Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art from Africa exterior, designed by Thomas Heatherwick (photo by Iwan Baan)

CAPE TOWN — Africa has always enjoyed a rocky relationship with the interweb of commercial and cultural interests we know as the art world. Take ‘tribal art,’ an egregious category used for far too long to refer to the pilfered artwork from colonial conquests that ended up in the West, or the fact that contemporary art from Africa is still dogged by that geographical designation. Slow and steady though, the terms of engagement appear to be changing.

On Friday, September 22 in Cape Town, South Africa, the first museum dedicated to contemporary art borne of the continent will open its doors to the public. Dubbed Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art from Africa), the museum aims to ensure “that the people of Africa can see some of the best artistic production from their continent … [so] that the discourse around art in Africa can be led by Africa.”

Zeitz MOCAA interior, designed by Thomas Heatherwick (photo by Iwan Baan)

Zeitz MOCAA represents an effort over a decade in the making. It began in 2003, when Jochen Zeitz, then CEO of Puma, hired the South African-born curator of the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, Mark Coetzee, to oversee his company’s creative platform. In 2008, Coetzee curated one of the longest touring exhibitions in history of African-American artists from the Rubell Collection named 30 Americans. Spurred by that success, Coetzee soon began helping Zeitz build his own collection of contemporary art from Africa and its diasporas. Over the next nine years the pair took up this mission with vigor, sometimes acquiring entire shows with a view toward starting a museum of international repute. In that time, they also went about securing another critical piece of the puzzle required to realize such a vision: a building.

The historic Grain Silo Complex had long since blurred into the fabric of Cape Town’s harbor. Originally constructed in 1921, the 42 concrete tubes comprising the complex once housed massive amounts of maize awaiting distribution across the seas or inland where the grain forms a local staple. The complex was later declared a national monument, which helped to prevent its demolition long after it ceased to function. Over time, the surrounding harbor grew into a bustling commercial district known as the Victoria & Albert Waterfront, while the silos gathered dust. At least until Zeitz and Coetzee came along.

Zeitz MOCAA interior, designed by Thomas Heatherwick (photo by Iwan Baan)

Following negotiations, which included a guarantee that Zeitz could plaster his name on the side of the museum, a deal was struck. GrowthPoint, the property management company that co-owns the Waterfront together with the Public Investment Corporation, forked over $38 million to construct the museum, designed by wunderkind Thomas Heatherwick.

So, what did all that money buy? Some have already billed it as “Africa’s Tate Modern.” Heatherwick himself has likened the 88-foot atrium carved out of the center of the silos to “a vaulted cathedral.” It does feel hallowed, but maybe not in a monotheistic sense. Another description could be if Gaudí got to design the set for the next Luc Besson sci-fi film.

Conceived of as an exploded grain husk, the space was realized by 42 teams of engineers using industrial-diamond cable to cut into the concrete silos, which were recast in added concrete. All in all, the process took over four years. There are nine floors, with 105,000 feet of programmable space divided into 80 white cube galleries and 100 exhibition areas, which include centers for performative practice and moving image.

Zeitz MOCAA atrium vault (photo by Iwan Baan)

“Not everyone agrees with this model — it’s an American model,” said Coetzee on a recent walking tour of the museum, a few days prior to its grand unveiling. Already there has been criticism weighed against him regarding potential conflicts of interest — Coetzee is controversially serving as both the museum’s director and chief curator. Others still have taken issue with the choice to build the museum in Cape Town, which has a high flow of tourists, instead of Johannesburg, where far more immigrants from other African countries reside. Coetzee is acutely aware of the pressure that comes with opening a museum of this scale, concerns that are magnified when it takes place against the backdrop of a city and country still mired by economic exclusion and social crises.

Installation view of Nandipha Mntambo at Zeitz MOCAA (image courtesy George Prassas (O&PL))

Most of the museum will exist as a permanent exhibition gallery. The Zeitz collection, which is on long-term loan to the museum, will comprise the majority of the work on display in those galleries for the first few years as the museum goes about acquiring its own permanent collection. Two floors of the museum will further be reserved for a regular rotation of temporary shows from around the world, with the hope being to create a museum program that helps integrate the work on permanent display into a broader global discourse.

“Because our country has been so defined by authoritative voices, we’ve created a system where that couldn’t happen structurally,” said Coetzee. To that end, the museum has established a center for curatorial studies that will train 25 young local curators annually through scholarships underwritten by different organizations. Through the program, these young voices will have the chance to weigh in on all curatorial decisions and have the power to veto acquisitions and appointments. A strict quota protocol has also been established for this program, as well as with the museum’s board, to ensure that all decision making reflects the demographics of the country.

Athi-Patra Ruga, “Proposed Model for Tseko Simon Nkoli Memorial” (2017) (image courtesy George Prassas (O&PL))

Cyrus Kabiru, Macho Nne series (image courtesy George Prassas (O&PL))

“It’s the face of our people on the wall,” Coetzee said, referring to how the museum wants to make its first impression. This translates to the inclusion of work by a number of local artists such as Athi Patra-Ruga’s “Monument to Simon Nkosi” (2017), a bejeweled sculpture of one of South Africa’s first gay activists, and Lungiswa Gqunta’s “Together, hand in hand, with our matched and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country” 13 April 1986 — Winnie Madikezela Mandela” (2016), a mixed media work of petrol on embossed paper covered in matchsticks to evoke the controversial speech referenced in the title. Other artists tackle broader themes, like deconstructing colonial structures, such as the silent films of Malawian artist Samson Kambalu, and a survey of staged photographs depicting alternative colonial histories by Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai. That’s not to mention the artists who belong to the wider African diaspora and are living and working outside of the continent, such as United States-based Liza Lou and Kehinde Wiley, or Yinka Shonibare MBE (who has taken over an entire adjacent building known as the Dust House, with a six-story operatic installation), who is an artist based out of London.

Kudzanai Chiurai, “State of the Nation” (2011) (image courtesy George Prassas (O&PL))

Cape Town is a city plagued with the lingering hangover of apartheid spatial planning. As a result, much of the city’s infrastructure is still designed to exclude citizens along class lines — the V&A Waterfront being no exception. For that reason, many will still question whether Zeitz MOCAA will really be accessible to all, or just another tourist trap. That said, this problem also presents a chance to rethink the way a museum interacts with its city. Two such attempts Coetzee lists include rerouting a bus terminus, and building a pedestrian walkway that connects the museum to the city’s central railway station. It also helps that the museum offers free admission, subsidized through the accrued interest earned on the endowment fund. But will all of this be enough?

“It’s very hard for us to know because museums have not been user-friendly environments,” said Coetzee. “They have not represented our entire communities, or seen themselves in the service to society. Museums have become conscious of this stuff, but there are no audiences. We have to build a new audience.”

Installation view of work by Sethembile Msezane at Zeitz MOCAA (image courtesy George Prassas (O&PL))

Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art from Africa) (V&A Waterfront, Silo District, S Arm Road, Waterfront, Cape Town) opens to the public on September 22. 

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Robin Scher

Robin Scher is a New York-based South African writer and graduate of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU. He tweets infrequently @RobScherHimself