Not on display
- Meschac Gaba born 1961
- Mixed media
- Overall display dimensions variable
- Gift of the artist and acquired with funds provided by the Acquisitions Fund for African Art supported by Guaranty Trust Bank plc 2013
Meschac Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997–2002 is an immersive twelve-room installation that reimagines the contemporary art museum. The twelve parts are discreet, but related, installations and can be shown individually as well as part of a larger group. Created over five years, the work questions the function of the museum and challenges preconceived notions of what African art is. Visiting European museums in the late 1990s, Beninese artist Meschac Gaba couldn’t imagine how the art he wanted to create could be integrated into them and The Museum of Contemporary African Art was his response. In a series of named rooms, he created new spaces for sociability, study and play, in which the boundaries between everyday life and art, and between observation and participation, are blurred. The twelve sections are: Draft Room, Architecture Room, Museum Shop, Summer Collection, Game Room, Art and Religion Room, Museum Restaurant, Music Room, Marriage Room, Library, Salon and Humanist Space. Each of these represents an aspect of what Gaba believes to be a core part of the museum’s function.
The Library contains exhibition catalogues, artist monographs, art magazines, curatorial essays and critical texts, books on African art and literature, African periodicals and children’s art books, displayed on library shelving. Some less conventional elements also feature, such as two chandeliers made from burnt books and a coffin containing an audio recording.
Gaba began working on the Museum of Contemporary African Art in 1997 during a two-year residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. For Gaba, the project was a philosophical one: ‘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, p.16–17.) He continued, ‘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.’ (Ibid., p.18.) Gaba’s work challenges ideas of an ‘authentic’ African expression and asserts his right as a Beninese living in the Netherlands to draw on European and African influences alike. Curator Simon Njami has described 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.) Gaba’s 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. The artist’s biography is evident in many areas of the Museum of Contemporary African Art, for example in the Marriage Room, which contains memorabilia from the artist’s marriage to Dutch curator Antoinetta van Dongen which took place at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in October 2000.
Utilising the traditional language of European museums, Gaba’s approach nevertheless is modest and invites social interaction in a way that undercuts accepted expectations of museum experience. The individual rooms in his project contain a myriad of different objects, including many that are painted gold, adorned with or made from shredded banknotes. 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).
Although it took Gaba five years to complete the Museum of Contemporary African Art, the number of sections was fixed from the beginning. Individual rooms or groups of rooms have been exhibited in museums across the world, from South Africa to France and Slovenia to the United States of America, making this a seminal work in the recent history of African art. Several rooms were included in documenta XI in Kassel in 2002 while the work was first exhibited in its entirety in 2009 at the Kunsthalle Fridericianum in Kassel.
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.
Okwui Enwezor, ‘Meschac Gaba, Museum of Contemporary African Art (Draft Room)’, in Daniel Birnbaum, Connie Butler, Suzanne Cotter and others (eds.), Defining Contemporary Art – 25 Years in 200 Pivotal Artworks, London 2011, p.224.
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