The structure of La Bouche du Roi is based on a famous late-18th century print of the Liverpool slave ship the Brookes; it is a powerful memorial to the horrors of the Atlantic Slave Trade and a reminder of its terrible legacy. The work will be on show from 5 December 2008 – 1 March 2009 in the last stages of its national tour funded by the Arts Council England, as part of the British Museum’s Partnership UK programme, 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. Hazoumé uses a variety of found objects to form the body of the artwork. Haunting sounds and evocative smells emanate from the piece providing a powerful experience. The arrangement of the ‘masks’ mirrors that of the Brookes print but instead of suggesting de-humanized commodities, the empty vessels are literally given a voice through concealed microphones. Empty Liquor bottles, cowrie shells, spices and mirrors serve as examples of goods taken to Africa to exchange for slaves.
The installation 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.