Middle East & Africa

Meschac Gaba
Hubert Maga (perruque MAVA-musée d'art de la vie active)

The headdresses, woven from artificial hair braids, symbolize historical icons including Martin Luther King, Kwame Nkrumah, Fela Kuti and King Guézo of Dahomey. The wigs portraying these grand figures also unambiguously recall Africa to mind. By declaring Cotonou, one of Benin’s cities, the Art Museum of Real Life, and by having thirty white-clad figures wearing Gaba’s latest series of tresses cross through it, he draws attention to the urban space and its inhabitants’ strategies of survival and improvisation. In doing this, he enquires into alternative models, and into the tasks and local interpretations of the museum: “The micro-macro economy represents the survival of the inhabitants of this city day after day (…) In the city of Cotonou, you can see installations everywhere – it is like an open-air museum.” In this series Meschac Gaba weaves symbolic crowns that suggest a historical character, suggested through one of her or his realizations. Here in the case of former Beninese president Hubert Maga, the hairstyle headdress is woven in the form of a hospital that was built during his reign and was named after him. The forms and styles of braided hairstyles range from purely functional to complex and symbolic: hair can be an indicator of age, authority, social status, religion or even supernatural powers. In cities across Europe and the Americas, African hair braiders produce extravagant creations based on their traditional braiding skills and styles, uniting capitalist commerce with traditional culture. In Gaba´s work, two seemingly divergent products of humankind, hair and architecture, meet as equally significant symbols of modern culture. In making this work, Gaba assumes the role of the nouveau tresseur or tresseuse (the new braider), a traditional Beninese hair braider, reassigning meaning to architectural forms and cultural experiences.

born in 1961 in Cotonou, Benin.
He lives and works between Cotonou and Rotterdam

Over the past 20 years, through various bodies of works, Beninese artist Meshac Gaba has attempted to reframe contemporary African artistic identity, asking us to shed our preconceived ideas and re-imagine the African continent with a more valid contemporary image. Meschac Gaba emerged onto the international contemporary art scene in 1999 when he presented the Museum of Contemporary African Art in the exhibition “Mirror’s Edge” at Bilmuseet in Umea, Sweden. It marked the beginning of an expansive conceptual and virtual project based on the subjectivity of museum spaces. Twelve installations constitute his imagined Museum of Contemporary African Art (MCAA), originally created in 1997 and shown individually at other international institutions or events since then. Confronted with one’s cultural centrality, the spectator is asked to reconsider his viewpoint of memory and history. Gaba’s complex and varied artistic practice provides an in-depth examination of cultural appropriation, public space, the role of the western museum, and the changing global economy. His appropriation of tourist imagery –from cinema and souvenirs to magazines and museums– allows the viewer to deconstruct the western iconography and disturb modes of representation in contemporary art.