Zeitz MOCAA: The Cape Town Museum Everyone is Talking About

Zeitz MOCAA: The Cape Town Museum Everyone is Talking About

word ‘breathtaking’ is on our house style blacklist,
alongside others like ‘surreal’ (is it actually?), ‘tasty’ (means
nothing) and my personal bête noire, ‘wanderlust’ (just ew). Yet
reflecting on the opening preview of the Zeitz
Museum of Contemporary Art Africa
(Zeitz MOCAA) in Cape Town last weekend, I find
myself struggling to find a more appropriate word to describe

The brainchild of German philanthropist and ex-CEO of PUMA
Jochen Zeitz and South African curator Mark Coetzee, Zeitz MOCAA is
housed in a behemoth of a building carved out of a former grain
silo under the direction of Heatherwick Studio. It’s the first
major not-for-profit contemporary art museum dedicated to
21st-century art from Africa and its diaspora. The aim? To display
seminal artworks produced by African artists (defined as those
living in or beyond the continent who are or who identify as being
African) and illustrate modern discourses, ultimately telling the
nation’s history – and perhaps more importantly, a tale of its
present and future.

So why are three white men behind it? It seems almost laughable
in its hypocrisy. And it’s a question on everyone’s lips, though I
cringed as quizzed Coetzee, Heatherwick and Zeitz on it, knowing
that I was the probably hundredth journalist to do so that day and
hating myself for defaulting to the glaringly obvious. Their
answers were good – straightforward, honest, simple – and as such I
don’t want to focus on the fact, not least because it takes the
limelight away from everything Zeitz MOCAA stands for. But it does
need to be mentioned.

Zeitz fell in love with Africa as a traveller 30 years ago and
has made it his home for the last 15. The idea was conceived back
in 2008 when he first met Coetzee: “I saw enormous creativity in
Africa and I didn’t understand why there was no such institution
here… I see myself as a global citizen and someone with a lot of
compassion for Africa and I felt that something needed to be done.”
So the pair set up the Zeitz Collection, which Zeitz is keen to
emphasise was never a private project; the vision was always for a
museum that was both representative and relevant, using a range of
mediums to convey environmental, social, cultural, political and
personal messages.

“I am providing a platform, I am not the one who’s speaking in
this museum. Artists can tell their own stories. People from the
outside define what Africa is and what it isn’t, and that’s not
right. So I created this for people to speak. And why shouldn’t I
do that? No one else is doing it – it’s a bit patronising to say
‘he shouldn’t do it because he’s German’. That’s ridiculous.”

They want these voices to be heard by as many as possible, so
emphasis is placed on accessibility. Entrance fees are heavily
subsidised (50 per cent are waived entirely), while the decision to
locate it in South Africa makes it more accessible to the
international community, who are no doubt also drawn by the
building – an artwork in itself. It was a happy coincidence that
Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront were looking for a way to modify the
iconic silo (disused since 1990) into something with public civic
significance at the same time that the Zeitz Foundation was seeking
a space to display its collection. They approached Thomas
Heatherwick to develop ideas for the adaptation – and boy, has he
done good.

A gargantuan steel and concrete cathedral spans 9,500 square
metres, reaching up nine floors and climaxing in a rooftop
sculpture garden with views over the sprawling city and coastline.
The structure (including the Silo
, which opened in March)
has been cut from 33m-high concrete tubes, taking 1,198
construction workers three years to create a shell of 13.6km of
polished stone. In the circular entrance hall, a giant dragon is
suspended in mid-flight (it previously hung in Zeitz’s home)
accompanied by a haunting soundtrack which reverberates around the
brutalist atrium, prompting visitors to simultaneously marvel and
recoil as they enter.

This sets the scene for a hundred galleries divided into
performative art, curatorial excellence, photography, moving image
and costume, with an education centre in the basement. Coetzee
tells me this thematic structure and the collaborative curatorial
effort behind it was a conscious decision to avoid hierarchy and
subvert traditional forms of top-down governance. Giving a voice to
(African) artists seems to be the basis for every decision, with
the wider metaphor alluding to giving power back to the people. As
Coetzee explains: “For a very long time in this country there was
this authoritarian voice. There were no artist-centric
institutions. We’ve made a very strong commitment to making sure
the artist is heard. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about the

Has this discourse happened in practice? Coetzee gives the
example of Kendell Geers, a conceptual South African artist who
sets up institutional critique by creating installations designed
to challenge authority. At Zeitz MOCAA, he fills an entire room
with bricks attached to red ropes suspended from the ceiling,
making it impossible to pass through without ducking and weaving –
a fire hazard and not exactly wheelchair-friendly. The initial
solution was to remove some bricks to make a pathway, prompting “I
AM NOT HAPPY” emails from Geers. Following discussions and a
last-minute cherry picker, they compromised by putting the bricks
back but at an elevated height – and I met a cheerful Geers proudly
showing off his work.

For both, the significance of art seems to lie in the process
rather than the final result. This is evident as you ascend (via a
Star Wars-esque cylindrical glass lift) through the gallery levels,
where stories behind artworks are as varied as the mediums they
exist in. Messages range from Owanto Berger’s black-and-white nude
photographs of women with colourful flowers between their legs (a
reference to FGM) to the more abstract, such as Liza Lou’s “The
Waves” – 1,194 panels of tiny white beads strung to cover an entire
room, each stained slightly differently to show the weavers’
varying toil.

A less straightforward issue comes to the fore in the case of
the iQhiya, a South African group fighting against the
under-representation of black women in public museums. By
displaying their work you automatically disempower their militancy
and neutralise their voices. How did Coetzee respond? “I displayed
it, of course. I had to – or we risk losing it.” His body language
suggests this was not an easy decision, but one in line with the
museum’s aim to preserve African art, and he stresses it was done
on their terms. It’s a novel way for a museum to operate, and both
Zeitz and Coetzee – humble and almost childlike in their excitement
and quick to shy away from any praise – are aware that this will be
a steep learning curve, and hope the international art community
will give them space to get things right. Heatherwick summed it up
to me very simply: “It’s imperfect, but it’s a start. Is it better
to not do it at all?”

So what is the legacy for the museum? Zeitz hopes people see
Africa in the light Africa wants to be seen in, with MOCAA reacting
and adapting to remain relevant to modern discourses. For Coetzee,
it’s about changing people’s attitudes: “People always call it
‘African art’. It’s not African art, it’s just art.”


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