Architecture of the everyday

“I am trying to make people happy; to make them laugh,” visiting Benin-born artist Meschac Gaba says when asked about the purpose of his art.

Beneath this humorous exterior is an art that is acutely aware of urban spaces and its hard-knock realities, which, for hundreds of millions of people, are no laughing matter. “I look at the way people live in the streets. I find this real,” he states in English tinged with a Gallic twist.

His interest in urban architecture is borne out by the Tresses series, which premiered at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where Gaba presented replicas of buildings from his native Cotonou and the city of New York. He has also exhibited representations of London and Paris landmarks.

“When you go to art exhibitions you hold these big [intellectual] discussions, but people in the street don’t do this,” he says of the divide he straddles. “They just do whatever they have to do. It’s normal life for them.”

Gaba is renowned for his Museum of Contemporary Art, a project in which he installed the 12 rooms of a nomadic museum in various art galleries. He currently has a solo exhibition at the Michael Stevenson in Cape Town.

Now based in The Netherlands, Gaba’s forthcoming exhibition will comprise new works from his Tresses series in which he reinterprets iconic buildings in the form of braided artificial hair sculptures.

Last year Gaba selected 10 South African landmarks, including the Sentech Tower in Johannesburg and the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. He then produced drawings of these buildings that were used to make what is called, in the parlance, “wig buildings”. In interviews, Gaba frequently uses the French term métissage as a metaphor for a global culture, of which both hair-braiding and architecture are examples.

In our interview this point comes up when I ask him about his cultural identity as an artist. “Which culture is pure?” he asks. “Nothing is pure any more.” In his art he tries to bring this awareness of the world as a melange. For example, in reference to his exhibition of bread at the Johannesburg Art Gallery’s Africa Remix, he says a child in Africa who sees a loaf of bread may think that it is African bread and similarly a child in France may think it is French bread.

“If you want to talk about European and African cultures you are talking of a mixture,” he argues. “All have influenced each other. There is no need, then, to say this is European and this is African.”

I ask him how he manages to make at times abstract material relevant to the man in the street. “Well, because I am an ordinary person,” Gaba, dressed in jeans, a corduroy jacket and a poloneck top, says. “I would rather look at ordinary people … than art books.

“Real culture is in the streets, not in the museums.”

This might explain his somewhat startling point that “I don’t look back to Africa [for inspiration and content]. I look at the realities in Amsterdam; that is where I find inspiration. If I begin looking at Benin I’d have lost the plot [as an artist].”

On the subject of influences he lists Jesus Christ and God. “He is the best performance artist ever,” he says of Jesus, a soft smile playing on his thin lips. “He could walk on water and change water into wine. God is the best creator too. He made man from nothing. These two are my best teachers.”

In his works Gaba tries to incorporate a variety of materials, including hair, wood, dough, paper and video. “My favourite material is bank notes,” he says smiling. He gets shredded bank notes from the Swiss Bank and the central banks in Benin and Germany.

From something without value he comes up with something of beauty and biting commentary on the unequal relations between the developed and the less developed world.

This pretty much sums up his view on contemporary art. “It should be about daily life,” what he calls, “life for now”.

He also uses cloth flags to make commentary on democracy on his native continent. Gaba says he likes working with flags because they have colour and they are instantly recognisable. “We need better democracies—rid of corruption—that are helpful to the common man.”

Gaba says he tries to go against the grain by making his work interactive—in opposition to art galleries that would rather not have visitors touching what’s on show.

“By making it more interactive I manage to make it more relevant,” he says. “You don’t forget something you touch.”

The details

Meschac Gaba shows with Nandipha Mntambo at the Michael Stevenson Gallery on Smit Street in Green Point, Cape Town, until September 15. Tel: 021 421 2575. Visit His work is included in the Africa Remix exhibition at Johannesburg Art Gallery (Jag) in Joubert Park until September 30. Gaba’s major solo show at Jag opens on November 6. Tel: 011 725 3130 Visit:

Percy Zvomuya

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