The largest contemporary art museum in Africa, and one of the most exciting cultural attractions in South Africa, has now opened its doors to the public.
The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA) is the first African museum to collect, preserve, research and exhibit 21st-century art from Africa and its diaspora. Touted as Cape Town’s very own Tate Modern, MoMA or Centre Pompidou, Zeitz MOCAA opened at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, and has been causing quite a stir ever since. At a cost of more than R500 million, borne by the V&A Waterfront – and by extension, its investors – a 1920s grain silo has been transformed into a grand repository of African art. Once the tallest structure in Sub-Saharan Africa, it overlooks the Atlantic on the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, an area regenerated 30 years ago for retail, real estate and tourism on the remnants of two dilapidated 19th-century harbour basins, Victoria and Alfred. Zeitz MOCAA is the result of the shared vision of British architect Thomas Heatherwick; its patron Jochen Zeitz, the German former CEO of Puma; and South African Mark Coetzee, Zeitz MOCAA’s executive director and chief curator. It is Jochen Zeitz’s art collection, built up since 2008 with the aid of Coetzee, that provides the core of the Zeitz MOCAA holdings – and which earned Zeitz he naming rights to the museum. ‘It’s a public museum with a private collection,’ Zeitz is on record as saying. ‘It’s not my museum or the Waterfront’s – it’s for Africa. Africans need to come on board.’
From the 1920s to the 1990s, the prominent grain silo in Cape Town stored and graded corn from all over South Africa. When it was decommissioned, its owners, the V&A Waterfront, approached the Heatherwick Studio to develop ideas for adapting the silo and its site. Although the waterfront was already a vibrant area, it lacked a major cultural institution. At the same time, the Zeitz Foundation was seeking a permanent home for its collection of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora. The two programmes collided and it was decided that the grain silo would be transformed into a new museum. Heatherwick Studio began working on the project and converted 42 vertical concrete tubes into a place to experience contemporary culture. Although the concrete building looks like a single structure, it comprises two parts: a grading tower and 42 tall, cellular silos. The main challenge was to convert these tightly packed concrete tubes into spaces suitable for displaying art while retaining the building’s industrial heritage. The centre of the museum is a huge atrium, based on the shape of a single grain that was then scaled up to span the full height of the 27-metre-high structure. Heatherwick has described the space as being ‘like a vaulted cathedral’. The challenge was to retain the spirit of this tubularity while giving functionality and creating an A-grade gallery space. Where tubes were cut back, the edges were polished to visibly contrast it against the rough aggregate of the old concrete. Laminated glass was also added to give a mirrored finish, which features a fritted pattern designed by the late African artist, El Loko. The atrium provides access to all of the exhibition spaces, which total 6 000 square metres.
It’s a public museum with a private collection
Externally, the building features bulging windows, formed from faceted glass panels. Positioned within the existing concrete frame, these draw light into the atrium while offering a kaleidoscopic visual effect. By night, the building acts as a lantern for the harbour and city beyond. Over 80 cube-like gallery spaces cluster around the central atrium. These consist of the permanent collection as well as centres for photography, performing arts and the moving image, a dedicated arts education centre, a costume institute and a curatorial training programme. Zeitz MOCAA aims to preserve art from the African continent, like, for example, Nicholas Hlobo’s iimpundulu zonke ziyandilenda. The spectacular dragon-like sculpture, which references Xhosa mythology, is on show in the museum’s central atrium, the BMW Atrium, until 30 July 2018. Due to its grand scale, the atrium provides Zeitz MOCAA with the space to commission and exhibit monumental interventions on a scale never before seen in a public museum in Africa. Hlobo’s iimpundulu zonke ziyandilenda inaugurates the space. This seminal work, originally created for the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011, combines rubber inner tubing, multi-coloured ribbons, an animal skull and pink theatre lights.
As light streams in from the glass-topped atrium, this massive bird hovers over us. Hlobo seduces us with the haunting lullaby, he has created for this piece. As oral histories inevitably disappear, Hlobo represents the Xhosa myth of the Lightning Bird or the witch’s servant, manifesting itself as a bird or an attractive man. Hlobo, however, morphs the myth to particular personal concerns, taking into account taboos associated with masculinity and violence. The generosity of Hlobo’s practice allows us to enter a fantastical world not normally accessible to us. Hlobo is one of a number of big South African names on display, sharing museum space with Zanele Muholi, Athi-Patra Ruga, Kendell Geers, Mohau Modisakeng and Penny Siopis. Zeitz MOCAA has already received great support, both from young African artists and internationally renowned artists like William Kentridge, who is a strong supporter of the museum. His powerful More Sweetly Play the Dance, a panoramic installation on the gallery’s second floor is another ‘not to be missed’ piece of African art. Just as In the Midst of Chaos There Is Opportunity, a wonderful installation by Mary Sibande of a battalion of women in combat gear — modelled on the artist’s mother, a domestic worker — riding hobby horses past snarling red hounds and vultures, has to be seen.
The challenge was to retain the spirit of this tubularity while giving functionality and creating an A-grade gallery space
Roger Ballen, donated his entire archive. The Christie’s fundraising auction that included works donated by El Anatsui and Yinka Shonibare, raised about £1.4m. But since Zeitz MOCAA is aiming to represent the entire African continent’s creative output, South African artists can only provide a portion of the works on offer. Currently, other must-sees include Zimbabwean Kudzanai Chiurai’s provocative protest art and Swati artist Nandipha Mntambo’s reckoning with questions of gender and postcolonial identity. Placing an African art museum, a public not-for-profit institution, in the heart of what is now the most expensive real estate on the continent may seem to some to be fundamentally at odds with what such a museum should signify. But the reality is that the Zeitz MOCAA is a corporate project – which is what has enabled its development on such an impressive scale. The Waterfront owns the building, and paid for its renovation. Corporate sponsors include Bloomberg, BMW and Standard Bank. The V&A Waterfront shareholders funded the Silo’s renovation and their joint venture with Zeitz underwrites operating costs. The museum’s nine floors are leased free for 99 years. The seed private collection is on loan for at least 20 years, or Zeitz’s lifetime, while acquisition committees build a permanent core. At the opening ceremony of Zeitz MOCAA, Co-founder and Co-chairman Jochen Zeitz said, ‘I built my collection with a museum in Africa always in mind – the fact that these works will now be accessible to all is a very emotional thing for me personally and ultimately gives the art true purpose.’