Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga & Romauld Hazoumè

The colonial and postcolonial themes in the work of two contemporary artists 

This study is going to focus on the work of two contemporary African artists: Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga and Romauld Hazoumè. It will contrast and critique how they address the global issue of colonialism through their artistic practice. It begin by introducing Ilunga, followed by an analysis of the impact of colonialism in his home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It will go on to discuss the influence of colonialism on his artwork, followed by an in-depth discussion of his painting Fragile 2, including its intentions and reception. The essay will then introduce Hazoumè, progressing with an analysis of colonialism in his home country of Benin, and how this materialises in his work. Finally, it will evaluate his multi-media installation La Bouche de Roi, moving on to consider the artwork’s motivations, and how it has been received. This study will conclude by analysing the similarities and differences of the artists’ work. Ilunga and Hazoumè can be united by colonial and postcolonial themes, however both artists approach this topic in their own distinctive ways. Overall, this investigation seeks to establish how both artists engage with the global issue of colonialism through their artistic practice.

“From the Congo Free State, to the Belgian Congo, to the DRC, to Zaire and back again: the country has undergone an identity crisis”

Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga was born in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 1991, when the country was on the brink of civil war and political collapse. Ilunga studied painting at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Kinshasa, a school founded by a Belgian Catholic missionary, which primarily engaged with nineteenth-century European artistic traditions. He eventually became disillusioned with the academy’s lingering colonial legacy, and in 2011 founded ‘M’Pongo Artists Collective’ with a focus on freedom of expression. Gaining international momentum, the artist recently exhibited Fragile 2 as part of his ‘Fragile Responsibility’ series at London’s October Gallery in 2018.

The DRC has been greatly impacted by the effects of colonialism. Throughout Ilunga’s life, the country has been struggling to recover from its unstable situation following independence from Belgium in 1960. From the Congo Free State, to the Belgian Congo, to the DRC, to Zaire and back again: the country has undergone an identity crisis through its colonial and postcolonial history that still affects Congolese people to this day. The DRC has been exploited for Western gain since King Leopold II made the country into a domaine privé in 1891, meaning only the government could profit from the land’s natural and mineral wealth. This sent the country into a downward spiral of forced labour and a non-existent cash economy, the long-term effects of which can still be felt more than one hundred years later. Since the late nineteenth century, the country’s tale of exploitation for colonial trade has since worsened, despite independence. Today, the DRC is exploited for coltan, the raw material which is a key component in electronics and mobile phones.  

 

 Ilunga’s work is greatly influenced by his experience of the DRC, both during his lifetime, and during the colonial period. He creates a parallel between the country’s colonial and modern-day exploitation, which has had catastrophic repercussions including the demolition and displacement of villages to make roads to Chinese mines in Bas-Congo. However, when discussing his work, Ilunga highlights that the problem goes beyond ‘blood coltan’ and war, which has become common knowledge in recent years. Instead, his work aims to expose child exploitation and forced labour in the coltan mines, asserting that ‘there’s a way to exploit minerals without corruption’.

Through this, his work subtly hints towards the dramatic events of the DRC’s colonial history, whilst simultaneously engaging with its continued legacy. The Congolese identity crisis can be seen in the work of many contemporary artists from the DRC including Ilunga, with artwork exploring the ‘seismic shifts in the economic, political and social identity of the DRC that have taken place since colonialism’.

“His work aims to expose child exploitation and forced labour in the coltan mines”

Fragile 2 uses a bold composition, with a background of industrial grey interrupted by geometric shapes that echo the intricacies of circuit boards. In the central foreground, two black figures draped in African fabric form the focal point of the canvas. Much like in the work of Yinka Shonibare, the use of African printed fabric can be representative of the complex Afro-European relations due to the fabric’s Dutch heritage. Furthermore, the African wax-print fabric draws on concepts of ‘authenticity’ and ‘Africanness’ in an ever-globalising world. Ilunga’s choice of fabric in this painting consciously involves the intricate concept of identity in his work. The inclusion of traditional fabric also links to the colonial exploitation of Congolese cotton growers for the Belgian textile industry. Consequently, Fragile 2 can be considered a consolidation of multi-faceted colonial symbolism.

The skin of the figures is laced with yellow and grey wires, reflecting the circuit boards made from the DRC’s exploited minerals. The circuits completely envelop their bodies, forcing an identity that is half-heartedly covered with the fabric, an ‘authentic’ symbol of African identity. The male figure wears braces and a trilby hat, echoing the photographs captured by Malick Sidibé in the 1960s. The interplay of influences and symbols in Ilunga’s painting points towards a complex understanding of African and Congolese identity.

