How art can change a city

In Cotonou, the capital of Benin, a blown-up photograph of a quintessential Beninese street scene is displayed on a wall opposite the Foundation Zinsou art gallery. The photograph mimics the lived realities of those that walk, ride and cycle past the image each day. Cars and semijans (or motorbike taxis) race past like bees on a sugar rush and market stalls display a mixed collection of glass bottles holding petrol that will be sold to motorists and semijan drivers.

This photograph is one of the pieces of artwork by Beninese artist Romuald Hazoume whose exhibition titled ‘Aré’ brings to light questions of urbanisation, governance, leadership and citizen participation. spoke to Hazoumé about how artwork can change a city.

KH: Tell us about the name ‘Aré’?

RH: Aré means artist in French. In the past, the ancient Beninese King of Dahoumey would ask the Nigerian Kingdom to send artists to make bronze sculptures. The Yoruba King would send an artist as a gift. The artist would be someone who works for the community, taking politics and everyday life into his work. I want to say the things the community is unable to say.

KH: What are the ideas behind this exhibition?

RH: This is about the Beninese people. They must be concerned and involved in the everyday politics of their country and this exhibition can help start and continue the conversations they are already having.

KH: Tell us about the photograph on display outside the gallery and what it says about people’s interaction with their city?

RH: This is a comment on the effects of urbanisation and poor governance in Cotonou. Many of the people in the city that sell petrol did not do this before. Most of them were farmers. But the government does not support the farmers; people have nothing anymore. They have no choice but to come to the city and sell explosive petrol in glass containers. This is so dangerous! Every two days you will hear of a death  or an accident. The government knows it is dangerous but they make a profit from this by taxing people at the Nigerian borders. They care about money not human lives.

KH: How can art change the way people see their place in their country ?

RH: For me, this change will happen with the youth. If you can convince the children, you have a strong chance for change in the country. Children will talk to their parents and their friends, and they will be the future leaders. We bring children from different schools to the gallery free of charge. The school can order the bus to come collect the students wherever they are. A guide takes them through the artwork, they ask questions, they try to find solutions. Over the years the Foundation has received over 500,000 children.

KH: Do you see room for collaboration with government on these issues?

RH: I want nothing to do with politicians. I have learned that there is no room to work with them for change. Power changes but our culture is constant, and we have a very rich culture. Politicians say they have a vision but they are liars! We cannot wait for the government. We just need to start.

KHL Can you talk us through some of your displays from Aré?


Romuald Hazoume’s MonGouve. Photo: Kim Harrisberg.

This one is a warning to the government. I was so proud of the people of Burkina Faso. They were clever and strong. They put Kampere away. I want to warn all the African governments to be careful with their people. There is a Facebook generation that can get everyone on the streets in five minutes with a single message. They have power. As you can see, the wall is made from jerry cans that represent the faces of the people. They have created a wall that encircles the government who is down on the floor.

Rouleau decompresseur (wheel)…

Romuald Hazoume’s ‘Rouleau decompresseur.’ Photo: Kim Harrisberg.

RH: This piece symbolises the heavy machinery used to make the roads. They can be used to create or to destroy. In politics, it is used by those who want to kill. Here I reversed the meaning: the wheel is the symbol of the people. It is a joke to government: you cannot kill everybody with your politics –  one day you will lose the power.

KH: A lot of your artwork is made from gasoline/jerry cans that mimic African masks typically sold to tourists. Some art critics have described your work as both post-primitivism and post-colonialism, a move away from art collections that end up fetishising African art. Would you agree?

RH: Primitivism have nothing to say about African art.  Why do people need a name for everything? Some people have said I was inspired by Picasso but he was inspired by African art. I work like my grandparents have worked before me and am inspired by that. Gasoline cans are everywhere in Benin. A person will walk with a gasoline can from Nigeria to Benin, using it to carry petrol. Everybody puts his “face” on the can when he marks it with his own personal symbol. It is like his passport. From this symbol we can understand his levels of education and where he comes from. This gasoline can represents the everyday man and woman in Benin.


Kim Harrisberg is a freelance multimedia journalist who moves between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Her writing focuses on African politics and society, refugee rights and developmental issues. She will begin her MPhil in African Studies at the University of Cambridge soon, and aims to use media for social change.

Main photo: A blown-up photograph by artist Romuald Hazoume of a quintessential Beninese street scene displayed on a wall opposite the Foundation Zinsou art gallery in Cotonou, Benin. Credit: Kim Harrisberg.



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2 Responses to “How art can change a city”

  1. Sue

    I love this article and the idealism of the artist. There is so much to discover in Africa . Thank you for bringing it to us Kim .

  2. phelisia

    Art is everywhere.On the streets,in the offices and in our homes.
    The best thing is to appreciate its power to speak about everything in the hood.
    Symbols are used everywhere as they have a lasting impression. Every society has a way to speak and here the Gasolines just perfect.


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