Meschac Gaba’s installation Glue Me Peace, 2005 is a homage to the Nobel Peace Prize. Of the various Nobel awards, the Peace Prize is the most idealistic and politicised. It embodies the aspiration for a better world, making Glue Me Peace a very topical work. Since 2001, the international agenda has been dominated by war and terrorism. As wars are waged, their effects are felt at a local level: religious suspicion and outrage replaces tolerance, while refugees, immigration and national identity become pressing political concerns. Conflict dominates the media, and the question of peace becomes part of everyday life.

It is ironic that the Nobel Peace Prize is as much a history of twentieth-century conflicts as it is of the efforts for peace. Dualities such as this are at the heart of Gaba’s art. In a range of works, he has identified how that which appears to be self-evident usually has diverse, even contradictory, meanings. For example, the title Glue Me Peace is a literal translation of the African French phrase ‘Colle moi la paix’ meaning ‘leave me alone,’ or the more aggressive ‘give me a break.’ Even when translated into English there is a phonetic slippage as the idealisation of a strong lasting bond could mistakenly refer to a despairing, ‘gloomy’ peace. These ambiguities are not just about interpretation, but are embedded deeply within the subjects he addresses.

Take, for instance, the installation Boulangerie Africaine, 2004 in which a video of a bakery in Benin is surrounded by baguettes in glass counters. Are the counters actually museum vitrines displaying exotic artefacts? In what way are they exotic, and to whom? Here the everyday experience of buying bread is infused with historical narratives. The baguette has become entirely naturalised as part of the food culture of Benin, the Francophone nation where Gaba grew up, in spite of the fact that Benin does not grow wheat. The mundane loaf of bread, therefore, takes its place as a vestige of European colonialism.

Gaba’s installation can be seen as a way of turning the tables on the numerous European museums crammed with African cultural treasures. Instead of being stand-alone sculptural objects, most of the African artefacts that populate Western museums once played an integrated role in everyday life. It is in the same spirit that Gaba subjects the baguette, that definitive symbol of French life, to the rarefied conventions of museum display. The atmosphere of a museum can do strange things to objects. It can evacuate them of their context and imbue them with all kinds of fantasies, particularly when the object comes from a distant place. Our imaginations are invited to roam and make connections which may have little to do with reality. Consequently, the baguette becomes an object whose value shifts from the nutritional to the cultural. It merits being cast in clay and baked in a ceramics oven, then painted gold or silver, removing it further from its original function. As with all histories, the influences move in both directions. Certain objects now belong to both cultures, and move easily from the familiar to the exotic and back again. The baguette, like the French language, acts as a tangible connection between West Africa and France. They are part of the material reality of trade and immigration, but also belong to a cluster of histories, fears and desires that make France home to one of the most established and vibrant African diasporas.

Gaba’s best known work is the Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997-2002, an extraordinary series of installations that included rooms that represent the fictional museum’s Architecture, Restaurant, Marriage Room, and Salon. Only one of the twelve rooms would be installed at any one time on its peripatetic journey around Europe’s museums, until its final exhibition when the Shop, Library and ‘Humanist Space’ appeared together. Each installation focuses on the areas that are central to the business of any museum but it never included any galleries. The rooms are all sites of exchange, whether financial, intellectual, social or cultural, that deconstruct the spaces and hierarchies of the museum, and Gaba uses them to propose radical alternatives to our assumptions about the ways museums function and are used by the public.

Flags are a recurring motif in Gaba’s work. In Peace Maker, 2002, they are symbols of unity in a work addressing ethnic conflicts in Africa. The flags of various African nations are painted onto large wooden sliding-square puzzles mounted on tables. Each of the small squares in the puzzle is decorated with a further set of symbols: the flags of countries like Rwanda are overlaid with emblems of combat groups from the civil war, while peaceful countries like Benin are overlaid with images linked to epidemics like malaria and HIV. Gaba highlights the equivalence between the death toll of these conflicts and epidemics. By re-arranging the squares into flags, the symbols of death are shattered and overcome by unity. However, flags can also be divisive. In the West, they have often been claimed by nationalist groups with fantasies of an ethnically ‘pure’ nation in some mythical era before immigration.

For Glue Me Peace, Gaba has designed a poster with flags identifying the countries of all the Nobel Peace laureates. The frequency of the Union Jack and Stars and Stripes, and the absence of communist or decolonised states, reveals the Nobel’s Western bias. Despite Gandhi’s achievement of a non-violent end to British rule in India, he was never awarded the Peace Prize. Indeed, for the years of his five nominations, the prize was twice withheld and twice awarded to British laureates. More recently, this North Atlantic emphasis has shifted and the achievements of laureates from Developing World states are increasingly prominent.

The poster is a dazzling constellation of colour and geometry, specific flags at once leaping out then receding into the mosaic, losing individuality as the colours bleed into each other. It is a polyglot flag, a composite of ideals that represents individual states, but also forms a new international topography of the struggle for peace. The posters are for visitors to take away, but only in exchange for offering a message of peace which will be posted on the wall. As Gaba is aware, visitors may decline the terms of this exchange, refusing his invitation to enter a dialogue. But if the walls remain empty, it will reveal as much as if they become a cascade of messages calling for peace.

Text by Ben Borthwick