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If You Build It…

Introducing the Zeitz MOCAA, a new art gallery housed in a disused grain silo in the midst of Cape Town’s morphing docklands.

IWAN BAAN / COURTESY OF MOCAA

It's a near-perfect, sun-kissed day down at the Waterfront. Once seedy and half-abandoned, this newly redeveloped section of Cape Town’s harbor precinct has morphed into some of the most expensive real estate in Africa. Although still surrounded by dry docks and tugboats, passenger terminals and passing whiffs from nearby fish factories, it’s impossible to ignore the radical rejuvenation that’s happened around this cobblestone piazza thanks to a breathtaking injection of investment. The buildings and paving seem to gleam; there is a gobsmacking panoramic view of Table Mountain; and in the crook formed by a curtain of freshly minted office and residential blocks stands the most talked about building in the entire country. Spectacularly, it’s an art museum — the kind of highbrow cultural institution you’d expect to get lost in a city whose reputation has traditionally hinged on beach culture, outdoor living and a taste for the good life. 

And yet, on this sunny Wednesday morning two weeks after opening, a queue of curious people of every age and persuasion from the museum’s front door, disappearing somewhere around the back of the building. 

Occupying a refurbished old grain silo that was once the tallest building in sub-Saharan Africa, plans for this new cultural edifice — the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, or MOCAA — were unveiled in 2014, prompting the rapid transformation of neglected dockside land into a chic extension of the already-super-successful Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. Locals and visitors alike flock here to shop, eat and browse the markets; join harbor and whale-watching boat trips; board ferries to Robben Island; check into some of Africa’s most luxurious city hotels; or simply gawk at the ceaseless activity. 

COURTESY OF MOCAA

According to Mark Coetzee, MOCAA’s director and chief curator, the choice of location was pivotal. “We could have opted for Nairobi, Bamako, Jo’burg, anywhere on the continent,” he says, “but Cape Town is one of the most desirable destinations in the world right now, so this was the place where we felt we could speak to the most people from the broadest possible demographic spectrum.” Strategically, positioning Africa’s greatest art gallery near the heart of a tourist hub may well ensure the kind of foot traffic the artworks inside deserve. The V&A Waterfront is already the most frequented tourist site on the continent, with statistics reckoning it gets around 25 million visitors annually.

And while only a fraction of those crowds may have any serious interest in contemporary art, MOCAA’s intention is to become to Cape Town what the Tate is to London, and what the MoMA is to New York. Looking at that queue, the dream seems attainable.

“In South Africa, we have a collective history of institutions that are still negotiating ideas of inclusion and exclusion. I believe in museums as spaces for healing, and having a space such as this where audiences will be able to reflect on the past 18 years of art from the continent could spark something in the direction of a national healing of sorts.”
Athi-Patra Ruga, Cape Town-based artist


Designing a honeypot

When it opened in September 2017, the MOCAA became the largest museum to launch in Africa since the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities opened in Cairo in 1902. The last time an art gallery of any substantial size was built in Cape Town was in the 1930s, to house the collections of what is known as the Iziko South African National Gallery; until now, it represented the only significant public art museum in the city, though small private art galleries and venues abound.

Tasked with the silo’s refurbishment was visionary British designer Thomas Heatherwick, whose creative output includes such diverse projects as the 2012 Olympic Cauldron, Singapore’s Learning Hub, and London’s controversial New Routemaster bus. 

Advanced concrete-cutting techniques effectively carved out cross-sections of the original silo, creating an organic honeycomb-like effect that also opens the space and allows light to enter from above. London-based architecture firm Heatherwick Studio sought to create a sort of modern cathedral with the space.
IWAN BAAN / COURTESY OF MOCAA

Creating MOCAA was essentially a brainteaser recycling project which involved taking what Heatherwick described as “the most tubey building ever…filled with pigeon poo in quantities I’ve never seen before in my life,” and turning it into a monumental gallery, architecturally unlike anything ever before seen in Cape Town. The biggest change to the 65-meter-high silo building’s external structure was the addition of a series of faceted windows that bulge from the sheer concrete façades. The industrial exterior, though, is really a foil for what exists within: Africa’s largest art exhibition space, with around 100 separate galleries over nine floors, including two below ground. 

Heatherwick was assigned the mission to create a “honeypot” effect. Make the building too lovely on the outside, and there might be a danger that visitors would adore its exterior and ignore the treasures within. He had to make the most ambitious bits a surprise that waited for visitors once they passed the threshold. “So people can fall in love with the artworks,” says Coetzee. 

