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.