El cuento de un sombrerero

The work of Beninese artist Meschac Gaba, currently on show In Johannesburg, often
creates a meeting place where ideas of art and life are bandied about. By Kim Gurney.

Disa Park, Cape Town, 2007, braided artificial hair and mixed media, 76 x 20 x 37cm

It is tempting to wonder how the architect of the Voortrekker Monument might respond to the transformation of his iconic Pretoria landmark into a sculptural oversized wig of braided artificial hair. Gerard Moerdijk died in 1958 so his thoughts can only be surmised. But visitors to Benin artist Meschac Gaba’s first South African solo were intrigued by this cheeky rendition of the commemoration of the Afrikaner Trek from the Cape Colony. It sat towering precariously on a mannequin’s head, in turn perched on a pedestal. Other South African buildings got the same irreverent treatment at Cape Town’s Michael Stevenson Gallery in August: the Good Hope Centre, residential towers Disa Park, and the Reserve Bank among them.

Gaba has braided, in similar style, international architectural wonders like the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building using the expertise of a professional West African hair-braider in Benin’s Cotonou (where he was born in 1961). Some of these creations were paraded last year in London’s Old Spitalfields Market. The Michael Stevenson show included the same performative element via a video of models wearing Gaba’s braided sculptures as wigs. The arresting sight, as they wove their way through crowded streets, evoked both the European catwalk of high fashion and African rural pragmatism of head-borne loads.

Gaba’s personal history embraces this fusion. He is a man with a foot in two worlds: Benin, his country of origin, and the Netherlands, where he has lived and worked for a decade. Moerdijk, being the son of a Netherlands teacher, could surely have appreciated this cultural hybridity. It is one of Gaba’s themes and he likes to help viewers of his art shift perspectives. “I want people to look at Africa in a new way, not with old eyes in a conservative way,” he says.

Gaba starts by grabbing the viewer’s attention: the overall effect of the dozen braided works on his Cape Town show was arresting — playful forms, bold colours and witty commentary. He makes a strong statement in a visual language everyone can understand. This plain talking runs through his oeuvre: the artist relates his work to everyday activities. Gaba often creates a kind of meeting place where ideas of art and life are bandied about. He has literally created social hubs — like a ginger beer bar at the 2003 Venice Biennale and a multinational restaurant for a week in Amsterdam.

Such playfulness is a defining feature of Gaba’s art. Visitors to Africa Remix, which made its final turn in a global tour at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) in July, would already be familiar with Gaba’s contribution. In Boulangerie Africaine (The African Bakery), Gaba elevated the humble baguette to the realms of high art in an installation of bakery shelves loaded with silver- and gold-coloured loaves. A video installation of their baking completed the work.

Boulangerie Africaine bears another Gaba trademark: he subverts objects and rituals of the everyday to draw attention to some heavyweight themes. In this case, Gaba treats the commonplace French foodstuff with the same exoticism to which African artefacts have regularly been subjected by Western museums, dislocated from their original context and put on static display in museum vitrines. The boot is here squarely on the postcolonial foot, though Gaba delivers his kick with a half-smile: “In West Africa you see this baguette everywhere, it’s local food.” The artist is pleased with the impact that Africa Remix has made in Johannesburg. Says Gaba: “It shows the evolution of African art because it didn’t stay as craft; it shows possibilities and the many directions African art has taken.”

Gaba last month returned to the JAG with a retrospective show of selected works. This includes a project for which he is perhaps best known internationally, his Museum of Contemporary African Art. This artwork began shortly after his first arrival in the Netherlands (1997) and expanded over the next few years until its completion at Documenta XI in Kassel (2002).

The Museum comprises 12 rooms that have over time been separately installed in actual museums around the world — the most recent being London’s Tate Modern. These installations have included an Architecture Room, Restaurant, Marriage Room and Salon (see www. museumofcontemporaryafricanart.com).

Visitors to Gaba’s JAG retrospective will encounter his Game Room, previously shown in Besanc on in France (1999), and in Brussels and Ghent (2000), where viewers were invited to solve numerous sliding- square puzzles in reference to conflict and unity. The Games Room includes Gaba’s recurring flags and currency, which he often uses as metaphors for codes of exchange between Africa and the West. Gaba has been working with money as metaphor for 20 years now; his first show was a collage of banknotes, exhibited at a time when Benin was in economic crisis. Gaba says money is integral to daily life; at the same time, he thinks money does not represent everything that is of value.

La Maison, an artwork exhibited as part of the 2006 Biennale of Sydney, is also travelling to Johannesburg. Here, viewers are invited to become a pawn by taking part Lido-style against opponents in a strategy floor game. The goal is to pass through all the coloured territories on a rug in a race home, risking roadblocks and imprisonment along the way. It refers to political prisoners dislocated from their home and land. “For me, it’s a travel game — sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s difficult. It’s a life game.”

This central idea of play as a tool for political reflection also informs another work for the Johannesburg show, Glue Me Peace, a homage to the Nobel Peace Prize. Gaba uses video screens and a jukebox to present visual and audio material of winners’ speeches dating back to the first award in 1901. Visitors prepared to leave a message of peace can take away a poster that reveals the Western-origin bias of previous Nobel Peace award winners.

Gaba’s work might strike a playful note but he has a serious message for the African artworld: “Mostly when it’s talked about people say we have more problems in Africa — people need food, people need jobs … But I think culture is powerful and part of the economy. People know this better in Europe than Africa. We need to learn this also. African art is growing but without the supporting environment, it could die…. Society doesn’t take it seriously enough.”

Kim Gurney is an artist and freelance writer based in Johannesburg

Meschac Gaba’s JAG retrospective closes on January 26, 2008