In The Studio: Meschac Gaba, artist

'People can touch the items. People need to enjoy contemporary art'

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The Independent Culture

For six months of each year, Meschac Gaba lives and works in a flat in Rotterdam with his wife and 12-year-old son. For the rest of the year, he lives in Cotonou, Benin, where he was born in 1961. Settling at his dining table, we are surrounded by scaled down models of famous buildings of the world. I am towering over the Guggenheim Museum, incongruously placed next to the Sydney Opera House.

These are a small part of a large project that he realised in Brazil with local model builders. Sadly, most of them have been destroyed remaining only in photographs. "They are covered in sugar as I was doing the residency in Brazil and it seemed a natural material to work with."

Sugar is not the only unconventional material Gaba has used. His show in New York in 2005 consisted of elaborate hair constructions modelled to resemble buildings. For these, Gaba employed hairdressers in Benin: "I collaborate with craft."

Gaba always drew: "People forget that artists start with drawing." He started his schooling with a painter in Benin, but turned away from painting when "one day I found a sack of decommissioned money". The West African CFA franc "had been turned into confetti" and he found this "magic". His friends said it was useless, but "for me it was treasure". He kept it until the first devaluation and decided that now was the time to make something with it – paintings collaged with money.

Gaba was given a two-year residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam in 1996, although he recalls when he first arrived he was met with a degree of scepticism. His project was tussling with the question of "where do you show African contemporary art?" His answer was: "I will create a place."

Hence, Gaba's The Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997–2002, with 12 idiosyncratic sections exploring how a museum functions. Some of the room choices were personal. The wedding room, for instance. He says, laughing, "I was in love, so I decided I could have a wedding room."

The Museum exhibited widely. Gaba became its keeper and was fortuitously offered a space in Rotterdam large enough to both live in and to conserve and house the work.

It was his son who persuaded him it was time to move. "Why can't we live in a house like my friends?" was his mantra. This led Gaba to release The Museum. His personal loss is London's gain, as we will soon be able to visit the various rooms, including the more contentious "religion" room. "People can touch the items and stay inside. People need to enjoy contemporary art."

The Tate has obtained most of the African Museum but Gaba has chosen to take his Library back to his foundation in Cotonou. "Africa is better for my health. Artists make art from passion and to release joy. The Museum needs to conserve this reality of life."

Meschac Gaba's 'Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997-2002', Tate Modern, London SE1 (020 7887 8888) 3 July to 22 September