Theater & art

Frame by Frame

Behind ‘Agbota,’ an artist’s irony and imagination

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of art

HARTFORD — A slight thing on the face of it, this jerrican topped with a funky hairdo made from steel wire and plastic is by Romuald Hazoume, an acclaimed artist in his mid-50s from the Republic of Benin. Called “Agbota,” meaning “ram’s head mask,” it’s on display in the postwar and contemporary galleries at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford.

I love it. It’s clever, and if you’re susceptible to its charm you’ll find that it has a lot to communicate. It signifies.

We’ll get to that. But don’t lose track of the work’s slightness. It’s very deliberate, and it’s part of what makes it so good.

Advertisement

A jerrican looks like a face if you present it a certain way? Nice! Who would have thought? And if you top it with some fake hair twists? Uncanny. So like a mask.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Hazoume’s work, which was made in 2011 and is part of a larger series of jerrican masks, is loaded with political content and art-historical irony.

It may look like an African mask — a Songye mask from Congo, perhaps, or a Senufo face mask from the Ivory Coast. But it’s made from a plastic oil container, which in Benin has a specific connotation: the black market in dirty gasoline, which is a key part of the country’s economy.

It’s not a new container — it’s covered in nicks and scuffs and stains, very obviously used. It has lived a life. Before it got waylaid by an artist (and then a museum) it was destined for the trash heap, or some other ad-hoc, make-do repurposing.

And so it might also remind us of the way the “developing world,” so-called, is overrun by trash, most of it produced in more affluent countries, and much of it plastic. (And that plastic, of course, is a product of oil).

Advertisement

Masks have been produced in Africa for thousands of years. But in the 20th century, European avant-garde artists like Picasso and Matisse, looking around for ways to re-enchant a world being spiritually flattened by modernity, became suddenly excited by them. (That they got to see them at all, of course, was thanks to European colonialism.) They borrowed the features of different styles of African masks, freely imposing ideas of their own on what they might signify.

Hazoume returns the favor here, using an artificial, purely functional, near-worthless material.

But what about the hair? Hair signifies hugely in African cultures. This particular arrangement, I’m told, in which each pony tail has two twists and an open end, suggests that it belongs to a woman who has been married twice (the two twists) but is open to a new relationship (the open ends).

So all this meaning is there in the work. But it’s also, as I said at the outset, a wonderfully simple conceit, a natty little bit of serendipity. And that in itself communicates a lot.

Insouciance, to begin with. The joys of improvisation. A volatile combination of child’s play with some sharp and savvy political barbs.

Advertisement

Perhaps above all, it suggests a rejection of inherited, or otherwise imposed criteria — the sort of criteria usually applied to museum-worthy art. And in that alone, there’s a sense of expansion, gorgeousness, and great freedom..

More Frame by Frame columns

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.