Meschac Gaba: Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997-2002

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© Meschac Gaba

Between 2pm and 6pm on Thursday July 11, 25, August 8, 22 and September 12, there will be uncanny occurrences in Gaba’s Art and Religion Room when a professional tarot reader is on hand to give free, 15-minute readings. We’re no soothsayers but we envisage lengthy queues.

© Meschac Gaba
© Meschac Gaba, photo Nils Klinger

Gaba’s museum experience includes an all-important restaurant where artists Peter Liversidge (July 22), Roelof van Wyk and Jade de Waal (July 23), Margareta Kern and Teresa Cisneros (September 15) and Gayle Chong Kwan (September 16) will be let loose on the stoves to produce the Museum Restaurant Dinner Series. It’s not just grub inspired by their own culinary traditions and cultural heritage they’ll be serving up. Each evening includes specially tailored events like ‘¡Lotería!’ in which Kern and Cisneros devise a game based on the economy of food, and Kwan’s collaborative art work ‘Garden of Adonis’, a sensory experience, which includes a limited-edition art work to take away. Tickets (£35) include dinner, drinks and a private view of Gaba’s exhibition.

© Meschac Gaba

Taking pride of place in Gaba’s 'Museum of Contemporary African Art' is The Salon, a lounge-like space where you’re invited to sit, chat, read comics and newspapers or have a go on a computerised version of the traditional African board game Awélé. Fela Kuti’s ‘Greatest Hits’ album plays from the behind the bar but the star music attraction has to be the white baby grand piano – bedazzled with Gaba’s trademark ‘dots’ made from banknotes and filled with gold chocolate coins – which anyone can play. Wearing floor-length mink while you do is not necessary.

© Meschac Gaba
© Meschac Gaba, photo Nils Klinger

Meschac Gaba - Museum of Contemporary African Art & More, Kunsthalle Fridericianum / Kassel / 2009

© Meschac Gaba
© Meschac Gaba, photo Nils Klinger
© Meschac Gaba
© Meschac Gaba

The ‘Museum of Contemporary African Art’ is such a good-natured, warm glow-giving experience that it’s hard to think of it growing from a sense of frustration. But that’s how Meschac Gaba felt when, in 1997 while studying at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, he presented the first part of his project, which he describes as being ‘not a model… it's only a question’. Disgruntled by the lack of space for contemporary African art in Western museums, the Beninese artist began to assemble a series of sculptures and installations that challenge conceptions of what art from and about Africa might look like while asking pertinent questions about the apparent blind spots of Western cultural institutions.

By the time of its completion in 2002, Gaba’s museum had grown to twelve rooms, each a stealthy and humorous exploration of cultural exchange and value (there's lots of fake chicken and real money) filled with enough autobiographical material to make you feel like you’re sharing anecdotes with a pal rather than attending a lecture. In the Marriage Room, Gaba includes a video of his wedding – which took place at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum in 2000. In the Library, there’s an audio recording of his life story.

This is the first time it has been show in its entirety in the UK, having been acquired by the Tate. Throughout, there’s plenty to keep you occupied. In the Architecture Room building blocks on a blue carpet invite budding designers to make a fantasy museum. In the Game Room you can rearrange African flags on a series of tabletop sliding puzzles, while on certain dates in the Art and Religion Room a tarot card reader is in attendance.

With so much available to pick up and play with, though, it’s slightly confusing that some of the most apparently interactive exhibits, like an oversize chess set, are off limits – and sensitively alarmed. Souvenir hunters may find The Museum Shop especially frustrating. While wooden pallets are stacked with bags, bangles and other desirable limited editions, what’s actually for sale is a more orthodox collection that includes mugs, T-shirts and books. While none of this detracts from the Museum of Contemporary African Art’s spirit, it tells us something about the success of the project and the compromises that can occur when a museum without a home finally finds one.

Martin Coomer

Event phone: 020 7887 8888
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