The exhibition will comprise works that he made for the recent Benin Biennale as well an installation titled La Mode en Miniature.
La Mode en Miniature takes the form of a shop of babies’ and children’s clothes, made in Cotonou, Benin, and displayed on painted dummies, also from Contonou. At first glance, the installation appears childlike and sweet, yet a closer look reveals that the embroidered texts on the colourful clothes are violent, disturbing and disconcerting words and phrases, a reminder of children’s vulnerability to certain phenomena in our society. The context of a shop-like space is a thread that runs through Gaba’s work, in which he repeatedly explores issues of cultural exchange and value.
The works on the Benin Biennale evolved out of a huge composite flag that Gaba made for a recent survey exhibition of art from West Africa held in Manchester. As the artist explains, he fused all African flags together as a symbol of unity, solidarity and friendship, elongating each flag into a narrow triangle converging on a central point. The resulting optical spectacle inspired him to create a world flag fusing all countries’ flags, and again symbolic of a togetherness that could resolve the crises that proliferate across our world. For Gaba, the singularity of each flag is lost in the rhythm of the composition, as is the case with countries in the age of globalisation where the national is absorbed in the international. The idealism and humour of these two huge flags characterise Gaba’s desire for his art to infuse a playfulness in our perceptions of the world which would, in turn, make the world a better place for us all. At Art Basel in June 2013 the gallery will exhibit a huge hanging globe-like balloon with the same design featuring all the flags of the world as part of the fair’s Unlimited sector.
The Cape Town exhibition also includes a floor installation entitled Voyage. Here Gaba wraps flags around bundles of old clothes; each is tied to a wooden cane and laid out on the wooden pallets he often uses in his installations. The flags, some of which are made by women dress-makers from Cotonou, are all from countries and confederations that have worldwide influence: the European Union, USA, African Union, Vatican, NATO, Russia, China, Union Jack, United Nations, Arabic League, Israel, Brazil and Tibet. The wooden canes could also be seen as pilgrims’ sticks or the defensive weapons of nomadic pastors which, explains the artist, metaphorically signify the defensive object of the contemporary traveller: the passport.
Gaba will also exhibit elements of his Moving Library (Bibliothèque Roulante) which he conceived for Cotonou at the time of the recent biennale, coinciding with the opening of his MAVA Library, the first contemporary art library in West Africa. MAVA, short for Musèe de l’Art de la Vie Active, and which in Benin’s Mina language means ‘Come on!’, has as its principal goal the promotion of contemporary art and art education in Benin. The project was initiated in December 2010 as a performance and exhibition across Cotonou when Gaba declared the entire city the Musèe de l’Art de la Vie Active. For his Moving Library, he asked curators, critics and artists across the world for short quotations and phrases about contemporary art, in English or French, to be presented on the license plates of motorbike taxi drivers in Cotonou, replacing their registration numbers. The taxis drove around with these quotations during the whole period of the Benin Biennale, with the idea of making the city of Cotonou participate in contemporary art through discussions between the taxi drivers and their passengers about the project and the biennale. Here, these ‘quotation plates’ form part of a new installation.
Gaba was born in 1961 in Cotonou, Benin. He studied at the Rijksakademie voor Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam in 1996-7 and currently lives and works between Contonou and Rotterdam. His work was included in Documenta 11 in 2002 and the Liverpool Biennial in 2010, and has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Museum de Paviljoens, Almere; the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel; the Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno, Las Palmas; and the Nobel Peace Center, Oslo.