Museum of Contemporary African Art
Meschac Gaba at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

Meschac Gaba worked for more than five years on his “Museum of Contemporary African Art.” The gigantic installation of the artist, who was born in Benin and lives in the Netherlands, is an alternative to Western-influenced exhibition concepts. On loan from Tate Modern, Gaba’s opus magnum is now on view at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. The presentation marks the beginning of cooperation between Deutsche Bank and one of the world's most renowned museums for contemporary art in whose framework important artistic positions from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East will be presented.

Meschac Gaba: Museum of Contemporary African Art @ Deutsche Bank KunstHalle

Meschac Gaba’s Art and Religion Room turns a utopian dream into reality – peaceful coexistence between the religions of the world. On plain wooden shelves, myriad devotional objects are brought together: suras from the Quran meet Jewish prayer shawls, a plaster Madonna meets the Hindu elephant god Ganesha. In between there are African fetish sculptures, as well as secular objects: even a padlock and a plastic doll have a spiritual dimension. The Art and Religion Room is a democratic archive of religious possibilities; a room without hierarchies in which every object has the same status. Its open construction recalls a market stall at which all kinds of goods are presented next to each other.

Gaba approaches the emotionally and politically charged topic of “religion” with remarkable composure, perhaps owning to his origins. The artist is from Benin, a country in western Africa in which different religions live together without conflict. “You will see sculptures of angels, of Jesus Christ and the Mami Wata (an African water spirit) all in the same house,” says Gaba.

The Art and Religion Room is part of his opus magnum, the twelve-room Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997-2002. This installation is the largest single work ever purchased by the Tate in London. As a museum without a fixed location, it was present in all kinds of variations in many international exhibition venues. Now seven rooms of this trailblazing work can be experienced for the first time in Berlin, marking the beginning of cooperation between the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle and Tate Modern. In the years to come, three joint exhibitions will be devoted to important non-Western artists. After Museum of Contemporary African Art, a show with paintings by Bhupen Khakhar, one of India’s first Pop artists, is planned.

Gaba’s installation is not conceived as a conventional museum. On the contrary, “My museum has no walls,” says the artist. It is “not a model … it’s only a question.” As a result, he created a conceptual rather than a physical space. As a provocative statement on the Western art establishment, his museum not only questions the criteria according to which African art is judged. It also asks why certain things have value and are shown in a museum, while others are not, and who determines these hierarchies. Like the protagonists of “Relational Art,” including Rirkrit Tiravanija and Pierre Huyghe, Gaba is interested in transforming the museum into a lively place of encounter and cultural exchange – the exhibition venue as a social sculpture.

Gaba got the idea for the installation during a residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. “I chose Holland as somewhere I wouldn’t have to submit to any influence: France already has too many links with Benin,” he says. On this neutral terrain, so to speak, he didn’t want to focus on the colonial history of Benin, but investigated a very current phenomenon instead: in Europe, contemporary African art was practically invisible or was confined to ethnological museums. When it was exhibited, normally masks, fetish objects, or colorfully painted store signs were shown. African art was dismissed as being folkloristic and naïve. Additionally, Gaba could not imagine simply integrating his own work in the canon of Western museums. “I needed a place for my work, because it didn’t yet exist.”

In 1996-97, he began with the Draft Room. This room forms the entrance to the presentation in the KunstHalle. The works in this room engage with the food and money cycles. Devalued banknotes processed into confetti and a table from a currency exchange bureau allude to money as a means of payment that defines the value of things – in art and in other areas of society. Inspired by a life between cultures, the Draft Room introduces the most important themes of his museum – the relationship between Africa and the West, local and global, art and everyday life.

In the adjoining Architecture Room, Gaba installed his Artist’s Bank, a desk covered with real banknotes on which icons of art and architectural history are pictured. In contrast, he has banknotes he designed himself grow on a Money Tree. They show portraits of famous European artists, including Picasso, who were inspired by African art. In the Architecture Room viewers can be creative and erect their own museum building out of wooden blocks.

Audience participation is essential for Gaba’s installation. Thus, he could dispense with the area that is normally the core of a museum, the collection, which is passively viewed by visitors. Instead, at the center of his work are the rooms in which there is social interaction, for example the museum restaurant. At the KunstHalle, selected artists will organize a dinner in cooperation with the German Academic Exchange Service. For instance, the video artist Theo Eshetu from Addis Ababa is inviting visitors to the Land of Bread and Honey, where Ethiopian specialties are served.

In the improvised library made of pallets and truck tires, however, there is only food for thought. More than 1,600 art publications and children’s books await readers here. Visitors can go through the inventory on two computers. But they have to produce the electricity themselves. The computers are mounted on bicycles, and users have to pedal to produce the energy required. There is also human activity in the Art and Religion Room. Professional tarot card readers come regularly to explain the significance of cards pulled by visitors.

Naturally, the museum also has a shop. Apart from editions of Olafur Eliasson, Wangechi Mutu, and Emmanuel Shuga Kasongo selected expressly for the presentation at the KunstHalle, visitors can buy T-shirts designed for the project. But they are not the only ones who spread the idea of Gaba’s museum to the outside world. The “Humanist Space,” which Gaba first presented at Documenta XI in 2002, also bring his art to public space. Eight golden bicycles with the logo of the Museum of Contemporary African Art can be rented at the KunstHalle for tours devoted to topics such as “Street Art versus museum art” and “religious diversity.” The golden wheels become cultural ambassadors that transport the spirit of Meschac Gaba’s museum to everyday life in the city.
Achim Drucks

Meschac Gaba
Museum of Contemporary African Art

9/20/2014 – 11/16/2014
Deutsche Bank KunstHalle
More information about the program can be found here.