Contemporary money trees—cheap, unassuming potted plants recognizable for their braided trunks wrapped with currency—can be found on the countertops of small businesses around the globe. Talismans of success that originated during the Han Dynasty, money trees are installed in the hope of magically inducing financial gain. Beninese artist Meschac Gaba’s first solo gallery exhibition in New York, “Exchange Market,” was animated with similarly charmed and charged objects whose use, value and meaning are prismatically in flux.
Installed on the gallery’s ground floor was an installation of 10 large sculptures, titled “Bureau d’échange” (Exchange Office, 2014), made from unvarnished wood tables topped with metal umbrella frames painted in yellow or blue. In place of the standard umbrella canopy, various African banknotes are pinned to the frames’ bare ribs, causing the installation to resemble a small forest of money trees. Stacks of bills sit on top of each table, while below is a shelf presenting a specific commodity that raises issues connected to capital, the market and labor, including branches of cotton, cocoa pods and artificial diamonds. One shelf holds a selection of past-their-prime cell phones. All the phones look very similar yet are just different enough to signify the rapid pace of a “next generation” selling strategy. Adorning the walls of the gallery was a series of structures titled “Bankivi” (2014), a word derived from Mina-French dialect. These variously shaped “banks” are composed of wood and plexiglass and are filled with decommissioned banknotes. Each stands for a symbolic savings platform: a wheelbarrow signifies a Workers’ Bank, the sun a Solar Energy Bank.
Gaba has a history of recontextualizing commonplace objects to negotiate an iconography of larger political agendas. In 2002, at Documenta 11, Gaba first displayed a portion of his seminal project, Museum of Contemporary African Art (1997-2002), which was acquired and exhibited as a whole by Tate Modern in 2013. The work comprises 12 rooms, including a “marriage room” and a library, all chockablock with Gaba-made objects, including gilded ceramic chicken legs, pianos speckled with decommissioned currency and flag puzzles. Harkening back to French colonialism, the African diaspora, West African voodoo, Catholicism and communism, Gaba created these objects to represent Africa’s, and particularly Benin’s, polyreligious character and fraught political and historical narrative. Gaba, who studied art in the Netherlands and who now lives in Rotterdam and Cotonou, conceived the work as a corrective gesture, using it to highlight the lack of art education in Africa and the dearth of representation of African art around the world.
In the upstairs gallery, Gaba displayed four fully operational foosball tables and many small souvenir-themed sculptures that evoke pieces he originally created for the games room of Museum of Contemporary African Art. Cricket bats, coin canisters and letter holders are loudly and imperfectly hand-painted to depict flags of random countries, and appear more like folk craft than factory-made tokens. The most arresting work was a one-off miniature billiard table offered to visitors for use: Souvenir Palace: Iran (2010). The table is painted to depict the flag of Afghanistan, not Iran—a subtle yet complicated switcheroo, requesting persistent attentiveness, acknowledgement and correction.