On Friday, September 22, 2017 at 11 a.m., the ribbon will be cut to allow invited guests to surge into the new nine-storey Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art, jewel of the Silo district of Cape Town’s V & A Waterfront. This week, hundreds of guests from the international art world, curators, artists, writers, gallerists, patrons and collectors have descended on the city to be entertained to preview tours, performances, dinners and events in a packed three day preview of the Zeitz MOCAA.
The opening of the museum marks an extraordinary milestone in the reception and presentation of contemporary art on the African continent, an opportunity – finally – for Africa to consistently play host to the world, rather than to be always sending artists and their work to foreign art institutions through lack of funding and space to show the work here. The new Zeitz MOCAA will not only be the largest art museum on the continent, with more than 80 galleries and a sculpture garden, but it will also be the only museum to focus exclusively on contemporary art.
The Zeitz MOCAA will also be active in the exchange of international exhibitions, which again through lack of funding, have previously passed Africa by. It would be extremely apt, for instance, to welcome here the much acclaimed ‘Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power’, looking at African American art at the time of the civil rights movement, a movement which drew inspiration from newly free African nations. Curated by Joburg Art Fair invited curator Zoe Whitley and Mark Godfrey, ‘Soul of a Nation’ is currently on view at the Tate Modern.
The mission of the museum is inscribed on a door near the entrance: ‘Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art is a public not-for-profit contemporary art museum which collects, preserves, researches and exhibits twenty-first century art from Africa and its diaspora; hosts international exhibitions; develops education and enrichment programmes; encourages intercultural understanding; and guarantees access for all.’
In the case of the collection of South African art, executive director and chief curator Mark Coetzee, says, ‘In the late 20th century, the corporates in this country were very active in building collections, but times have changed. Corporates no longer have big buildings with major space to exhibit art, so those collections have become static. Public museums, with their lack of acquisition budgets have also not kept up, so the 21st century has not been dealt with adequately. I think that’s a role that we can fulfill.
‘And if we don’t commit to that right now, the work is not going to stay on the continent. There is so much interest from international museums in contemporary art from Africa These museums are re-evaluating their own collections and trying to collect work that they overlooked, so that means a lot of art is leaving Africa.’
The focus on the current century does not mean of course, that work from earlier years will not be shown in appropriate shows – and the museum plans to show retrospectives of older artists – but rather, that the permanent collection will focus on post 2000 work.
Coetzee started his career as the director of the tiny but influential Mark Coetzee Fine Art Cabinet in the late nineties, showing young artists in his Cape Town space. From there, he rocketed to become director of the Rubell Family Collection Museum in Miami for nine years, leaving the Rubell to work with Jöchen Zeitz, then CEO of PUMA, as director of cultural programmes and art adviser.
In between sponsoring such activities as funding South African artists to attend the Sydney Biennale, or commissioning Kehinde Wiley to paint portraits of African footballers to celebrate the 2010 World Cup, Zeitz, advised by Coetzee, began to build a collection of contemporary African art, and to formulate a dream of one day locating the collection in a museum somewhere in Africa. The PUMA brand had been successful in Africa, and Zeitz wished to make a significant contribution in order to give something back.
An early purchase was a monstrous suspended dragon, fabricated from a skull, fabric, rubber, and other elements, hovering mid air in the ancient space of the Arsenale at the 2011 Venice Biennale. Visitors to the new Zeitz MOCAA will now encounter the dragon in the atrium, as they step into the space and raise their eyes up to the roof, many floors above.
Nicholas Hlobo titled his dragon Iimpundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela (All the Lightning Birds Are After Me). The reference is to an old folk song about a frightening flying creature, which forces one to face one’s own mortality, but can also lead to spiritual enlightenment.
At around the same time that this purchase was being made, the V&A Waterfront Company were casting their eyes in the direction of a long unused grain silo and its adjacent building, and planning to develop the two into a museum.
Should the new museum focus on design? Marine history? Top British designer Thomas Heatherwick, in town to participate at Design Indaba was called in, and started to make drawings.
This desire of the V&A to redevelop its handsome old industrial building into a museum, and the search of Coetzee and Zeitz for a location in Africa where the growing art collection could find a home, and expand, coalesced.
In March 2014, the advent of the new museum was announced at a press conference, at which the V&A, Coetzee and Zeitz, and Heatherwick unveiled their plans. Work began. Three and a half years later, a remarkably short time for such a complex and ambitious enterprise, the doors will open.
The core of the museum is a massive atrium, hollowed out of the tubes of the old silo, and running all the way up to glass circles in the roof. The dramatic elongated curves caused by cutting into the old silo tubes are the dominant element of the space, and a theatrical backdrop for the first artwork to be shown there, Hlobo’s dragon.
Rather like the Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern for which artists are commissioned to make special installations, the Zeitz MOCAA atrium will require works which will powerfully occupy the space. Coetzee says they are hoping to confirm substantial corporate funding which will allow commissioning such works to be installed for two to three year periods.
In addition to this programme for the atrium space, the museum will be commissioning work in all media for other events. For the opening, one such commission was a large wall hanging by the Ghanaian-born Nigerian-based artist, El Anatsui, whose extraordinary wall hangings fabricated from thousands of discarded metal bottles tops and foil wrappings wired together to form vast abstract tapestries have made him one of the most important and sought after artists in Africa.
