How an Artist Used Recovered Sandals to Mourn the Refugee Crisis

Romuald Hazoumè’s 'All in the Same Boat' depicts the odds stacked against refugees.

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Sep 17 2016, 12:05pm

Romuald Hazoumè, Cry of the Whale, 2016. Mixed-media installation. Courtesy October Gallery.  © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

A boat filled with giant dice completely coated in flip flops reexamines the refugee crisis ravaging Europe and the world. As seen above, African artist Romuald Hazoumè has crafted exactly that, balancing somberness with wry levity and arresting color by uniquely slivering open the current tumult of the topic of immigration with his new exhibit, All In The Same Boat.

The Benin-born sculptor and filmmaker is best known for his work in Out of Africa, a 1992 show in the UK’s Saatchi Gallery, where he displayed faux masks made from found objects. All in the Same Boat will be his fourth show at London’s October Gallery, and will open next month, but we got a look ahead of time in the artist’s studio.

Romuald Hazoumè, Trickey Dicey Dice, 2016. Mixed-media installation. Courtesy October Gallery.  ©2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The Syrian refugee crisis has sparked artistic reactions ranging from poignant to painful over the last year. Hazoumè’s tonally different take came out of the aftermath of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s death in 2015. There is no perfect response to national tragedy, but Hazoumè is less concerned with being correct than he is with drawing the world’s attention to immigration across the globe. He wants to keep attention on the issue beyond that first jolting news clip or sound bite.

Romuald Hazoumè, Portrait by Jean Dominique Burton. Courtesy October Gallery

“I spend a lot of time fishing, which is when I think,” he tells The Creators Project. “The death of this little boy has touched me tremendously. On this beach there were many flip-flops, as if their owners had all found their deaths through drowning. I realized something needed to be done: I needed to create something surrounding the drama of immigration, something that speaks to everyone.” His first piece, Tricky Dicey Dice, was crafted to represent the great gamble of attempting the cross to safety. None of its sides show a number, but instead, the outline of a dead child.

Romuald Hazoumè, Trickey Dicey Dice, 2016. Mixed-media installation. Courtesy October Gallery. ©2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The game piece is coated with recovered sandals that once washed up on the shores of Benin; each sole is meant to represent a soul. While the cut-off corners of the die provide the slimmest chance of a lucky landing, the odds are stacked against the roller.

Hazoumè’s second installment, Mutti!, also uses the recuperated sandals, this time to construct a life-sized woman with her arms outstretched. The title is the German child’s world for “Mother,” and the woman extends her arms like a compassionate female deity, but the figure also carries traits the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who first welcomed fleeing refugees to Germany when the crisis struck.

Romuald Hazoumè, Mutti!, 2016. Mixed-media installation. Courtesy October Gallery.  ©2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Romuald Hazoumè, Mutti!, 2016. Mixed-media installation. Courtesy October Gallery.  ©2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The set concludes with a sinking boat, with both bows tilted up to look like an open jaw. The horror of Cry of the Whale is subtle, but meant to be apparent to all who look closely. Perhaps of all the pieces, this embodied cry stands not just for the Syrian crisis, but the international tragedies surrounding immigration.

“The problems in Palestine still haven’t been resolved, and there is terrorism almost everywhere in the world,” Hazoumè continues. “At this moment, there is also immigration from the East and from Africa. Simultaneously, there’s so much anti-immigrant attitude in greater parts of the world. If one looks properly, it seems that some people aren’t concerning themselves with this crucial problem at all.”

That concern is what these works are meant to spark. His plea is there in the title: when will we see ourselves as all in the same boat?

Romuald Hazoumè, (L to R)Tchivi, Tallonnee, 2015. Found objects. Courtesy October Gallery, London

Romuald Hazoumè’s All in the Same Boat will show for free at October Gallery, London, October 7th to November 26th 2016. Learn more about the artist here.

Related:

3D Scanning the European Refugee Crisis

How Artists Are Addressing the Syrian Refugee Crisis

On Art-Making After Tragedy