Step inside and it’s a literal jolt, requiring first that you orient yourself as you make sense of the shifting dimensions. No longer are you on the docks or even near the sea; you have entered another universe, a vast vertical atrium with half-exposed, cross-sectioned tubular shafts, some imbued with elevators, some with exposed stairwells resembling gigantic drill bits. 

The Zeitz MOCAA was constructed by converting a 57-meter-tall historic grain silo, which was originally built in 1921 and decommissioned in 2001. The project, a partnership between the V&A Waterfront and German philanthropist Jochen Zeitz, was begun in 2013.
IWAN BAAN / COURTESY OF MOCAA

From high above, thick shafts of light beam down from disc-like ceiling panels casting the shadows of people moving around on the roof. As you gaze up toward the source of this curious shadow play, you catch sight of a large, sleek, black dragon soaring above it all. Made from rubber, colored ribbons and an animal skull, the suspended sculpture is called iimpundulu zonke ziyandilenda and references a Xhosa mythological creature known as the lightning bird. It was created by South Africa’s Nicholas Hlobo for the 2011 Venice Biennale and is accompanied by a pink halo light that’s only seen at night, plus an ominous lullaby — a haunting sound installation that should add a somewhat sanctified atmosphere to the entire atrium. 

Yet any sense of this being a cathedral where hushed decorum might be observed is thwarted by the sheer scale of the crowds that have arrived to see what all the fuss is about. Indeed, Coetzee tells me, in a country where the biggest museums see a maximum of 45,000 visitors in a year, MOCAA drew 30,000 in its first two weeks. In a country where, under apartheid, most black African artists were almost entirely excluded from public institutions and where the majority of citizens were denied regular access to museums, such attendance figures are startling. This is a triumph.

The Zeitz MOCAA complex consists of nine floors with a total 9,500 square meters of space, making it the world’s largest museum of contemporary African art. The five-star, 28-room Silo Hotel sits above the museum space, accessible from the rooftop sculpture garden.
COURTESY OF MOCAA


Not your granny’s art museum

In fact, MOCAA is a kind of homecoming, representing the first time such a vast survey of contemporary African art is being housed on such a grand scale under one roof. Its existence was envisioned over pizza, of all things, between Coetzee and Jochen Zeitz, the German former Puma CEO who happens to be a billionaire philanthropist with a passion for Africa. 

“I told him my great dream was to build a museum in Africa,” says Coetzee, and “he said, ‘Let’s do it together.’ And then he told me to go and buy the work needed to create this museum.” Coetzee, who is credited with having helped start Miami’s Wynwood Art District, says African art’s moment has been a long time coming. MOCAA, he says, aims to take the excellent work done by various smaller foundations and commercial galleries in Africa and “create a pinnacle.”

“So much art has left the continent by force in the past,” says Coetzee, “and nowadays it’s leaving because of a lucrative international market.”

Part of the museum’s intention is to ensure that works by Africa’s artists are seen locally. According to MOCAA’s assistant photography curator, Gcotyelwa Mashiqa, the museum will have the resources and reputation to be able to leverage the return of artworks so that they can be shown to African audiences, often for the first time. Luring people to this honeypot and captivating them with what’s inside, then, has been a close second priority for Coetzee and his curatorial staff. Indeed, the museum has been designed to tempt both the curious and the well-informed. And it’s curated with young, modern audiences in mind.

“We decided that with the first show especially we would capitalize on the visual knowledge people have of handheld devices, so there’s a lot of new media — a lot of digital technology, a lot of multiple screens, surround sound, and immersive experiences,” says Coetzee. “We wanted to open with works that people could respond to viscerally. The kind of work that you want to touch, want to ask questions about.”

Athi-Patra Ruga’s “Proposed Model for the Tseko Simon Nkoli Memorial.” The central part of the Zeitz MOCAA’s collection is on loan from Jochen Zeitz himself, but the museum’s goal is to change exhibitions often in order to best serve and inspire the continent of Africa.
COURTESY OF MOCAA
“We chose certain works specifically because of their hard-hitting subject matter. I wanted to make a very strong statement that we’re not going to be an easy-peasy place.”
Mark Coetzee, MOCAA's director and chief curator

The result, as one journalist put it, “is not your granny’s art museum.” There’s proof everywhere of its success: People posing for selfies, teenagers on dates, groups touring the galleries with curators, and as Coetzee shows me around, he’s compelled at least a dozen times to remind people not to touch, while making no secret of the fact that even he’s astonished by the overwhelming success of what’s been created. “A lot of people in South Africa associate museums with a one-time school visit — boring and you never want to go back,” he says. “I want people to feel that this is a place where they come to be enlightened and entertained.”

