Container Armies: On Oil Cans and Economy in the Work of Romuald Hazoume

From the 1990s to the present, Romuald Hazoumé has made and exhibited countless artworks based on the jerry cans used to smuggle oil illegally from Nigeria to Benin. Working in sculpture, installation, and photography the Beninese artist uses the cans to comment on the conditions of Benin’s modernity. Said to be used for a variety purposes, the cans are most frequently associated with a class of “second rate” or “bad quality” fuel called Kpyo. Though illegal, dangerous to transport, and a known health hazard, Kpyo dominates Benin’s fuel market. The Kpyo trade is one of the many so called shadow economies associated with contemporary life in Africa, existing on the periphery of the law, producing profit, but at least within Benin not for corporations and not for the state. Though it links Benin to the global oil industry it does so indirectly and informally. By taking as its starting point the informal networks that connect producers and consumers of Kpyo outside of the sanctified venues of world trade, Hazoumé makes visible the wandering over of lines, legal and illegal which define much of the economic experience of Africans who have been aggressively disembedded from the infrastructures linking them to the official world economy. Frequently, Hazoumé highlights the anthropomorphic aspect of the cans in order to reference the kpyo smugglers and the people who rely on this trade.  The open “mouths” of the cans suggest at once desire, hunger, want, and also protest.