 

In the centre of the composition, the male figure clasps a white porcelain bowl; a recurrent symbol throughout his ‘Fragile’ series. Whilst working as an artist in residence in a Belgium museum, Ilunga noticed the museum’s collection of porcelain. Observing that the whole collection was connected to the DRC, he researched the seemingly inanimate objects and discovered that they were used by slaves. The artist uses this symbol to draw a parallel between the slave trade, and the DRC’s current economic and political situation which figuratively enslaves the Congolese people.

Ilunga’s painting aims to raise awareness about the realities of the DRC, focusing on the little-known repercussions of illegal mineral mining. However, Ilunga insists that his work is a non-judgmental commentary. Discussing the intentions of his work, he said, ‘I don’t have trenchant opinions or play the judge; I show my view calmly and allow others to form theirs’. Ilunga’s work is distinguished in the global art market, with paintings fetching up to $30,000 at international auction, making him one of the DRC’s highest paid artists. However, Ilunga notes that ‘the artists here, from Africa, are regarded differently on the international art scene, and I think it’s a struggle for many artists in Africa to get the same recognition’. This emphasises the wider role of African art in the global market, and that despite its ever-growing popularity, it is still far from being considered equal to ‘Western’ art.

Ultimately, Ilunga’s work offers a modern and historical commentary on the effects of colonialism and exploitation in the DRC. Through the symbolism of porcelain, fabrics, and circuit boards, his work is a quiet observation that the DRC should be able to legitimately mine its own natural minerals, without compromising Congolese identity and human rights.

“The artists here, from Africa, are regarded differently on the international art scene, and I think it’s a struggle for many artists in Africa to get the same recognition”

Romauld Hazoumè was born in Porto-Novo, Benin, in 1962, shortly before the Dahomeyan coup d’état and nation-wide economic stagnation. Despite his Catholic upbringing, his work is deeply rooted in his Yoruba ancestry, and is also inspired by the West African Vodun religion, practised by the Beninese Fon people. From childhood, Hazoumè has been creating artworks from salvaged materials, initially making masks for the Kaleta festival.

He studied painting and sculpture at school, later turning his attention to plastic jerrycans, also called bidons, which have come to define his contemporary practice. The recycled theme in Hazoumè’s work goes far beyond the use of innovative, available materials: ‘he finds, collects, and reworks abandoned and discarded objects and artefacts, objects that embody histories, times, and relationships, desire, power, and exploitation’.

Hazoume’s relationship with the colonial history of Benin is prevalent throughout his artistic practice. From the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, Benin formed part of Africa’s notorious slave coast, and was home to the infamous slave port, Ouidah. Today, the country still battles with the legacy of the slave trade, acknowledging complicity yet striving to move beyond its colonial past: it is a country torn between its historic ties to the slave traders and the enslaved. The modern legacy of colonialism in Benin is a clear influence on Hazoume’s contemporary practice, yet he also reinterprets the historic links to colonialism with ideas surrounding modern exploitation.

He is known for his emblematic use of jerrycans, which create a strong visual link to the contemporary issue of petrol smuggling from Nigeria to Benin. This is a well-established and extremely dangerous trade, which involves attaching numerous jerrycans to ‘motorbikes and scooters, filling them with contraband fuel in oil-rich Nigeria, then illegally transporting them back to the farms and villages of Benin’.

“It was inspired by a Thomas Clarkson woodcut demonstrating the layout of the Brookes slave ship”

Hazoumè’s sculptures and installations illustrate his relationship with Benin’s current economic challenges, as well as its colonial history. His work is defined by both colonial and postcolonial themes, with many of his experimental sculptures evoking ‘the place of Atlantic slavery in the modernity of the Western Hemisphere’, accompanying clear visual links to the atrocities of the slave trade. His work is also rooted in ‘the cycle of poverty faced by many in Africa’ in the modern world. 

La Bouche de Roi (Fig.2) is a complex, multi-media installation and one of Hazoumè’s most well-known artworks. The title refers to the estuary of the Mono River that flows into Ouidah. It was inspired by a Thomas Clarkson woodcut demonstrating the layout of the Brookes slave ship (Fig, 3), which transported slaves from West Africa to the Americas. The original woodcut uses illustrations of bodies to imply the space taken up by each person aboard the ship, and was used by abolitionists to draw attention to the inhumane conditions aboard such ships. Similarly, when observed from a viewing platform above, Hazoumé’s installation sees jerrycans laid out to form the shape of the ship, with each vessel representing a body on the ship’s plan ‘arranged much like human bodies, or rather corpses’. Each bidon is given a sense of individuality through personal objects, including Yoruba artefacts like shell necklaces and feathers. The installation is multi-sensory, including the smell of faecal matter, the sounds of voices speaking in numerous Beninese languages, and film. The film was projected alongside the installation, ‘showing motorcyclists modifying, with the help of fire, plastic petrol cans’, in order to create a visual link between colonialism, the slave trade, and the modern-day problem of petrol smuggling. In this way, his work exposes the horrors of the illicit petrol trade, but reunites the traffickers with an identity in the same way as the anthropomorphised jerrycan-as-slave. 

