Meschac Gaba was so bewildered by the lack of opportunities for African artists in Europe that he spent five years constructing his own fictional museum, even adding, for extra authenticity, a shop and a restaurant. This week it takes its place at the heart of the British art establishment when it goes on display as one of Tate Modern's newest acquisitions – the biggest work it has ever bought.
The opening coincides with major retrospectives for the Sudanese artist Ibrahim el-Salahi (82) and Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair (97). Both could be described overlooked pioneers, and the shows reflect Tate Modern's move towards a more globalised view of art. "These are all exhibitions that 20 or 30 years ago were quite impossible," said the Tate Modern director, Chris Dercon. "At some point it will be absolutely normal and absolutely necessary to have all these kinds of work, all these artists, together in one museum."
The acquisition of Gaba's enormous 12-room Museum of Contemporary African Art has been several years in the planning. "I'm very happy to have my work here," said Benin-born Gaba. "Tate is a dream place, all artists would like to be here."
He recalled being a student at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam and looking for somewhere to exhibit his work. The only place he found was the ethnographic museum, but it did not show contemporary art. So between 1997 and 2002 he created a museum.
Because it is his, Gaba has filled his museum with things he wants. There is a games room where people can create African flags with sliding puzzle tables. On a few days during the work's display there will be a Tarot reader. There is also a music room, a Humanist space and a marriage room where Gaba displays photos from his wedding in 2000 to curator Alexandra van Dongen.
The installation has been part-acquired and part-gifted to Tate Modern – as in bought for an undisclosed discount. It opens free of charge on July 3, next door to the el-Salahi display, which costs £10 for entry and is the first major UK exhibition of his work. African artists had for too long been excluded from the narrative of art history, the curator, Salah M Hassan, said.
Father of African modernism
El-Salahi, widely regarded as the father of African modernism, had a landmark show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1963 and then "suddenly in the 1970s and 1980s there was a decline in interest in African artists. The importance of this show is to fill gaps in the narrative and globalise the narrative."
The show traces his artistic and personal life from studying in Khartoum to the Slade School of Fine Art in London, and his imprisonment in 1975, when he was wrongly accused of anti-government activities in Sudan and his subsequent exile to Oxford in 1998. "I miss Sudan all the time but I also don't miss it because it is uppermost in my mind," he said. "I am settled now, I've put down roots. I have children, I have grandchildren, I have great-grandchildren in England."
He said it was wonderful that his work was finally being shown in a major British institution. "It has taken a long time," he said. "I don't know if it was ignorance or prejudice, but I kept working. I hope what I do and the message I have in my work will get to the people at large, whether in Sudan, Europe or America." – © Guardian News and Media 2013