The Museum and the Individual

Samson Kambalu


Documenta 11 in 2002 featured the Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor as Artistic Director, and it was here that I saw Meschac Gaba with his Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997–2002 truly arrive on the international art scene.  The Beninese artist had conceived the museum while studying at Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam after realising that there were few opportunities to present his work in Europe and hardly any museums of contemporary art in Africa. The museum has twelve rooms, which were shown separately at different institutions across the world, and which took over five years to put together. At Documenta Gaba presented the Museum’s Humanist Space, a collection of bicycles to transport visitors to the festival around Kassel, all for free. Gaba said that charity work had become the most fashionable thing in Africa: there was an aid agency for every aspect of contemporary life, from drilling boreholes to second-hand underwear. For him therefore the prestigious platform of Documenta was an opportunity for charity, except this time it was from Africa to Europe, at least symbolically. To me this seemed to be an ironic gesture that recalled the antics of the likes of Idi Amin, who once volunteered to send aid to the United Kingdom during the miners’ strikes. But I saw method to Gaba’s gesture – the artist was actually criticising the idea of aid by returning the gift. According to the rules, as studied by anthropologists such as Marcel Mauss and Émile Durkheim, and indeed from my own experience growing up in Africa, the gift must be returned, as its main purpose is to create intimacy and mutual dependence among people. This is the opposite of the idea of charity that underpins Western aid in late capitalism, which is distant and keeps Africa in a demeaning one-sided dependency.


Gaba began his career in Benin, mostly as an autodidact, by appropriating decommissioned currency, both local and foreign. His irreverent use of money reminds me of Diogenes of Sinope, the son of a banker, who began his career by defacing currency. For his efforts, Diogenes was sent into exile in Athens where he lived as mendicant philosopher. He said he had defaced the currency in order to point people to true values beyond the love of money. In Athens he lived simply, ‘like a dog’, in an old barrel. At every opportunity he would come out of his barrel to question prevailing ideas through various quirky acts such as walking around in daylight carrying a lamp. He walked backwards entering a theatre to highlight how convention often led people to false values. When Alexander the Great approached the philosopher and asked him if there was anything that he wanted, he said, ‘Yes, you should stand a little from out of my sun.’ Diogenes claimed allegiance to no particular place or people; he said he was a citizen of the world. I realise that Meschac Gaba’s unconventional use of money has likewise set him on a path to question values, especially those being adopted in the rapidly globalised world of the market economy. Through the Humanist Space Gaba was revealing the values of a specific economic system with which he had aligned himself when he had made art out money – the universal gift economies of his native Benin.


I am aware that the so-called gift or static economies have different values from those of the market economy in that they operate on what the philosopher Georges Bataille has described as the ‘general economy’. Bataille’s ‘general economy’, as he explains it in The Accursed Share 1949, states that any system or organism under the sun and indeed in the universe operates in excess – the surplus energy in an organism is accursed and cannot be used. It must be expended either gloriously through ‘useless’ activities – religion, the arts, in non-procreative sexuality, in spectacles and sumptuous monuments; or catastrophically through war, social and economic instability, and even environmental degradation. Gift economies were prevalent in many pre-industrial societies including Medieval Europe. Gift economies, still found in many parts of Africa such as Benin, are unlike restricted economies based on capital, in that they have expenditure of surplus resources rather than production and accumulation as their primary aim. They may appear hideous in their resourcefulness and vulgar in their profligacy, but are ultimately more ethical in that they operate according to the ‘general economy’ of the universe. Gift economies, therefore, are bound to build a cathedral rather than a shopping mall, pyramids rather than skyscrapers, voodoo shrines rather than a leisure centre. The gift economy is primarily driven by the exchange of gifts rather than the trade in commodities. These gifts, usually food and luxurious objects such as jewellery, are exchanged at feasts, religious rituals and festivals, building intimacy and communal cohesion through the squandering of surplus resources and labour. Institutions of the gift, where intimate giving is done without expecting a quantifiable return, still remain in the cultural landscape of market economies of the developed world, albeit increasingly marginalised, art, religion and marriage being some of them. In the Museum of Contemporary African Art these institutions are once more brought to the mainstream of social interaction and economic values.


