'My piece is not talking about old slave ships; it's about what happens today' says Romuald Hazoumé about his multimedia installation 'La Bouche du Roi' (The King's Mouth), now on show at the Rijksmuseum’s Slavery exhibition. Finally, the museum world starts tackling its colonial past and attempts to tell the true story of how the Golden Age of European imperialism came about and flourished.
The Beninese artist shaped over 300 petrol cans into tribal masks and piled them up to reproduce the image of the Brookes slave ship built in 1789 for English anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson. This powerful work evokes all the suffering and the fear of the African slaves on their forced voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. But in carrying the past into the present, this installation is also tragically redolent of the ongoing refugee crisis, which, make no mistake, is an extension of colonialism and its legacies, where millions of people are equally being dehumanised and displaced.
Earlier today, at least 31 human beings, reportedly including 5 children, lost their life drowning in the English Channel after their dinghy capsized. The figure is not confirmed, there could be more bodies that still need to be retrieved. I personally find it impossible to imagine the desperation and terror they must have experienced in those last moments, knowing it was the end. It's heartbreaking.
The British Home Secretary, whose name I won't allow to soil my page, promptly jumped at the opportunity to point her little xenophobic finger at the 'ruthless criminal gangs' profiteering from human trafficking. The reality is that these tragedies are the consequence of the Government's inhumane policies, and that they could be avoided by opening safe and legal routes for asylum seekers. Those in power are complicit.
La Bouche du Roi, 1997
Photograph: Albertine Dijkema