• Meschac Gaba photo portrait

    © Kunsthalle Fridericianum

Chris Dercon
Your first trip to Europe was to the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam?

Meschac GabaNo, my first trip to Europe was to France, where I had an exhibition at the Musée de l’Afrique et de l’Océanie in Paris.

Chris Dercon
At that moment, you’d never thought about the question of the museum?

Meschac Gaba
No, that wasn’t in my mind. I knew the concept of the ethnographic museum, but I didn’t know how it worked. And I didn’t know of the existence of contemporary art. In 1990–2, I think, UNESCO set up a museum of modern art in Benin that reflected improved ethnography.

Chris Dercon
Improved ethnography?

Meschac Gaba
That’s what I call it.

Chris Dercon
What does improved ethnography mean for you?

Meschac Gaba
It accepted active artists as modern artists, although the focus was on fetishism. By way of provocation, I began by making figures of Christ. I told myself, as far as religion is concerned, it’s the Catholic religion that’s on our side.

Chris Dercon
Did you sell work in Benin?

Meschac Gaba
There were banks that bought it.

Chris Dercon
Why did you make assemblages with banknotes?

Meschac Gaba
I wanted to talk about devaluation, because money is what people like best, and then they start thinking.

Chris Dercon
Your work with money is different from Cildo Meireles’s circulation of the zero dollar, for example.

Meschac Gaba
Yes, I took the painting aspect out of the work, but kept the money. Because money is the sinews of war; it’s the chief. You see, I don’t like talking about colonisation, but at the same time money can colonise. Maybe that’s why I use money, because I refuse to use the word colonisation. Besides, money travels.

Chris Dercon
When did you contact the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam?

Meschac Gaba
I think it was in 1996. I was very happy that Benin had entered a period of democratisation. The dossiers were no longer hidden. I came across a UNESCO list at the Ministry of Culture containing the names of academies like the Rijksakademie. I chose Holland as somewhere I wouldn’t have to submit to any influence: France already has too many links with Benin. At that time, I used to work with a lot of Belgian artists like Michel François, who told me about Marcel Broodthaers.

Chris Dercon
Broodthaers once made a piece carrying the sentence: ‘Moi aussi je veux devenir riche’.

Meschac Gaba
I prefer Broodthaers to Duchamp, as I am full of doubt too.

Chris Dercon
Why?

Meschac Gaba
Because there is a sort of museum in my own imagination. And I also wonder what my role would be if this museum existed.

Chris Dercon
Is asking such questions enough? For example, wouldn’t it be more revolutionary to try to change existing museums than to create a new type of museum?

Meschac Gaba
I come from a communist country, one with twenty years of revolution; so revolution is a word I’m not very fond of. I think history is changing all the time and that it’ll never be the same. Time changes everything – all the time. Sometimes I wonder why I don’t call my museum The Museum of Time or The New Museum.

Chris Dercon
Don’t you think you need to go a bit further?

Meschac Gaba
You can go further. I use Broodthaers’s idea without adopting his approach. I hate people telling me what I do is European art. It’s mainly Africans who tell me that, not Europeans. What I do is react to an African situation, which is linked to a Eurocentric problem.

Chris Dercon
What is the objective of your museum?

Meschac Gaba
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.

Chris Dercon
But you call it the Museum of Contemporary African Art?

Meschac Gaba
Because I don’t know anyone who has created a museum of contemporary African art. So I’m doing it before anyone else does! That means that if someone wants to establish one, he’ll have to copy my museum.

Chris Dercon
Many young artists don’t want to work in museums.

Meschac Gaba
I’ve just got married in a museum!

Chris Dercon
Why is the museum still important for you?

Meschac Gaba
My museum doesn’t exist. It’s only a question. I have my internal conflicts, and I am looking for answers. If I don’t make this museum, I’ll never find any answers. To get all the answers, I need to finish the twelve different areas it contains.

Chris Dercon
Which ones you have already finished?

Meschac Gaba
I’ve done the Draft Room, the Museum Architecture, the Museum Shop, the Summer Collection, the Game Room, the Art and Religion Room, the Music Room, the Restaurant and the Marriage Room. I am now doing the Library.

Chris Dercon
But are these peripheral rooms the first you need? That’s pretty cynical isn’t it? You think of the collection only at the end. In fact, it’s an empty museum.

Meschac Gaba
It’s an empty museum, but rich in philosophy.

Chris Dercon
What do you mean, rich in philosophy?

Meschac Gaba
Because people will ask themselves questions. I’ve had some very unpleasant nights due to horrible discussions I’ve had about this museum.

Chris Dercon
At the same time some rooms are lacking. Have you ever thought of adding a room for pieces that should be returned to Africa – the Return Rooms?

Meschac Gaba
Well, I don’t agree with the idea of returning pieces; they should stay where they are. If they went back to Africa, they’d be sold again into private collections in Europe.

Chris Dercon
Is your museum a parody of a Eurocentric museum, or is it expressing an African condition?

Meschac Gaba
If I create a museum of African contemporary art, it’s because I say that the people who gave me that kind of education didn’t give us everything. They shut me up inside tradition.

Chris Dercon
Director, Tate Modern

Chris Dercon revisited and re-edited the recordings of his conversation with Meschac Gaba, which took place in 2000 at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, where Dercon was Director. That same autumn Gaba married Alexandra Van Dongen, curator of arts and crafts at the Museum, with an official civil ceremony at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, for which Dercon acted as a witness. The complete conversation between Gaba and Dercon, entitled ‘I use money, because I refuse to use the word colonisation’, was published in The Library of the Museum by Artimo Foundation, Amsterdam, in 2001. Dercon received an author’s fee of 1,000 Dutch Guilders, presented in the form of a cheque issued by the Bank of the Museum Contemporary African Art. The cheque was never cashed.