CAPE TOWN — Lauded as a ‘cathedral,’ ‘Africa’s Tate Modern,’ and the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World,’ Thomas Heatherwick’s architectural transformation of a defunct grain silo into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art has been described in increasingly hyperbolic terms. The largest museum built in Africa in over 100 years, Zeitz MOCAA is poised to establish Cape Town, South Africa as a major contemporary art capital in the continent. But in a historically conflicted city still seething with inequality, many people have questioned the museum’s corporate and commercial ties, and consider the institution elitist and out of touch with local communities. It is these questions of democratic representation and geopolitical agency that the museum aims to confront in the inaugural exhibition of its permanent collection, All Things Being Equal… .
Since the museum opened on September 22, 2017, praise for Heatherwick’s edifice has generally overshadowed critical discussions surrounding the artists and artworks that activate the space. All Things Being Equal …, which derives its name from a text-based Hank Willis Thomas work on view, occupies a maze-like series of mostly small galleries dotted across three floors. Organized by executive director and chief curator Mark Coetzee, along with twelve assistant curators, the exhibition features photography, sculpture, video, drawing, and installation from forty-one artists.
Intended to represent Africa and its diasporas, All Things Being Equal … attempts to give shape to the plurality of African identities and visual languages by posing the question, “How will I be represented in the museum?” Because the exhibition is almost entirely devoid of additional interpretive writing — section texts or extended wall labels — visitors are, unfortunately, on their own to make meaning of the brief introductory prompt. Further, while a museum exhibition capturing the ethos of a continent is, by any measure, an impossible endeavor, it is especially revealing that the exhibition features artists from only twelve countries. (By comparison, the United Nations currently recognizes 54 countries in Africa, which still leaves aside the global reach of the African diaspora.)
South Africa, unsurprisingly, is the best-represented country with a total of seventeen artists on view, many of whom occupy the largest and most central galleries of the museum. Featured prominently are art world veterans William Kentridge and Kendell Geers, whose respective video and sculpture installations have lain a foundation of social justice and self-reflexivity by which younger artists may navigate the legacies of colonization and apartheid. Indeed, Mary Sibande’s life-size installation “In the Midst of Chaos, There is Opportunity,” (2017) the title appropriated from Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, is a turbulent scene in which the artist casts her own body in fiberglass, then uses the representations to play imaginary, feminized roles of soldier and vanquisher. Her equestrian avatar wears a costume blending Victorian garb and the uniform typical of South African domestic workers, implying lingering colonial relationships post apartheid, but also the power of forging alternative narratives of political and personal resistance.
A total of ten artists from the United Kingdom and the United States are also featured, ostensibly representing the intercontinental diaspora, since these are the only non-African countries with artists included. New York-born Liza Lou and London-based Isaac Julien each consider labor and the movement of people and goods across continents through large-scale installations. Lou’s “The Waves” (2013-2017) consists of 1,182 panels of painstakingly hand-woven, porous glass beads. The beads were manufactured in Japan before being shipped to Durban, South Africa, where Lou and her assistants sewed them into rectangular panels. The oils from their hands created subtle discolorations in the materials, transforming the small objects into abstract portraits of their handlers. Meanwhile, Isaac Julien’s immersive film installation “Ten Thousand Waves” (2010) pays homage to 23 Chinese undocumented workers who drowned in the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockling disaster. The layered elegy is a critical commentary on modernity, globalization, and representation, blending Chinese myth and contemporary culture.
Average works by well-known artists are also prevalent throughout the exhibition. Kehinde Wiley, Chéri Samba, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and Chris Ofili are each represented by single paintings, none of which are exceptional examples of the artists’ practices. El Anatsui, Ghada Amer, and Wangechi Mutu are each allotted their own small galleries, but these often feel as if the curatorial team is blue-chip-box ticking rather than selecting and displaying top-quality works to their best advantage. Meanwhile, a small but powerful selection of Zanele Muholi’s striking photographs is hung unusually sparsely in an oversized gallery, while emerging artists Daniella Mooney and Mack Magagane are each allocated galleries roughly the size of small walk-in closets, and the works of Godfried Donkor line a narrow, low-ceilinged hallway. These variations in quality, pacing, and physical space feel restricting at times, but the exhibition is not without its high points —most often from young, black artists who were born at a time when museums in South Africa were institutional embodiments of colonization and inequality.
Sethembile Msezane and Lungiswa Gqunta, both under 30 years old, share one of the larger galleries in the exhibition, creating a poetic, even reverent space through which colonial histories and modes of resistance are reenvisioned. In Msezane’s “Signal Her Return I,” (2016) an eighteenth-century bell, lit candles, and a braided rope of blonde hair render present the absence of the black female body in African history. Nearby, Gqunta’s “Divider,” (2016) a snaking curtain of beer bottles hanging from knotted fabric, is a ghostly allusion to the sordid colonial patrimony of alcoholism, but also the homemade petrol bombs used in the armed struggle against apartheid. In a seamless conversation, both artists employ found and everyday materials to mine the histories of blackness, utilizing a language of abstraction not prevalent throughout All Things Being Equal … .
Further, in an exhibition that relies heavily on photography, two young artists stand out. Athi-Patra Ruga’s large-format, maximalist photographs incorporate diverse cultural and geographic references to create transgressive, utopian scenes that blur dream and reality. Vibrating with color and texture, his adorned, topsy-turvy tableaus challenge heteronormative presumptions still prevalent throughout Africa. In another room, Cyrus Kabiru photographs himself in eyewear he fashions from the detritus of urban life, transforming himself into an Afrofuturist cyborg. He often uses pieces of obsolete technology in his assemblages, underscoring the growing problem of electronic waste in Africa. Both artists’ works search for alternative identities in self-fashioned worlds and draw from history to imagine new futures.
All Things Being Equal … might be uneven, but it would be shortsighted to disregard that Zeitz MOCAA is providing access to contemporary art in Africa on a scale rarely seen outside of the biennial or art fair circuit. As the first contemporary African art museum on the continent, Zeitz MOCAA is uniquely positioned to function as a mouthpiece for artists and frame the world’s view of African visual culture. The institution is not just a platform for contemporary African art; it is an effort to rewrite the Eurocentric history of African art from a uniquely African perspective and course correct for the colonialist myopia that has excluded artists from the Global South from equal representation in international museum exhibitions and collections. While Zeitz MOCAA’s opening exhibition is rife with inconsistencies, awkward installations, and questionable selections, the institution is young and still finding its footing. Whether the museum can rise to the challenge that’s been thrust upon it — to shift the discourse on African art — remains to be seen.