“His work exposes the horrors of the illicit petrol trade, but reunites the traffickers with an identity

At the front of the ship, Hazoumé has placed one black canister and one yellow canister side by side, representing the French ruler with the King of Benin (Fig. 4). The complex issue of Beninese identity is evident in La Bouche de Roi. The work does not solely denounce the eighteenth-century French coloniser, but also the African people who were complicit in the trade. Overall, it acts as a stark condemnation of the joint colonial-African involvement in the slave trade and its impactful legacy in Benin today. 

La Bouche de Roi was purchased by the British Museum in 2006 to commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade the following year. The powerful installation became part of the museum’s renowned collection of artworks and objects, including a selection of Benin bronzes. It is well-known that much of the museum’s collection was solicited during the colonial period from all over the world, including Africa. ‘The irony of [Hazoumè’s work] – from an essentially postcolonial mould – took on sarcastic implications due to the context in which it found itself, that is, the empire’s store room’. However, Hazoumè’s intentions for the installation are clear: ‘I send back to the West that which belongs to them, which is to say, the refuse of consumer society that invades us every day’.

Nevertheless, La Bouche de Roi was extremely well-received. The artist was awarded the Arnold Bode Prize at Documenta 12 for exceptional achievements in contemporary art, ‘with the specific aim of promoting contemporary African and world art’. This demonstrates that Hazoumè’s work has a global reach, promoting a message about the historic and contemporary themes which are united through the use of the jerrycan-as-mask; afterall, the symbol of the mask is trans-cultural, translating as ‘an idea and a metaphor, as well as an artifact, of European culture’.

Through his work, Hazoumè aims not only to commemorate Benin’s historic relationship with colonialism, but to promulgate the country’s contemporary socio-economic situation. He insists that his ‘piece is not talking about old slave ships; it’s about what happens today’. The work was also made with the intention to remind the Beninese people of their history, who Hazoume states, ‘have forgotten where they come from’. The complex themes and intentions of the work have ‘become less about the slave trade itself and more about survival, dislocation, the preservation of culture and the development of new identities’. La Bouche de Roi exemplifies how Hazoumé’s work is rooted in colonial history, yet relevant to modern African society.

“Through their work, both artists choose to engage with their countries’ historic relationships to colonialism, but in diverse ways”

At first sight, Ilunga and Hazoumè appear to present similar artistic motivations, with a focus on the historic and contemporary influences of colonialism on their respective home countries. Their work is united by the theme of the exploitation of African countries by the Western world. The work of both artists looks at the impact of such exploitation, from the Western obsession with technology that relies on coltan mined in the DRC, to the Beninese slave trade driven by Western colonisers. Through their work, both artists choose to engage with their countries’ historic relationships to colonialism, but in diverse ways. The motivations of La Bouche de Roi are bold and unerring, and engage explicitly with slavery, whereas Fragile 2 uses subtle symbolism to convey its more apparently modern message. 

Evidently, the artists utilise vastly different materials throughout their practices. Ilunga uses the more traditional method of painting on canvas, which could be interpreted as a result of, or a reaction to his European-inspired training. On the other hand, Hazoumè uses found and repurposed objects to create an intimate dialogue between the artwork and the material, resulting in a direct link between the installation and the themes that it represents. 

Ultimately, the work of both artists represents different personal experiences in terms of identity, and their relationship to colonial themes. Through analysing the contemporary artworks of these two artists, one can begin to understand the deeply-rooted and complex ways in which colonialism is represented between nations and individuals. The artworks by Ilunga and Hazoumè demonstrate a range of similarities, yet there are key differences in their approaches to the global issue of colonialism. Nevertheless, the framework of colonialism provides a globally relevant context in which to discuss African art more broadly. Afterall, ‘studying contemporary African art, without understanding the impact colonisation had on it, would be ignoring its history and relevance’.

 

 

If you would like any information about references, sources, or the bibliography, feel free to get in touch! You can contact me hereIf you would like to reference this article, please use:

Freya Samuel, ‘Colonial Themes in the Contemporary Practices of Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga and Romauld Hazoumè’, unpublished undergraduate essay, University of Birmingham, 2020

 

Thanks for reading!

The Art Wanderer

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