This exhibition marks Tate’s acquisition of the Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997–2002. Promised gift of the artist and acquired with funds provided by the Acquisitions Fund for African Art supported by Guaranty Trust Bank plc 2013
According to the exhibition's curator, Kerryn Greenberg, the Benin artist Meschac Gaba first conceived the Museum of Contemporary African Art during his 1996–7 residency at the Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten in Amsterdam. He describes finding ‘another reality’ when visiting museums in Europe, a reality in which he could not imagine how the art he wanted to create could be integrated: ‘I needed a space for my work, because this did not exist.’
Before leaving the Rijksakademie in 1997 Gaba presented the first part of his project, the Draft Room. Prefiguring many of the conceptual concerns and the aesthetic approach that Gaba would develop in later rooms, the Draft Room contained an unusual assortment of handmade, found and altered objects. There were several works made from decommissioned banknotes, as well as heaps of ceramic foods that reflected his astonishment at the excessive overproduction in Europe.
Over the next five years further rooms would appear, one by one, in exhibitions and museums internationally. Some rooms, such as the Library, Museum Restaurant and Museum Shop, are familiar elements of most contemporary Western art museums. However, by placing these traditionally subsidiary activities at the heart of his project, Gaba calls into question the nature and function of the museum and our relationship to it. By supplementing these sections with others, such as the Humanist Space, Marriage Room, Game Room and Music Room, Gaba’s museum is a space not only for the contemplation of objects, but for sociability, study and play in which the boundaries between everyday life and art, and observation and participation are blurred.
The Art and Religion Room brings together religious artefacts and everyday objects arranged side by side on a large, cross-shaped wooden structure. Referencing the long relationship between art and religion across cultures, this room also mimics contemporary Benin, where Gaba explains most people are poly-religious: ‘Catholics brought Christianity, but for my ancestors Catholicism and Voodoo are not different… You will see sculptures of angels, of Jesus Christ and Mami Wata all in the same house.’
While Gaba broaches many serious questions in his Museum of Contemporary African Art, his approach is in equal parts sincere and playful. On 6 October 2000, invited guests and ordinary visitors to the Stedelijk Museumin Amsterdam witnessed the marriage of Meschac Gaba to Alexandra van Dongen. Well-wishers brought presents, which, together with the bride’s wedding dress, veil, shoes and handbag, their marriage certificate, guest book and wedding photographs and video, feature in the Marriage Room. Here art and life are indistinguishable.
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