To date, the [GLOBAL ART] format has involved looking at the art-scene of a different country every week, but the truth is that there are way too many great artists doing really great things in any one time or place to cover in one week, so while I’ll continue my global exploration, I will also be revisiting cities, countries, continents, studios… again and again and again. So we’re back to Africa – West Africa.
Our connection to migration is as old as our species. We are the descendants of hunter-gatherers and explorers. For many of us, migration – be it for food, water, adventure, fame, opportunity, or escape from war, strife, and poverty – is either an unwanted or a pursued reality. For the destitute, migration assumes the form of homelessness, makeshift homes, refugee camps, or shanty towns. For the poor, migration occurs through the pursuit of domestic jobs in other countries. For the middle class, migration promises opportunity and adventure. For the small minority of billionaires who can afford it, migration means various residences across the globe with perhaps a stopover on the international space station. Migration is a state of mind.
Migration is also a primary theme in Beninese artist Meschac Gaba’s The Museum of Contemporary African Art. Consisting of 12 “museum rooms”, the project was begun in 1996 and finished in 2002. Examples of rooms include the museum restaurant, the museum library, the museum shop. Each room was presented in a different city. The project took a critical look at how the Western world perceives art as a commodity, to be boxed within the sealed walls of its established institutions – otherwise known as museums. In contrast, Gaba’s rooms have no walls and no permanent home, a reality echoed in the notable absence of a permanent home and exhibition space for contemporary African art. Art doesn’t need four walls to confirm its existence or legitimize its sale.
Another case of cross-national influence appears in the sculpted wigs of Gaba. Inspired by a stay in New York City – Gaba is quoted as saying that he felt as if the skyscrapers were on top of his head – Gaba produced his Tresses Series in 2007. This inspiration allowed him to use traditional hair braiding, always an art form, as a vehicle for his expression. Created out of synthetic fibre, Gaba had the wigs braided in his Cotonou studio. They were braided according to his specifications. The wigs mimic various iconic architecture in South Africa and though they are not meant to be worn literally, the reference to their mobility is obvious. It is, in a way, the physical re-enactment of the internet – anyone can can walk around with one of Gaba’s wigs and “share” their information. As such, the landmarks of South Africa (or any country for that matter) no longer belong to South Africa alone. By “traveling” and through exposure, they become familiar and one has to wonder whether Gaba intends any reference to appropriation and colonization.
The wig motif is again used by Gaba in his Street Series, 2008. Cars – Mercedes, school buses, army tanks, jeeps, Citroëns – replace architecture. In an interesting juxtaposition, Gaba creates cars – the product of technology and innovation – by using an ancient African art – braiding – that has been passed down from generation to generation. The irony – whether intended or not – is further explored in the unexpected commonality cars and braiding share – both have historically signaled social status and age group affiliation. And yet, for both, this is no longer as true as it once was. Thanks to credit, pretty well anyone with at least the semblance of an income, can own a fancy car. Similarly, anyone can walk into a hair salon and get a braiding (albeit not as complicated or meaningful) proving once again that nothing stands still. Everything – be it art, architecture, cars, hairstyles -migrates.