Africa’s largest museum is set to open in Cape Town next month, backed by a former Puma CEO and designed by a star British architect. It is not without its critics.
CAPE TOWN — The enormous but forgotten cereal silo in the heart of Cape Town's harbor was once hailed as Sub-Saharan Africa's tallest building. But it has risen from its figurative ashes over the past four years, and the gigantic 116 cement silos, whose contents once fed thousands of people, have been redesigned for a different purpose: art.
The star British architect Thomas Heatherwick chose to gut the entire building, while also designing the atrium to resemble the inside of a wheat kernel. The museum itself, as well as rooms dedicated to performances and cultural education, will be housed on 9,500 square meters.
The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) is Africa's long overdue answer to New York's MoMA or London's Tate Modern and the international art scene is eagerly awaiting its planned inauguration on September 22.
Art and business
Jochen Zeitz, 54, who was Puma's youngest ever CEO, helped to bring the sporting goods and sneaker company back into the black by, among other things, sponsoring 14 African national football teams. Zeitz has a ranch in Kenya, and has spent much of his time in Africa over the last few years since his retirement from Puma in 2012. As an investor and member of various management boards, he tries to promote sustainable development and support cultural initiatives.
"The role of art collector does not actually quite suit me," says Zeitz. Instead, his eye for gaps in the market, be it in business or art, better explains his current project.
Jochen Zeitz, former CEO of Puma — Photo: David Ebener/ZUMA
A growing cultural scene in Cape Town over the last few years has often resulted in some of the best art being exported to the Biennales and museums in Europe or the U.S.. "We finally want to make it possible for the art to be available here," he says.
One of the largest art collection in Africa
Zeitz, together with Mark Coetzee, the director of the MOCAA, started one of the largest modern art collections on the continent only nine years ago, buying thousands of works of art, sometimes entire exhibitions.
Most of the art works were stored in a depot, as they made plans for the future. "From the very beginning, the purpose was to find a central home for the collection," says Zeitz.
Criticism regarding this wholesale approach was, of course, unavoidable. The art critique Matthew Blackman wrote in 2015 that a museum for African art, furnished by a German collector, designed by a British architect and led by a white South African director does not really have much to do with South Africa any longer.
Zeitz doesn't dispute the spirit of such criticism but highlights the many positive real-life reactions to the museum, particular from artists themselves. The collection will be available to the museum for the duration of his lifetime or until 2037, whichever comes first. In addition to this, Zeitz also funds the museum's educational programs and new acquisitions which has earned him the respect of the African art scene.
The institution will give Africa's art scene a huge boost.
The MOCAA is now in the last stages of installing the art works, nearly 30% of the paintings have been hung across the six floors. Mark Coetzee is visibly proud of the work put into the museum and states that the art works are "political with every fiber of their being, with every brush stroke."
One of these works is to be seen in a carefully lit room, depicting 197 red bricks, hung at eye level and suspended from the ceiling with a distance of 30 to 50 centimeters. Those who walk between the bricks will notice that the path becomes narrower and narrower as you go. It is South African Kendell Geers' reminder of the anti-Apartheid fight, when activists threw bricks from motorway bridges onto cars of the representatives of the regime.
Another artist, whose work will be displayed here, joins us for the tour. 34 year old Nandipha Mntambo from Swaziland says that "the institution will give Africa's art scene a huge boost." Still, she does not spare criticism: "Not every art work is related to the continent and its cultural heritage," Mntambo says, adding a dose of skepticism about Coetzee's laboriously highlighted connections of the art to society.
Freeing art works from the African clichés
The brilliantly designed building itself may provide the art works with the chance to free themselves from the African clichés heaped upon them over the last few years. The museum budget of 33 million euros was provided by the Victoria&Alfred Waterfront, an unprecedented investment in the African contemporary cultural scene. But unlike in any major European museum, you will find that a luxury hotel has been allocated the space in the upper stories of the building.
Inside MOCAA — Photo: Zeitz MOCAA Facebook page
Nonetheless, the atrium remains the heart and absolute masterpiece of the museum. Its exciting architecture is meant to eliminate the paralysing effect of contemporary art and fulfill Zeitz's wish that people from all strata of society will feel at ease here. But that is not going to be an easy task to achieve.
Adults will pay 180 Rand, roughly 12 euros, entry fee, which is admittedly cheaper than tickets to comparable museums in Europe, but well beyond the daily income of most South Africans. So visitors with a passport from an African nation will be granted free entry Wednesday mornings and 50% off the normal ticket price on Friday afternoons.
As its opening nears, the MOCAA has become a hot topic of conversation among the growing middle class of South Africa. Cape Town is one of the most important cultural hubs in Africa, with some 10 million international visitors each year. The museum expects 24,000 visitors in its opening week alone.