Which is not to say that there’s been any dumbing down. The museum is packed with serious statement-making work by seminal artists from across the continent and its Diaspora, most of whom have strong voices beyond their own regions. The usual suspects from southern Africa are represented, starting with Hlobo’s atrium-soaring dragon and incorporating the likes of Athi-Patra Ruga, Kendell Geers, Penny Siopis, and, in a vast second-floor gallery, William Kentridge’s wondrous panoramic danse macabre processional video installation, More Sweetly Play the Dance. There’s a huge sculptural work — a new commission — by Mary Sibande, and Roger Ballen donated his entire photography archive in perpetuity.

The museum also features major African superstars such as Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, whose work has never been shown in South Africa. Anatsui, who is renowned for fashioning bottle tops into immense wall tapestries, is currently the most expensive artist working in Africa; a wall-hanging commissioned by the museum is the MOCAA’s most expensive piece.

Other star artists include U.K.-based artists Yinka Shonibare and Chris Ofili, while in the museum’s basement — where the silo’s original industrial architecture has been retained — is Found Not Taken, the work that earned Angola’s Edson Chagas the Golden Lion at Venice in 2013 — a first for an African artist.

COURTESY OF MOCAA

The most difficult piece to install was an iteration of Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves (2010), an immersive 55-minute film that’s projected onto nine double-sided, dynamically arranged screens. When the work was installed at MoMA two years ago, Coetzee tells me, it was most the most visited exhibition of contemporary art in the world.

Coetzee emphasizes that visitors needn’t know the monetary or cultural value of the works like these in order to be touched by them. The curatorial idea is for visitors to simply be consumed by the work — so that you’re so immersed, so shaken, so touched by what you’re experiencing, you don’t need to know anything about art to enjoy it. “You just need to let yourself go,” adds Coetzee.

It is also likely to touch a nerve. As much as they designed it to lure and fascinate, the curatorial team wanted to say something. “We chose certain works specifically because of their hard-hitting subject matter. I wanted to make a very strong statement that we’re not going to be an easy-peasy place.” Coetzee says he likes the idea suggested to him by a group of young skateboarders that, from the looks of MOCAA, a museum “is a safe space in which to talk about difficult issues.”

“While we will be showing stuff that celebrates and affirms who we are, it’s likely that visitors are also going to be confronted by some really complex, difficult, even disturbing things.”

Take, for example, Zimbabwean Kudzenai Chuirai’s opening solo show, which included a sculpture in the form of a throne made of human body parts. Or the “bodybag self-portraits” (Nobody Will Talk About Us and Noir) by Tunisian Mouna Karray, who photographs herself shrouded entirely in a white sheet while set in barren, desolate rural locations, suggesting the aftermath of war or landscapes devastated by mining. 

IWAN BAAN / COURTESY OF MOCAA

In an ironic twist, there’s also a large gallery dedicated to iQhiya, a collective of young black female artists whose work specifically protests the lack of representation of black women in public art museums. The room speaks to the institution’s commitment to radical inclusivity.

According to multidisciplinary Cape Town-–based artist Athi-Patra Ruga, the significance of such inclusiveness is massive. “In South Africa, we have a collective history of institutions that are still negotiating ideas of inclusion and exclusion,” he says. “I believe in museums as spaces for healing, and having a space such as this where audiences will be able to reflect on the past 18 years of art from the continent could spark something in the direction of a national healing of sorts.”

The museum necessarily means different things to different people, although its founders say it’s up to the artists to make it realize its true potential. “I don’t want this to become predictable, defined or status quo,” reflects Coetzee. “My great dream is that it’s not prescriptive, so you’ll never quite be sure what its identity is. Every time you come back, it might be a slightly different kind of institution. Schizophrenic, maybe.”

But whatever it becomes, its sheer existence is a testament to the continent’s creative output and a celebration of its artists. Its importance has perhaps been most profoundly expressed by South Africa’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Emiritus Desmond Tutu, who, in a rare public appearance, stood up to speak but first interrupted himself by pretending to take a phone call from Nelson Mandela in heaven. When Tutu, with a mischievous smile, asked the assembled crowd if they wanted to hear what Madiba had to say, he told them: “Yes! This is what we were fighting for!” 

Zeitz MOCCA is open Wednesday to Monday from 10 a.m. till 6 p.m. and until 10 p.m. on “Late Night Fridays.” Admission is always free for visitors under 18, and it is free to all citizens of Africa on Wednesdays between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.; half-price admission applies for all between 4 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on the first Friday of every month.

Apart from its galleries and rooftop sculpture garden, MOCAA includes a live performance area and a Centre for the Moving Image. The museum officially opened in September with 12 shows, and new shows will open every 100-or-so days. Roughly three to four public activities — workshops, lectures, forums — will happen daily, plus various guided tours. zeitzmocaa.museum