/ 11 July 2013

Triumph for African modernism

A museum within a museum: Meschac Gaba’s interactive show Museum of Contemporary African Art at the Tate in London.
A museum within a museum: Meschac Gaba’s interactive show Museum of Contemporary African Art at the Tate in London.

‘This is not an Africa season in any way. It’s very much part of our longer-term strategy about presenting art from Africa within Tate’s collection and exhibitions programme,” curator Kerryn Greenberg says of Tate Modern’s latest show, Meschac Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art.

The exhibition is part of a conscious effort by Tate Modern to place modern and contemporary art from Africa alongside work from Europe and the Americas to create a wider narrative. A major retrospective of Sudanese modernist artist Ibrahim El-Salahi opened at Tate Modern on the same day.

“It’s about trying to trace those historical developments and I think in many ways write their history, because it hasn’t been written in a coherent way,” Greenberg comments.

Gaba’s vast 12-room installation took five years to complete, and is the biggest acquisition the Tate has ever made in terms of size. “To be honest, I can’t think of another institution which would take this on. It is too complicated [an] acquisition. The storage alone, the conservation costs, all of these aspects are immense,” Greenberg says.

“And the fact that [the] Tate’s done it signals this massive commitment to acquiring African art. By acquiring a seminal work which questions the perceptions of African art really puts that at the forefront of the practice, because now it’s paved the way for so many others.”

Gaba trained in Benin and later went to Amsterdam’s Rijksakademie to further his studies. There he began to question the European notion of African art and its focus on objects used for ritual purposes. “He’s very interested in dispelling notions that African art is about the traditional, or the ethnographic,” says Greenberg.

“It’s an imaginary museum, it’s a question … it’s a provocation. He’s not really providing any answers. He’s very playful, very humorous, but then there’s also lots of different references that he’s drawing on.”

One of the signature elements of Gaba’s work is the use of “bank note dots” throughout his museum. These are old bank notes he found one day in Cotonou. They had been discontinued because of inflation and cut into small circular pieces. He also places packets of shredded currency and out-of-circulation banknotes strategically around his museum.

This interest in money relates to how money travels, and its role in Africa as a conduit for neocolonialism. “Money is a language that we all understand regardless of our position in society or where we come from,” says Greenberg. Gaba’s Money Tree, for example, is a tree with African bank notes growing from the branches that feature artists such as Brancusi and Picasso in place of African presidents.

Gaba was also intrigued by the completely different value system that he found in Europe, where wealthy people ate things like frozen chicken. He could not believe they could eat so badly and has therefore included a freezer filled with ceramic frozen chickens. This is contrasted with a stack of unrefrigerated ceramic chicken feet.

“Life is art,” says Gaba. And this interconnectedness between art and life is visible throughout, particularly in his Marriage Room. Based on his wedding in a Dutch gallery, it’s a piece of a performance, which, as Greenberg points out, is both “playful yet deeply serious”. The room contains photos of the ceremony. ­Presents such as a video recorder place the event in an earlier decade.

“There was no museum of African art he recognised was right for him, or no space within a Western museum where he felt his work made sense, so he made his own,” explains Greenberg.

“That’s a really radical gesture, I think, that’s really seizing it and saying: ‘I won’t accept to be on the sidelines, I will create my own space.’

I think he’s one of those figures that really was crucial in changing the way that we think about and position African art on an international platform.”

“For [Gaba] it’s about a museum for everyone, a museum with objects that people recognise and understand, a museum in which people cannot just observe an object at a distance but actually interact with it, to play with it, to investigate. So it’s a proposal for a different way of being in a museum.

“He’s created a space and invites other artists to intervene in that. So it’s a very democratic, very generous way of working, which you see throughout his practice.” An example of this collaboration is the inclusion of a video installation by a young Benin artist in the Salon room.

“The Museum Restaurant is not just a place to get food, it’s a place for socialising. It’s a place that is not just on the periphery of a museum, but very much integral to the core function of a museum.” Here Gaba has invited other artists to share this space and organise dinners.

“So he’s inviting us to rethink the way the museum is constructed and our relationship to it and to the objects within it … that’s what makes it quite radical.”

Museum Shop contains a range of different items including works by other artists that were originally for sale, but this had to stop when Tate acquired the work, otherwise they would be selling off the collection.

“What happens when a museum like this enters our museum? How do we actually continue to activate it and also preserve it for future generations? Conceptually and practically it’s an interesting dilemma,” Greenberg remarks.

What is important for Greenberg is how the Tate represents individual artists. “Because we’re not telling a story of African art, we’re telling a story of international art that includes artists from Africa. And that’s a very distinct thing to be doing.”

“I think art is art,” Gaba tells me at the opening. “I don’t know why we categorise art as African art or London art. Art is art in the end.” But he also agrees that Western institutions have been slow to recognise artists from Africa. “I am happy that somebody started. I think nobody knows where to start. It’s a good challenge for Tate.”