Among the other artists who will be exhibited on the opening exhibition, ‘All Things Being Equal’, are Kendell Geers, with an installation of hanging bricks, the Angolan artist Edson Chagas, whose 2011 installation at the Venice Biennale will be re-curated by the original team, British artists Isaac Julien with his mesmerizing nine screen video installation Ten Thousand Waves, and William Kentridge’s Sweetly Play the Dance, a video work originally commissioned by the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam. The Photography Institute will open with Mouna Karray, the north African photographer from Tunisia. Penny Siopis will be showing a group of large paintings, entitled Transfigure, residues of her recent performative painting residency at the Maitland Institute. Artists which the Zeitz has been collecting in depth, like Nandipha Mntambo, Mohau Modisakeng and Zanele Muholi each have exhibitions to themselves. There is a room of Ghada Amer’s stitched works and Liza Lou has clad an entire room in panels of beadwork. Representation from the younger generation includes large installations from Lungiswa Gqunta and Sethembile Msezane from the iQhiya collective.
‘All Things Being Equal’ will be on three and a half floors of the museum, and other exhibitions will occupy the rest of the space, including a solo exhibition dedicated to Kudzanai Chiurai and curated by Azu Nwagbogu, the founder of Photo Lagos, one of the Zeitz MOCAA curators at large.
The opening programme will also feature a performance by Deutsche Bank artist of the year, Kemang Wa Lehulere, curated by the director of New York’s Performa biennial, RoseLee Goldberg.
There is little doubt that the new Zeitz MOCAA has the potential to shine the light on the artists of Africa, to re-imagine the position which contemporary African art holds in the world right now, and to make Cape Town a fixed destination for curators wishing to see that art framed by local discourse.
At the Johannesburg Art Fair this last weekend, an American curator asked the Art Fair-featured artist Robin Rhode, in the Q and A following his discussion with RoseLee Goldberg, ‘If you have something to say to the curators of the world, what would it be?’ Speaking firmly, Robin replied, ‘Stop putting African artists in group shows with other African artists. It’s time to give them their own solo museum shows.’ ‘Well, that is something that is in the minds of many of us,’ replied the curator. The Zeitz MOCAA has the potential of playing a key role in giving African artists sufficient space to really show their work in depth.
Excited as the local art world has been about the advent of a world class museum of contemporary art, the coming into being of the new museum has not been without controversy. Communication between the museum and the local art world has been limited. The main question has centred on the fact, that although the museum is named after its benefactor, Jöchen Zeitz, it has become known that the donation of his collection is not necessarily permanent. It might revert to his heirs on his death. And so the work might leave the continent again.
Asked to clarify the arrangement for ArtThrob, Mark Coetzee has given us this statement:
‘Jöchen Zeitz, has loaned the collection for his lifetime. The collection will remain in a family trust beyond this, and it is the intention of the Zeitz family to continue providing the museum access to any artwork that they require in the future.
‘The Zeitz Collection is still being added to and the museum and curators will have that work on loan too and can access it or exhibit it if they so wish, though there is obligation on their part to do so.
‘The Museum’s own Permanent Collection has its own acquisition budget as well, which is separate from the Zeitz Collection acquisitions. When we purchase work for the museum’s own Permanent Collection we are very specific with the galleries that it is being purchased by the museum. Jöchen Zeitz does the same when he purchases work, and of course, donations to the museum become part of the Museum’s own Permanent Collection and not the Zeitz Collection.’
Coetzee’s statement also addressed the relationship between the V&A Waterfront and the museum.
‘It’s important to stress that the building and the collection are both on long-term loan to the Zeitz MOCAA Trust, and exist to be the catalyst to the establishment of this institution. The Trust is governed by a Board of Trustees and another separate Advisory Board. Besides judges, legal experts, collectors, financial specialists, heads of other not-for-profits etc., being on the board and offering their governance to ensure sustainability of the museum, there are also always two artist board members.
‘The loan agreements between the V&A Waterfront (owners of the building) and Jöchen Zeitz are extremely complex. However, the long-term sustainability of the institution is what both parties are committed to – it is this commitment that is reinforced by these agreements and precisely why they have been set up this way.
‘Neither loan agreement undermines the museum and what it stands for. They are agreements that see the Zeitz Collection and every piece within it loaned to form the founding collection of the museum, with the museum building being provided at no cost to the Trust.’
The complex work of staffing the new museum is still underway, but to date, 21 of the 39 curatorial positions in the Museum have been filled. Under Coetzee as chief curator, there will be a senior curator, currently being selected. The Centre for the Moving Image will be curated by Owen Martin, assisted by Michaela Limberis, and with the Cameroonian curator Koyo Kouh as curator at large.
The position of curator of Painting and Sculpture is going through the interview process, with Zimbabwean Raphael Chikukwa as curator at large, and Julia Kabat, Xola Mlwandle and Marijke Tymbios as assistants.
Adjunct curators in the Books and Works on Paper department are Paula Nascimento and Stefano Rabolli Pansera, with Sven Christian as assistant curator.
Jay Pather is the curator for the Centre for Performative Practice, with RoseLee Goldberg as curator at large, and Kimberly Jacobs and Tammy Langtry as assistants.
There is also a Costume Institute, a Centre for Art Education, and a Centre for Photography. Here, curator at large is Nigerian Azu Nwabogu, founder of Photo Lagos, with Gcotyelwa Mashiqa as assistant.
A museum of the scale and ambition of the Zeitz MOCAA does not come into being easily. It has reached the point of opening its doors without state support, and driven by the energy, ambition and sheer hard work of a small group. At present, both the Zeitz Collection and the Permanent Collection are lacking works by many of the continent’s most important artists, but one can hardly expect a balanced collection to be in place on day one.
The Zeitz is now in our midst. Let’s raise a glass to its future.