Museum-goers have certain expectations when it comes to a gallery visit. Exhibits yes, but also a shop, proper coffee, library, wifi, good cake… So what do you do if, as an artist, that template doesn’t work for you? If you’re Benin-born artist Mescha Gaba, you simply reinvent it. Gaba has thrown conventions up in the air by creating his own museum within a museum. Behold the Museum of Contemporary African Art, where you can contemplate, study, be social and play (check out our pictures).
Born in 1961 in Cotonou, Benin, Gaba now lives and works between Benin and Rotterdam, choosing Holland as somewhere he ‘wouldn’t have to submit to any influence.’ He began working on the Museum of Contemporary African Art in 1997 because he felt there was no space in Europe or Africa for the type of work he wanted to make. He describes finding ‘another reality’ when visiting European museums, a reality in which he couldn’t imagine how the art he wanted to make could be integrated. ‘I needed a space for my work, because this did not exist,’ he said.
Now, you may be wondering what a museum of contemporary African art looks like. Well, Gaba’s version is a twelve-room interactive installation that, in bringing together handmade and found knick-knacks and altered objects, along with personal stories from the artist’s own life, calls into question the nature and function of the museum. You’ll see everything from decommissioned banknotes (for Gaba ‘money is the sinews of war’), to golden ceramic foodstuffs (a comment on excessive overproduction in Europe) and even his wife’s wedding dress from their marriage ceremony (Gaba actually married the Dutch curator Antoinetta Georgina Alexandra van Dongen at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam as part of the exhibition For Real).
The boundaries between art and life become all the more blurry as you progress through the many rooms of Gaba’s Museum. Closely resembling a West African market, inexpensive and high value items are side-by-side in the Museum Shop, where there are a few items on offer for you to buy. In the Game Room you can have a go at reconfiguring the flags of Algeria, Angola, Chad, Morocco, Senegal and Seychelles in sliding puzzles. After that, you can head to the Salon, play the piano, eat a chocolate coin, take a seat on the sofa and relax.
I can’t help but think how, in questioning the boundaries of the museum, Gaba’s mix of objects offers us the flavour of a cosmopolitan, urban place. Ultimately though, to know Gaba’s Museum you have experience it for yourself. In his own words: ‘You know, my museum of contemporary African art has no walls. I want to show artists that you can show work everywhere, you can do it on your own. Have the courage to decide for yourself who you are.’
You are invited to enjoy a hearty meal designed, prepared and hosted by guest artists in Gaba’s Museum Restaurant dinner series, booking required