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‘We Africans must take responsibility for our role in slavery’ says Beninese artist

By Léo Pajon
Posted on Thursday, 27 May 2021 12:34

Romuald Hazoumé, in front of one of his works exhibited in Nantes. Courtesy of Galerie Magnin

Using the lens of decolonisation, the Château des Ducs de Bretagne has invited Beninese artist Romuald Hazoumé and Ivorian historian Gildas Bi Kakou to bring a new perspective to its collections and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

This approach is quite new in France and one that lends itself to controversy. “For a long time, we approached the slave trade and slavery with the tools of historians, studying their political, economic and social impact… But the human impact was missing,” says Krystel Gualdé, the Nantes Museum of History’s scientific director.

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam was ahead of the game as it proposed the concept of decolonising its collections, by putting emotion and empathy at the heart of the museum as well as inviting contemporary artists to exhibit their work. “When the slaves were tied up, they were then silenced. They were prevented from talking about the horror that they had experienced. Here at the Rijksmuseum, an artist like Romuald Hazoumé serves as a bridge between this painful past and our present.”

About 20 of the artist’s pieces, some of them quite large, are scattered throughout the Château des Ducs de Bretagne: from its vast courtyard to the rooms of its history museum. Some of his works are more subtle than others.

In a room devoted to the Atlantic Slave Trade, the Beninese artist plays a simple soundtrack. It consists of the voices of men and women, songs and moans, which capture the fear and illness felt by many on the boat that took them away from Africa.

They have been added to the wooden formwork of the room and evoke the steerage of a slave ship. Also present in the room is an engraving of the Marie-Séraphique ship, in which more than 300 slaves would have been crammed into. As the soundtrack plays, the viewer takes in the handcuffs that shackled them, the truncheons used to silence them and the weapons offered by the traders to their African intermediaries.

A long-repressed aspect of French history

It takes all of these texts, objects, models and human voices to capture a long-repressed aspect of French history. Nantes was France’s first slave port and handled more than 42% of the slave trade expeditions between 1707 and 1793. The abolition of slavery in 1848 marked the definitive end of human trafficking.

“The city has not been in denial about its colonial history, but has long tried to conceal it, for example by highlighting its role in the Resistance during World War II,” says Gualdé. According to her, the whole country has difficulty facing up to its colonial past, as the history of colonisation is still insufficiently taught or known. Bertrand Guillet, the museum’s director, agrees, as he says that he wants to get out of “the straitjacket of the national narrative.”

Hazoumé’s critiques do not necessarily go in the direction one might expect, that of an all-out attack on Westerners. “My role as an African artist is to say to my people, ‘we Africans must also take responsibility for our role in slavery!’ If there had been no seller, there would have been no buyer. Like the West, Africans also profited from this trade! And it is important to talk about what is happening today, to talk about these children who are ‘placed’ in other families, who do the housework, the washing up, who are not in school… We must look at ourselves first before looking at others.”

Taboo

In his installations, the Porto-Novo-born artist uses 50-litre bottles that (mostly) young men use to sometimes transport petrol in batches of four on motorbikes between Nigeria and Benin. When cut up and patched up, these jerry cans are strangely reminiscent of human faces.

And they also tell us something about how prevalent modern slavery is in the country, where the most disadvantaged people are forced to gamble their lives for a few bucks. According to the artist, the elites should be held accountable for the state of the country since “they are the same people for 30 years, just patched up like these cans, and they are only interested in keeping themselves in power.”

But the people are not without fault either, as they are constantly seeking salvation from some supernatural being, be they “Muslim, Christian, evangelist, voodoo… sometimes all at once.”

Another guest, Gildas Bi Kakou, an Ivorian historian who wrote his doctoral thesis on the Ivorian slave trade in the 18th century, also provides his input to the collections. Alongside the usual labels, his comments add a relevant ‘insiders’ perspective.

For example, he describes the warlike ‘nolo’ (abduction of an isolated individual) and ‘mvrakila’ (raid, razia) operations that took place in the Congo to provide slaves for the slave traders. He also talks about the Ashanti kingdom (1701-1874), to which a ‘tribute’ of 2,000 slaves was delivered each year.

“The African responsibility for slavery is still taboo,” says the man who became interested in the subject when he discovered that some of his distant relatives had been slave owners. “Whether one is a descendant of relatives who were slaves or of people who owned slaves, it is still very complicated and shameful to talk about it.”

Translation of tweet below: In 2021, the Château des ducs de Bretagne – Nantes History Museum will present two exhibitions centred around the #AtlanticTrade #CitizenMuseum

1. #ExpressionsDécoloniales #2 from 19 May to 14 November

2. #expoAbîme from 16 October to 15 June 2022

This promising historian, who won the National Committee for the Memory and History of Slavery’s 2019 prize, is currently pursuing his work in Nantes, as Ivorian universities do not seem to be in a hurry to tackle the subject seriously. “There are also financial stakes involved in recognising African participation,” says Gualdé. “If states recognised this participation, the issue of reparations would obviously be complicated further.”

While waiting for all the relevant parties to accept responsibility, the Nantes exhibition serves as an excellent source of knowledge. The tools of the decolonial movement are used, without guilt or pathos, to question what we know.

“We have two paintings here, the portraits of Dominique-René Deurbroucq (1715-1782) and his wife Marguerite-Urbane née Sengstack (1715-1784), each with a black slave,” says Gualdé. “We have become accustomed to seeing the term ‘slave’ appear next to the names of the masters, but it does not resolve anything. It says nothing about age or gender, it boils them down to a servile status. Very soon, these portraits will be renamed ‘Two Nantais, one of whom was enslaved.’”

Expression(s) décoloniale(s), from 19 May to 14 November, at the Château des Ducs de Bretagne.

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