strong emphasis on resistance to the slave trade, the day will include poetry readings, storytelling and dramatised contemporary accounts of life as an enslaved person. The day will culminate at 17.30 in a Ceremony of Remembrance in the Museum’s Great Court. In association with the Royal African Society and Rendezvous of Victory.
  • Tour dates for La Bouche du Roi are:
  • Hull, Ferens Art Gallery: 2 June – 15 July 2007
  • Liverpool,Merseyside Maritime Museum, National Museums Liverpool: 4 August – 2 September 2007
  • Bristol’s City Museum and Art Gallery: 15 September – 28 October 2007
  • Newcastle, Laing Art Gallery, Tyne and Wear Museums : 10 November 2007– 3 February 2008
  • Horniman Museum: 5 December 2008 –1 March 2009
  • Partnership UK is the strategic framework for the British Museum’s programme of engagement with audiences throughout the country.

 

The Art Fund:

The Art Fund is the UK’s leading independent art charity. It offers grants to help UK museums and galleries enrich their collections and campaigns widely on behalf of museums and their visitors.  It has 80,000 members.

  • Since its foundation in 1903, The Art Fund has helped UK public collections acquire over 850,000 works of art, ranging from Bronze Age treasures to contemporary works of art
  • In 2006 The Art Fund offered over £5 million to museums and galleries
  • In 2006 The Art Fund unveiled one of the most significant projects in its history – a permanent ‘Skyspace’ at Yorkshire Sculpture Park by the American artist James Turrell
  • In November 2006 The Art Fund published the findings from its groundbreaking research comparing the collecting ability of four UK national museums with their international counterparts.  The research found that UK museums have a tiny fraction of the spending power of major museums abroad.  An Art Fund survey undertaken earlier in the year found that 70% of UK museums now acquire new works of art mainly or solely by gift.  The findings of both surveys are available online at www.artfund.org/policyandcampaigns
  • Independent of government, The Art Fund is uniquely placed to campaign on behalf of public collections across the UK.  In was at the forefront of the campaign for free admission in 2001 and the campaign to save the Macclesfield Psalter in 2005.
  • Visit the charity’s website at http://www.artfund.org