BY Sean O'Toole in Opinion | 01 MAY 14
Featured in
Issue 163

First Site

Africa’s first mega-museum to open in Cape Town

BY Sean O'Toole in Opinion | 01 MAY 14

Heatherwick Studios, architect’s rendering of Zeitz MOCAA. Courtesy: Heatherwick Studios and V&A Waterfront.

Cape Town’s derelict harbour-side granary, an eggshell-coloured industrial building recalling the sober hues of painter Charles Sheeler, will soon be the site of Africa’s first mega-museum: the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa. Slated to open in early 2016, its nine floors will include 80 galleries, 18 education areas, a rooftop sculpture garden, storage and conservation facilities, as well as centres devoted to performance, moving image, curatorial practice and education. A partnership between the German collector Jochen Zeitz and V&A Waterfront (a sprawling harbour retail development), Zeitz MOCAA will focus on collecting, researching and exhibiting contemporary art from the continent and its diasporas.

The new museum will be located along a busy pedestrian corridor, between the V&A’s bustling mall and Cape Town’s expanding financial and conferencing district. Eyed by Johannesburg collector Gordon Schachat as a possible venue for his collection of modern and contemporary South African art, his indecision saw Zeitz – the former CEO of Puma and currently a director of luxury brand Kerber – step up and bequeath his youthful pan-African art collection (as well as an operating budget) to the new not-for-profit museum.

Proficient in seven languages, Zeitz cut his teeth as a junior executive in Colgate-Palmolive’s New York office in the late 1980s where he acquired a taste for pop art, which still motivates his collecting habits. Zeitz, who sits on the board of Harley–Davidson and lives in a Swiss home furnished with Native American artefacts, first travelled to Africa in 1989, to Kenya, where he currently owns a luxury retreat in the country’s central highlands. He cites the acquisition of a work by Isaac Julien, a London-born filmmaker and visual artist of West Indian parentage, as kick-starting his current focus on artists from Africa and its diasporas.

Zeitz’s key advisor for the last six years has been Mark Coetzee, a Cape Town art dealer and artist whose sexually explicit paintings from the 1990s were twice censored when exhibited. The two met in Miami during Coetzee’s tenure as director of the Rubell Family Collection. In 2008, Coetzee and Zeitz collaborated on the exhibition ‘30 Americans’, a showcase of works by African Americans held by the Rubells. Some of the artists in this travelling show (on view at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans, until June) are now also represented in the Zeitz Collection. They include Kehinde Wiley, Glenn Ligon and Hank Willis Thomas, whose confident solo show in Johannesburg recently used key apartheid photographs as source material for a series of abstracted figurative sculptures.

A marriage of indigenous and diasporic African artists, the Zeitz Collection includes work by Kudzanai Chiurai, Marlene Dumas, Nicholas Hlobo, Julie Mehretu, Wangechi Mutu, Serge Alain Nitegeka and Chris Ofili. It also holds over 70 works by the Swazi sculptor Nandipha Mntambo, a considerable investment in an artist whose cowhide installations (and associated merchandise) vacillate between interesting and blandly rhetorical. Like other private collections that invite public clamour, this collection is best understood as a collage of propositions: ambitious, non- parochial, up-to-date, brave, moneyed, hip, idiosyncratic and also, at times, flaky.

Since 1990, Cape Town, known for its beige demographic and opposition politics, has increasingly secured a privileged place in the global imaginary as a leisure destination. It will be interesting to see how and if the new museum disrupts the cosy post-apartheid narratives undergirding this starkly divided city. Optimistically, the new museum’s site in a former granary represents a good start. The critic and artist Roger Fry thought grain silos marvels of ‘engineering beauty’, while Le Corbusier famously described their American archetypes as ‘the magnificent first fruits of the new age’. Fittingly for a city whose raison d’être is as by-product of global seafaring trade, Cape Town’s grain silos were designed by a Canadian engineer, William Littlejohn Phillip, and formed part of a network of 35 similar structures built in the early 20th century to diversify South Africa’s mineral-based export economy.

Rather than attempting to evoke some generic version of African contemporaneity in a new structure, Zeitz MOCAA’s architect, Thomas Heatherwick, has opted to engage this history as a formal and conceptual challenge. His key design intervention will involve carving an oval atrium into the 42 storage silos, in effect fashioning a cathedral-like interior out of the clutter of concrete verticals. It’s a daring proposal, entirely synchronous with the ambition of the new museum. But grain silos are volatile entities, as Dave Hullfish Bailey’s investigations into dust explosions for his research project Elevator (2001– ongoing) reveals. Caused by friction between microscopic particles, these (sometimes fatal) explosions are unintended spin-offs of the material encounter of large-scale agrarian and industrial production. While visitors to Zeitz MOCAA won’t have to don safety gear when they enter the defunct grain silos, they will be venturing into a space braving a future of unintended consequences. It is strangely exciting.

Sean O’Toole is a contributing editor of frieze, based in Cape Town, South Africa.