I first came across Meschac Gaba’s work in Amsterdam in 2000 when the artist presented the Marriage Room of his nomadic museum at the Stedelijk Museum. I had just arrived from Malawi and was doing an artist residency at the Thami Mnyele Foundation in Amsterdam. That morning I had gone to see the artist Marlene Dumas for a mentoring session; she took me to a wedding instead, in a museum. Gaba and his bride, Alexandra van Dongen, arrived in a horse drawn carriage, wearing appropriate Western wedding attire, but the rest of the ceremony was more like an art opening – except there was no usual cheap wine here, only lots of sparkling champagne. Gaba’s witness at the wedding was Chris Dercon, director of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. I drank so much champagne but remember wondering whether I should be painting or be getting married in a museum. I later saw the finished version of the Marriage Room at the Museum De Paviljoens in Almere in 2009. It contained wedding photos, the wedding dress and shoes of the artist’s wife, and gifts now displayed as art. Some of the artist’s friends were uneasy that he should make such an intimate and private occasion public, but Gaba had to have a wedding in a museum for it to be a real wedding, which like art is in essence a gift, which communicates something beyond calculation. In times of budgeted weddings and limited edition art, however, I realised that Gaba was not asking an easy question.


The advent of global capitalism in Africa was through the harrowing trans-Atlantic slave trade, but the unravelling of African gift economies started in earnest with the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the late nineteenth century, when the continent was carved up into seemingly arbitrary boundaries as European powers fought over its natural resources. The introduction of the notorious hut tax in many former British colonies forced self-sufficient tribesmen into the employ of others. The devastating consequences of the hut tax in Southern and Central Africa are well documented in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1970 film Notes for an African Oresteia. Gifts were hoarded and turned into commodities for sale; traditional ceremonies and festivals became anthropological and tourist curiosities; and the squandering of surplus wealth and human labour began to take the form of unending civil wars and pandemic diseases. Various African ‘big men’ took advantage of the continent’s uncertainties, cultural alienation, and debilitating poverty to set up autocratic regimes following independence from colonial powers. Benin’s own former president Mathieu Kérékou came to power through a coup in 1972 and purportedly financed his government partly through accepting radioactive waste from Russia and France. When that source of finance ran dry, he arguably became a Muslim to get money from Gaddafi of Libya and a born-again Christian when another source of finance was located, in the United States. This sort of ‘chameleon’ governance was being repeated up and down the continent as newly independent African countries found themselves mere pawns in the political and economic manoeuvrings of global super powers. The African Oresteia unfolded steadily well into the late twentieth century, and it was on this uncertain terrain that the foundations for the Museum of Contemporary African Art were laid.


African religions and spiritual philosophies such as Vodun in West Africa, the proto-type of Caribbean Voodoo, and a crucial part of the everyday life in Benin from which Gaba draws inspiration, can easily be dismissed as primitive superstition. However, when read as driven by the recognition of the indispensability of excess as demonstrated in Bataille’s theory of the ‘general economy’, these religions reveal an ancient wisdom about being in the world. Just as the medieval community was kept in static equilibrium through the squandering of wealth by building cathedrals and opulent palaces and engaging in wars and tournaments, Vodun paraphernalia, rituals and sacrifices could be read not as mere ethnographic curiosities but as creative ways for indigenous communities in Benin to maintain social cohesion and spirituality. For Gaba, art and religion are closely connected, hence the Art and Religion Room.

