The mother of art museums

2017-09-17 05:57
The size, scale and cathedral-like interior design of Zeitz Mocaa is breathtaking. Picture: Iwan Baan

The size, scale and cathedral-like interior design of Zeitz Mocaa is breathtaking. Picture: Iwan Baan

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One is really not prepared for the scale and beauty of the new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz Mocaa), a building redeveloped by the upmarket V&A Waterfront in Cape Town in a venture with German businessman Jochen Zeitz, who owns the staggering inaugural collection of African art.

What was once an industrial cluster of 42 grain silos, with concrete walls so thick they could survive a nuclear blast, is today an exquisite vertical colossus with an education centre and four floors of the finest African art curated into group and solo exhibitions with cutting-edge themes.

The work in the nonprofit museum was all created after 2000, so it offers intended school tours a rare and valuable opportunity to see themselves in the work.

A glittering new luxury hotel and a rooftop sculpture garden tops off the R500m building that international media are calling “the Tate Modern of Africa”.

Inside, an even more jaw-dropping sight awaits.

Carved from the concrete are giant, cathedral-like oval shapes flooded with light from above.

It took 2m-wide diamond-tipped drills to slowly carve three metres a day to create the Antoni Gaudí-esque shapes that emulate an ear of corn, after the mealies that would be stored here and shipped from the harbour.

Opposite it, a similar, smaller cut-out emulates a 3-D mealie kernel.

Black metal stairways that visitors will use to make their way up each floor peer through the ovals.

“You can imagine the celebrations when they got to the end and the cuts matched up,” says a tired but proud Carla White, Zeitz Mocaa’s launch director of communication, who is showing me around after a quick chat with the museum’s director and chief curator, Cape Town gallerist Mark Coetzee.

Hanging over the full five floors of the atrium, designed by celebrated British architect Thomas Heatherwick, is South African sculpture wunderkind Nicholas Hlobo’s Iimpundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela.

South Africa has not seen this giant rubber dragon of a work with its skull head, based on the Xhosa myth of the lightning bird.

It was commissioned for the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011.

Bedecked in colourful ribbons, it is being installed when City Press is allowed a Monday afternoon preview of the museum.

A new age for our art

It opened officially last night, a day after a R70 000-a-head fundraising dinner for patrons of Zeitz Mocaa. Technicians carefully avoid stepping on the giant bird’s endless tail as they install the work that will be lit up with pink theatre lights and set to the sound of an eerie lullaby when it is fully revealed.

Where we are standing was once an alley between the 42 silos.

The mealies would arrive by rail and be elevated to the top of the silos to conveyor belts, to be poured in from the top.

There were fireman’s poles for workers to fly down and a pulley system to shoot men up in this industrial building, built between 1921 and 1924, then the tallest in sub-Saharan Africa.

At the bottom are tunnels, where the grain would be released via a chute to the ships on the water just behind it.

All around the new museum, art galleries and stores are creating a broader cultural precinct.

The Waterfront thought long and hard about what to do with the giant cluster of protected buildings standing smack in the middle of some of the most valuable property on the continent, says White.

A significant cultural offering was what they decided on, but they didn’t a collection of art to put in it.

Enter Coetzee, who had been Zeitz’ buyer on what was colloquially known as the Puma Collection (Zeitz is a former boss of footwear company Puma) and had helped establish a new generation of young African artists through his patronage.

“It is the founding collection that curators can draw from, but it is not the only thing,” says White.

The museum works with new-school galleries that have sprouted in Cape Town and are transforming its gallery scene, and it will be buying its own collection.

“We have a long-term loan agreement with Zeitz, but the plan is to be self-sustaining,” White adds.

Of course, the project has courted controversy.

It is hard to miss the Reclaim the City protests focused at the Somerset Precinct, located between the Waterfront and the Cape Town Stadium.

Activists are demanding affordable housing in the tourist mecca. Many in the art world accuse Zeitz Mocaa of being elitist and inaccessible to the people it wants to reach and educate.

Inside, White walks me through some of the 80 galleries that also house centres for film, photography, performance, curation and the like.

All the darlings of the new school are here: Edson Chagas (Angola), Zanele Muholi (South Africa), Kudzanai Chiurai (Zimbabwe), Cyrus Kabiru (Kenya), Mohau Modisakeng (South Africa), Wangechi Mutu (Kenya), Nandipha Mntambo (Swaziland) and so on.

As these artists start to shift the art world’s gaze away from Asia and centres such as Miami, the museum offers a credibility and a sense of importance that feels like it is ushering in a new age for our art.

Read more on:    cape town  |  culture  |  art

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