Over the past 20 years, through various bodies of work, Beninese artist Meshac Gaba has attempted to reframe contemporary African artistic identity, asking us to shed our preconceived ideas and re-imagine the African continent with a more valid contemporary image. In Kassel, he focused on the 12 installations that constitute his imagined Museum of Contemporary African Art (MCAA), originally realized in 1997 and shown individually at other international institutions or events since then. In this exhibition, titled ‘Museum of Contemporary African Art & More’, Gaba showed the MCAA in its entirety for the first time.
The tone of the Museum was set by the first two pieces installed on the ground floor and mezzanine: Sweetness (2006) and Lake of Wisdom (2007). The former is a sprawling model of an imagined city which comprises international architectural landmarks as well as everyday houses – all made entirely of sugar. Created during a residency in Recife, Brazil, Sweetness alludes specifically to the city’s sugar industry, and, in a larger context, to the way in which Western economies have been tied to sugar production and slavery. (Gaba’s own adopted country of residence, the Netherlands, brought African slaves to Suriname to work the cane fields.) The sizes of certain monuments in the scale-model contrast with memory and expectation. (St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, for example, is much smaller than the Taj Mahal.) Confronted with one’s cultural centrality, we are asked to reconsider our viewpoint of memory and history. Likewise, Lake of Wisdom presents the gilded brains of Gaba’s grandes maîtres in Perspex boxes. South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba shares equal space with Karl Marx, and King Guézo (the ninth king of what is now Benin) is located between Abraham Lincoln and Desiderius Erasmus. Each sculpture is placed before a new addition to Gaba’s ‘Banknote’ series (1996–ongoing), in which the artist’s portrait replaces that of a president or king. Here, the images of individual curators who hosted his art work were grafted onto the various institutions’ national banknotes.
The play with banknotes, both real and ersatz, appeared in nearly all of the 12 rooms to interrogate the ways in which the African economy is dependent on a changing world order and wild currency fluctuations and devaluations, while also commenting on the way objects can reclaim a lost value by becoming an art work. In the ‘Museum Shop’, for example, Beninese notes had been mashed into a pulp, rolled into chunky beads and strung on a necklace. Each of the objects in the shop is priced far above the combined value of its component material, whose actual worth outside of Benin is nominal.
Laid out on pallets and in wooden stalls, Gaba presents the wares of his shop as if in an African street market, a theme that is continued in the ‘Music Room’ with piles of used cassette tapes heaped on blankets and home-made tapes stacked in wooden crates – raising issues of piracy, copyright and ownership. In the ‘Game Room’ visitors could play flag roulette, in which the player spins a bicycle wheel – simultaneously conjuring both overburdened Third World transport systems and Marcel Duchamp’s readymade – to combine African countries into new nations.
The rooms that followed – including the ‘Wedding Room’, which documented the artist’s union to his Dutch partner – were variations on the theme. The most compelling was the final ‘Library’ installation, a collection of the artist’s books and old computers running on bike-powered electricity. The large reading table was lit by chandeliers made from stacked books: as the candles burned, so did the tomes therein, as though knowledge were consuming itself. A set of headphones leading from a coffin relates the story of Gaba’s life, narrated by an African man from the perspective of Gaba’s deceased father, reflecting the continent’s ancient oral tradition and the adage that: ‘When an old man dies, an entire library disappears with him.’
The ‘Library’ clarifies Gaba’s intention that his institution be akin to the musaeum or museion of ancient times. That is, a site not for the display of artefacts but a study centre, a place for research and the coming together of minds. The preservation of identities and harbouring of values are the traditional tasks of a museum, but, Gaba asks, what if the documentation of an identity has been neglected or has been slanted to a particular view, or what if that body of knowledge disappears? Certainly Gaba has made a pointed critique of the lack of an authoritative voice in the display of African art to a European audience, but this temporary museum also drew attention to the fact that there is still no permanent institution of its kind on the African continent either.
Amanda Coulson is a Bahamian-American writer and curator until recently based in Frankfurt. She was one of the co-founders of the VOLTA art fairs in Basel and New York and after seven years as Executive Director she is stepping down to take up the post of Director of the National Gallery of the Bahamas in Nassau.
First published in Issue 128