Among the Chewa of Southern Africa, which is my tribe, the problem of surplus was so central to existence that the whole philosophy and religion of excess, nyau, which informed every aspect of life outside the world of work – art, crafts, play, games, funerals, initiations, dance and etiquette – was developed. At the heart of the Chewa community was a nyau secret society of masquerade characters that were in fact the overseers of culture, the Gule Wamkulu, literally, the Great Play. The wearer of the nyau mask was sovereign, existing beyond good and evil. The chief, the law or any moral tenets, could not even judge him as he was the nyau itself, the Exuberant One, excess that could not be used. The nyau masks were of the waking world that existed between life and death – grotesque, and often satirical, they employed transgression, excess and ostentatious squandering of gifts at regular festivals after harvest, to unite society and to criticise conventions and institutions of power. The Museum of Contemporary African Art could be read as an assembly of a thousand nyau masks, in modern guise – celebrating not only diverse ways of making art but also criticising modern tendencies, such as using art as currency for what the philosopher Jean Baudrillard has described as ‘vulgar materialism’.


But it was mdulo, taboo, which was the most basic way the Chewa kept surplus wealth in check. If a taboo was broken, through adultery or by putting salt in food while menstruating, one had to see a witch doctor to offset misfortunes such as illness, madness, depression, anxiety and social unrest. The transgressor paid in chickens, goats, cows and so forth, depending on how grave the broken taboo was deemed. The more surplus a village had, the more taboos the community had to invent, and again the witch doctor was responsible for coming up with the most creative ways of compensating the broken taboo. In modern times, as the Chewa have come under the influence of foreign cultures, the witch doctors have ended up incorporating everything in sight as a remedy, and this may involve ingredients borrowed from other religions brought by the missionaries and merchants such as the Buddha, Christ, the rosary, and the Qur’an. Looking around the Museum of Contemporary African Art I reckon Gaba would have made a great witch doctor.

If inflation persisted, the chief would be called and members of the tribe would queue before a specialist witch doctor to drink a special hemlock, mwavi, which would prove their virtuousness. Those that survived the poison showed they were pure, while those who died were thought to have broken a grievous taboo or were witches. The witch doctor would usually administer the lethal form of the dosage to candidates suspected of ‘witchcraft’ (usually hoarders, misers and the unresourceful). Sanction by mwavi became so addictive among the Chewa people that many queued for the poison in the hope of surviving the lethal dosage and proving they were pure of character.


By the time of Malawi’s independence from Britain in 1964, the Chewa gift culture had already unravelled, the sacred nyau masks classified as protected by UNESCO after becoming sought-after collector’s items. Interestingly, the British Museum displays nyau specimens alongside voodoo dolls. The sovereignty of the nyau secret society was also employed as a political tool for Malawi’s life president, Dr Hastings Banda, and as an evangelical tool in the Catholic Church’s programme of religious enculturation. Nyau was dead; the sanctity of excess was denied in the name of modernisation, or so it appeared.

The rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s heralded the beginning of the fall of Africa’s ‘Big Men’ but it also ensured that capitalism continued to expand throughout Africa unabated. Structural adjustment programmes imposed by the World Bank and IMF which required African countries to get rid of trade restrictions for much needed development loans were the final step in the total marginalisation of the indigenous economies. The fall of the USSR and the coming down of the Berlin Wall announced what appeared to be the total triumph of global capitalism described in Fredric Jameson’s Post-Modernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism 1991 and celebrated in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man 1992. By the end of the twentieth century, when Gaba was turning decommissioned money into art, globalisation had impoverished many parts of the Third World as traditional social structures gave way to the whims of the free market. Africa’s share in world trade fell from 7% in the mid-1970s to 0.5% in the late 1990s. Climate change and environmental degradation had already rendered many parts of the continent uninhabitable. But the colonial legacy and modernisation in Africa did not completely eliminate its gift traditions; a culture of excess cannot really be destroyed. Like an indestructible voodoo spirit it entered African modern life, influencing politics, economics and culture, in good and bad as manifested in the creative sovereignty of the Museum.


