La Bouche du Roi by Romuald Hazoumé

Romuald Hazoumé

La Bouche du Roi, 1997–2000, Oil drums, plastic, glass, shells, tobacco, fabrics, mirrors, metal, The British Museum, London, © Romuald Hazoumé / Artist Rights Society (ARS NY); Photo: Benedict Johnson

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‘Where the Grapes of Wrath are Stored’

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Angela Russell Christman

Much Christian exegesis of Isaiah 63:1–14 has focused on Christ’s Passion and the Eucharist. However, interpreters have also recognized that the passage is equally about justice, for it depicts God as both liberator of the oppressed and punisher of oppressors. St Jerome highlighted this theme in his Commentary on Isaiah, imagining that the question ‘Who is this that comes from Edom?’ (Isaiah 63:1) was posed by the angels. Not knowing beforehand about the Passion (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6–7), they were puzzled by Christ’s bloodied appearance. According to Jerome, Christ responds:

I am the one who speaks justice … I am he who has come to fight against evil powers, to proclaim freedom to the captives and liberate from prison those in chains [cf. Isaiah 61:1]. I have come to punish my adversaries and free the captives. (Wilken 2007: 492)

In 1861 the American abolitionist Julia Ward Howe emphasized this theme of justice in Battle Hymn of the Republic, which opens by alluding to Isaiah 63:3: ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored…’

Romuald Hazoumé’s La Bouche du Roi (French for ‘the Mouth of the King’) is named after the place in Benin whence enslaved Africans were shipped to the Americas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

It consists mainly of petrol (gasoline) cans, whose anthropomorphic spouts and handles suggest the anguished faces of captives, and which are arranged to suggest the plan of a slave ship. It renews the protest against injustice voiced by Howe’s poem, but also extends it, by drawing our attention to and denouncing all forms of exploitation and their vestiges: the legacy of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century slave trade, the enslavement of people even today, the plight of refugees, economic corruption, and environmental degradation. Indeed, Hazoumé’s use of petrol cans made of plastic subtly underscores how oppression of human beings and environmental exploitation are often intertwined.

 

References

Snyder, Edward D. 1951. ‘The Biblical Background of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”’, The New England Quarterly, 24.2: 231–238

Ward, Robert J. 1993. ‘Biblical Imagery in Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic”’, The Choral Journal, 34.5: 25–27

Wilken, Robert Louis (trans.) with Angela Russell Christman and Michael J. Hollerich. 2007. Isaiah: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, The Church’s Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)