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La Bouche du Roi

Multi-media installation by Romuald Hazoumé marking the bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade

4 August to 2 September 2007

Please note that this display has now closed

detail of metal petrol can mask, with handle forming a nose and opening as the mouth

Detail of mask from artwork. © 1997-2005 Romuald Hazoumé. Photo: Benedict Johnson.

The immersive multi-media installation 'La Bouche du Roi' was displayed at Merseyside Maritime Museum as part of the year-long events programme to commemorate the anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807.

Literally translated, the title means ‘the mouth of the King’ and refers to the port in Benin from which many slaves were transported. Benin-born artist Romuald Hazoumé created the artwork between 1997 and 2005 using a number of significant elements, each with its own relevance to the slave trade.

A symbolic work of art

The main body of the artwork consists of 304 ‘masks’ made from plastic petrol cans arranged in the shape of a slave ship. Every petrol can mask represents a living person with a name, a voice and beliefs. In the installation you can hear them calling out in the languages of Benin. The broken masks represent people who died during the voyage of a slave ship across the Atlantic, which could take eight weeks.

Other elements include empty Liverpool-brewed gin bottles, cowrie shells, spices and mirrors, as examples of goods taken to African countries by Europeans to barter for slaves. Haunting sounds and evocative smells emanate from the piece providing a powerful experience.

Echoes of the slave trade

The arrangement of the petrol can masks refers to the suggested positioning of slaves shown in abolitionist propaganda from 1788, following a decision by Parliament to restrict the number of Africans that a ship could carry across the Atlantic. The campaign featured a diagram of the Liverpool owned slave ship Brookes carrying 454 Africans, which was its regulated number. Abolitionists used this image to expose the appallingly cramped conditions below deck.

The Brookes sailed in 1788 from Liverpool to the Gold Coast in West Africa, then across to the West Indies carrying not the regulatory 454, but a staggering 609 enslaved Africans. The journey took 49 days, during which 19 Africans perished.

petrol cans and other objects arranged in shape of a ship's deck

'La Bouche du Roi', seen from above. © 1997-2005 Romuald Hazoumé. Photo: Benedict Johnson.

Tour information

'La Bouche du Roi' toured to five venues through the British Museum’s Partnership UK programme. The tour was funded by Arts Council England with additional support through the generosity of the Dorset Foundation.

The acquisition of 'La Bouche Du Roi' for the British Museum was supported by the British Museum Friends and The Art Fund.

Partnership UK is the strategic framework for the British Museum’s programme of engagement with audiences throughout the country. The Dorset Foundation has supported the British Museum's touring programme since 2003.

Arts Council England is the national development agency for the arts in England that aims to put the arts at the heart of national life and people at the heart of arts.

'La Bouche du Roi' was at Merseyside Maritime Museum as part of a year long programme of events to celebrate the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade at National Museums Liverpool.

Artist biography

Romuald Hazoumé was born in Porto Novo, Republic of Benin in 1962, where he continues to live and work. Hazoumé is of Yoruba ancestry and was raised in a Catholic family. He wanted to dedicate himself to a medical career, then contemplated a career as a professional sportsman before turning full time to art in the early 1980s. He has recently collaborated in founding a gallery and cultural centre, the Foundation Zinsou in Cotonou, Benin with the specific aim of promoting contemporary African and world art.