Critics’ Picks

View of “Meschac Gaba,” 2015.

View of “Meschac Gaba,” 2015.


Meschac Gaba

Musée de l'histoire de l'immigration
293 avenue Daumesnil
June 23–September 20, 2015

Born in Benin and based in the Netherlands, Meschac Gaba made his first wigs following a residency in New York City. Stimulated by Manhattan’s skyline and hair-braiding salons, Gaba’s series of “Architecture Tresses,” 2005–2006, interpreted landmarks like the Chrysler Building as vertiginous synthetic hairpieces. The fourteen wigs currently on view here represent European monuments and various historical figures.

Paris is well represented in wig form by five re-creations of iconic buildings, such as Notre-Dame de Paris, 2006, whose bell towers of woven brown braids evoke a woolly horned beast. Even more fanciful, celebrity-inspired wigs from the series “Tresses (The Art Museum of Active Life),” 2010–11, range from Fela Kuti, an orange braided saxophone signifying the Nigerian musician and political activist, to The Wright Brothers, a blue-and-pink striped (h)airplane. Recalling ancient Egyptian headdresses and wig-loving pop stars such as Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, Gaba’s symbolic crowns transcend time and culture. Confirming the wigs’ ceremonial status are two archival videos showing processions of men and women wearing them in Cotonou, Benin’s largest city, and along Paris’s Left Bank quays.

The exhibition’s location—a museum inaugurated in 1931 to showcase colonial conquests, since reinvented as an institution devoted to the history of immigration in France—fits with Gaba’s ongoing examination of the sociopolitical role of museums, particularly in the presentation of African art in Western collections. Displaying his wigs in front of an original 1930s fresco promoting colonization through allegorical imagery of benevolent missionaries, doctors, and engineers, Gaba—born the year after Benin gained full independence from France—raises questions about the postcolonial identity of artists and institutions alike.