It’s not every day that a beautiful new museum opens in a South African city – and this museum, which is dedicated to showcasing the contemporary art of Africa and its diaspora, isn’t just a remarkable building. (Although it absolutely is that, too.) It’s the very first museum dedicated to African contemporary art on the African continent… just think about that for a moment. Here we are in 2017, and Africa finally has a place where its own art can feel at home.
Thomas Heatherwick – the world-renowned British designer whose studio created the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) in Cape Town – told journalists from around the world at the building’s launch that ‘Today is the most important launch moment that my studio has ever had.’ And that seemed just right. To see all this thought-provoking art, inside this breathtaking building – and all of it right here in South Africa – is a tremendously exciting experience. This is a place that is going to make an extraordinary difference to African art and to the professional lives of our continent’s contemporary artists.
Having originally been shown the then-derelict Silo building in Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront back in 2006 by Design Indaba founder Ravi Naidoo, Thomas Heatherwick was the ideal choice of designer for this project. Heatherwick says that his design studio always ‘feels blessed to work with an existing structure that has its own character’ – and their deep interest in the ‘soulfulness’ of a building has resulted in the creation of remarkable structures around the world.
Some years after Heatherwick had originally viewed the iconic but disused building with Naidoo, David Green (the CEO of Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront) continued that conversation with the designer, which soon turned towards the possibility of creating a cultural institution. And concurrently, businessman and philanthropist Jochen Zeitz was working with curator Mark Coetzee to build a collection of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora. The eventual meeting of these two sets of people resulted in the creation of the not-for-profit public institution now named Zeitz MOCAA.
Major construction work on the project commenced in 2014, with Heatherwick Studio taking the design lead, and no fewer than three local architecture firms also being involved: Van Der Merwe Miszewski Architects (VDMMA), Rick Brown and Associates and Jacobs Parker.
The concept devised by Heatherwick Studio was to take the shape of a single mielie kernel, digitally scan and enlarge it, and then use this shape as the model for cutting out the central atrium (or ‘heart’) of the building from the existing tubular silo structure. The cutting work began in 2012, and involved millions of person hours of painstaking work, slicing through widely varying concrete at extreme angles because of the organic shape of the mielie kernel.
Architect Karien Trengove of VDMMA described the process of cutting through the concrete as an intimidating challenge. No one working on the project had ever done anything similar before, and she detailed the intricate process of working more or less ‘blind’ within several different zones and spaces. Like Heatherwick himself, she saluted the skills of the surveyors who stood inside the tubes, plotting the points along which the concrete would be sliced through. ‘It was a sculptural experience all along,’ said Trengove, adding that she found herself thinking – ‘at least twice a week’ – that she was ‘so lucky to be working on this job because it’s so special’.
It most certainly is: from the entrance onwards, the past life of the building has been meticulously considered – and preserved. Visitors enter via the carefully restored track sheds that originally protected the grain as it arrived here on railway carts to be unloaded into the silos. And inside the Zeitz MOCAA, a number of the conveyer belts, chutes and giant valves that moved the billions of mielie kernels around the space in the past have also been retained. As a result, the building has a unique atmosphere that will most certainly add an extra dimension to visitors’ experience of the art that the museum now contains.
That atmosphere in turn feeds into the way the museum’s creators think about contemporary art and artists. For curator Mark Coetzee, the power and potential that contemporary artists have to offer, as people who inform and guide their communities, is central to the way the Zeitz MOCAA positions itself as a new cultural institution. And just as important is the idea that the museum be welcoming to the entire community that it seeks to serve – most especially those who may not have felt welcome in museums or art galleries in the past.
Coetzee has assembled a large and diverse curatorial staff that includes five curators-at-large, five full-time curators and 24 junior curators, who are supported by scholarships. ‘Curation needs multiple viewpoints and less authoritative positions,’ said Coetzee, and with cultural representation in South Africa having, as he commented, ‘historically been in the hands of a tiny minority’ his emphasis on the fact that ‘diversity and contradiction [are] very important’ is more than merely refreshing. Clearly, no single master narrative is meant to emanate from this institution.
Of course, there are already those who point to the fact that this is a private institution, rather than one that is publically administered and collectively owned, as a potential problem with it – and those who will criticise the museum’s decisions and what will undoubtedly soon be its considerable power in the art world. But the existence of the Zeitz MOCAA means that African art and artefacts will no longer largely have to leave the continent in which they were created in order to be showcased and preserved, and this is a good reason to wait a while before being negative about this undeniably massive and ambitious project. As Coetzee pointed out, the creation of the Zeitz MOCAA is a ‘political gesture’ that means that here, ‘African people have access to what their cultural representatives create’.
Following a weekend of gala launches and celebrations on 15-17 September, the museum opens with an entire weekend of free public access (from 22 September to 25 September) and thereafter, everyone under 18 always gets in free, while adult residents of African countries have free access all year round on Wednesdays between 10am and 1pm. And on First Fridays, admission is half price between 4pm and 9pm. A regular single-day entry costs R180, and annual memberships are available from just R250. Visit zeitzmocaa.museum for more details.