Architecture Room is one section of Meschac Gaba’s multi-part installation the Museum of Contemporary African Art. The room contains an expanse of deep blue carpet, lined with a gold fringe, on which rests a stack of wooden building blocks as well as a potted plant, titled Money Tree, with banknotes on its branches featuring the faces of artists influenced by African art, such as Pablo Picasso and Constantin Brancusi. There is also a ladder with multi-coloured Plexiglas treads, each one inscribed with the name of the curator and organisation. Gaba’s Artist’s Bank, a wooden desk with a glass top filled with banknotes with the symbols of art and architecture, is also included in the space.
Gaba’s Museum does not have a permanent building and in the Architecture Room visitors are able to create their own architectural proposals for Gaba’s museum with the wooden building blocks scattered across a blue carpet. The models are constantly in flux, and can be redesigned, deconstructed and adapted by visitors. Despite not having a permanent site, the museum has temporarily occupied many institutions around the world, from Milwaukee to Accra and São Paulo to Paris. The ladder in the Architecture Room, which was empty when this room was first exhibited, has acted as a barometer of the project’s success. The treads were added one at a time, for each institution that hosted the project, until 2002 when the Museum of Contemporary African Art was officially completed and the ladder was full. The Artist’s Bank and Money Tree acknowledges the importance of African art in the development of the Western canon, but also affirms the right of artists, irrespective of their origin, to draw inspiration from anywhere.
Meschac Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997–2002 consists of twelve discreet but related large-scale installations. These sections are entitled Draft Room (Tate T14004), Architecture Room (Tate T14005), Museum Shop (Tate T14006), Summer Collection (Tate L03229), Game Room (Tate T14219), Art and Religion (Tate L03235), Museum Restaurant (Tate T14220), Music Room (Tate L03231), Marriage Room (Tate L03232), Library (Tate L03236), Salon (Tate L03233) and Humanist Space (Tate T14007). Each of these represents an aspect of what Gaba believes to be a core part of the museum’s function. A number of the sections are interactive and invite participation from the visitor. This discursive element of social interaction is fundamental to the work. The work can be shown in its entirety, or just one section or a group of sections can be displayed.
Although the number of sections was fixed from the beginning, it took Gaba five years to complete the Museum of Contemporary African Art and over the years the sections have been exhibited in different ways. Several of its rooms were included in Documenta 11 in Kassel in 2002 and individual sections or groups of rooms have been seen in museums across the world. The work was first exhibited in its entirety in 2009 at the Kunsthalle Fridericianum in Kassel.
Gaba began working on the Museum of Contemporary African Art in 1997 during a two-year residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. He considered this ambitious project not as a model for others to emulate but as a catalyst for debate around preconceived notions of what African art is: ‘My museum doesn’t exist. It’s only a question … What I do is react to an African situation which is linked to a Eurocentric problem.’ (Gaba 2001, pp.16–17.) He continues, ‘I don’t come from traditional Africa but from modern Africa: that’s why I ask questions about the education I had. If I create a museum of contemporary African art, it’s because I say that people who gave me that education didn’t give us everything. They shut me up inside tradition.’ (Gaba 2001, p.18.) Gaba challenges ideas of an ‘authentic’ African expression and asserts his right as a Beninese living in the Netherlands to draw on both European and African influences. His museum is not a shrine to the object, but rather a space for social and cultural interaction, where the interconnectedness of art and life is made manifest.
By titling this work Museum of Contemporary African Art Gaba draws attention to the fact that such a museum does not yet exist in Africa. Instead ethnographic museums in Europe and America have defined African art, often excluding contemporary artists, particularly those whose works break with tradition. Historian Simon Njami describes Gaba’s project as ‘a corrective to the history of past centuries. By once again placing Africa at the heart of universal creation, he is not simply content to affirm a forgotten and negated presence, but stresses his own existence … by staking a claim on the contemporary field.’ (Simon Njami, in Wolfs, Roesink and Visser 2010, p.10.) While this is a key work in the recent history of African art, it is also important within the lineage of critical reflections on the museum by European artists such as Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) and Marcel Broodthaers (1924–1976). Although Gaba utilises the language of a Western museum, his approach is modest and the individual rooms containing different kinds of objects – including many that are painted gold, adorned with or made from shredded banknotes – invite visitor interaction. Curators and historians Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu have argued that Gaba’s project evinces ‘a critique not only of the museum as an institution in which cultural value is produced, but also the museum as the symbolic realm in which such value is redistributed as cultural capital.’ (Enwezor and Okeke-Agulu 2009, p.16.)
Meschac Gaba, Library of the Museum, vol.1, Breda 2001.
Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu, Contemporary African Art since 1980, Bologna 2009, pp.16–17.
Rein Wolfs, Macha Roesink and Bianca Visser (eds.), Meschac Gaba, Cologne 2010.