I realise then that the Museum of Contemporary African Art is not a place of accumulation or preservation but rather an open theatre for a different way of looking at the world that refuses to deny the sanctity of excess and be reduced to the utilitarian values of global economics or classical modes of representation. The Museum unfolds before the individual like an enchanting music – it is a music with many influences from around the world, but it speaks in one universal language, exuberance. Gaba as an international artist and citizen of the world wears many masks; he is a hunter-gatherer, a street hustler, a witch doctor, an airport artist, a nyau mask, a voodoo priest, a knight in shining armour, a medieval king in an opulent palace, an Aztec warrior, a Buddhist monk, a soothsayer, a Catholic priest, a philosopher, but his diverse masks serve the same specific purpose: the ostentatious expenditure of surplus and production of intimacy, through prayer, contemplation, the production of luxury gifts, spurious goods and structures, games, idle activities and rituals. The Museum of Contemporary African Art is art when conceived on a universal scale.


The individual comes to the Museum on a bicycle, although outside his shack he has parked a shiny Cadillac, which he washes every week but never uses. That’s because he is aware of the ethos of intimate technology within the specific economy that made the Museum. Technology that depends on accumulated and stored energy, like cars and aircraft, is viewed with superstition here, because such machines are signs of hoarded and calculated wealth. Such machines are thought to run on people, and are bound to attract bad luck. The one who runs a mill has killed a little girl to work the engine for him; her cry could clearly be heard in the machine. The lorry driver was always a ready candidate for the hemlock (mwavi) in the olden days, but even now he has to be extra careful whenever he passes through the village, lest he be denounced as a witch. It is always wise to have the engine ‘strengthened’ by a witch doctor before it gets on the road to avoid inexplicable accidents. Intimate technologies such as the windmill and bicycles, on the other hand, are symbols of openness and generosity – the energy that drives the Museum.


The individual comes into the Museum dressed ostentatiously. In the economy of the Museum, where sharing and squandering of wealth are the rule, anything subtle betrays a calculating miser and hoarder – the miller, the grocer, the moneylender. Plain dress is also the dress of the mediocre, the uncreative, the unresourceful with nothing to lose, the cynics. In the olden days such underdressers would be ideal candidates for the hemlock (mwavi), for now he is not to be admitted into the club of players. To dress ostentatiously in Gucci shoes, Rolex watches, Pierre Cardin shirts, (most probably counterfeits from China) and hang out in the salon of the Museum, listening to Papa Wemba while drinking exotic beers, tearing up dollar bills before the ladies at the bar, and inciting patrons to acts of rival squandering, is to show an optimism in the abundance of life, and trusting people to always return the gift. If the individual cannot afford designer clothes he improvises – there are many second hand clothes for sale in the market, which could be modified to rival any on the haute couture scene in Milan or Paris. But sometimes you can not tell – the individual may choose threadbare chic when he wants to give the impression that he has already shared all his earnings with his friends and relatives, when in fact he has sent all his savings to Switzerland, or thrown the money under the mattress.

The individual in the Museum of Contemporary African Art is in the end torn between the values of every man for himself, and those of community, those of the resourceful and squanderer of indigenous wisdom, and those of the accumulation and waste of global market economics. The individual, whether a doctor, teacher, army officer, politician or businessman, therefore arms himself with charms, ruses and heterogeneous knowledge to avert bad luck, and paranoia arising from the forsaking of community for personal ambition, often turning himself into a caricature of aspiration like Africa’s ‘big men’, the so-called Life Presidents. The individual’s predicament is highlighted by the fact that Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art is oddly, with very few exceptions, full of the artist’s own work. The individual in the Museum is learned, cheerful, generous but in essence dark and tragic. The individual in the Museum is a modern man.

Samson Kambalu is a contemporary artist and author, born in Malawi in 1975. He is currently writing his PhD on Meschac Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art. He lives in London.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Tate.