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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