Johannesburg - Contemporary African art is so hot that it now has its first major museum - in Africa.
Overlooking the harbour in Cape Town, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, known as Zeitz Mocaa, opened last month in a former corn silo complex that was renovated for R500m. It displays strictly 21st century works by a range of young and established artists from across the continent, including South Africa’s Simphiwe Ndzube and William Kentridge and Kenyan-born Wangechi Mutu, as well as African-American and Afro-Caribbean pieces.
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Conceived by British designer Thomas Heatherwick, the structure’s most awe-inspiring feature is a hollow oval carved out of the silo complex’s inner cylinders bathed in sunlight from above. The centrepiece is a work by internationally acclaimed South African artist Nicholas Hlobo that resembles a giant rubber dragon, which former Puma chairperson Jochen Zeitz acquired after it went on show at the Venice Biennale in 2011.
Located in a redeveloped industrial area near the busiest shopping mall in Cape Town, the museum’s opening came at a time when African American and African artists have taken centre stage in art fairs around the world, from the 2016 Armory Show in New York to the Art/Afrique exhibit at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris this year.
“The museum has brought a massive amount of international clients to Cape Town who wouldn’t have come otherwise,” said Igsaan Martin, director of Momo gallery in the city. “A lot of our clients collected our art but never had that reason to come through to South Africa. Hopefully it will benefit our artists and we can get them into other museums.”
While it’s not the only institute for contemporary art in Africa - the Fondation Zinsou in the small West African nation of Benin pioneered the model - it’s certainly the biggest. It’s stoked huge excitement among artists and curators in South Africa, the country with the most private art collectors on the continent.
Yet along with the praise has come criticism - that the works on display are mostly deemed valuable in western eyes, that art from Francophone African nations gets scant attention and that the museum seems more focused on the tourism market than the nurturing of artists from across the continent.
“African art and value is always determined by what happens in western art markets and those power dynamics appear to remain in place,” said art commentator Mary Corrigall. “Of course, the gallery owners who’ve sold work to Zeitz are happy, and galleries and artists have basically been throwing their works at them. But a lot of people ask: ‘is this museum for Africans at all? Or is it for tourists?’”
For some artists the museum will provide a platform to accelerate their meteoric rise.
Prices for the colourful tapestries of Athi-Patra Ruga have shot up from about R175 000 to R1.2m in the space of a few years. And when Ruby Swinney graduated from art school two years ago, she sold her paintings at barely R1 000 apiece. Next year, the Zeitz Museum will dedicate an entire room to her, and collectors already pay an average R30 000 per painting.
“It’s great for young artists to be acknowledged by bigger, international museums and institutions,” said Mia Borman, a curator at Whatiftheworld gallery, which represents Swinney. “The opening of Zeitz has had a major impact on our local galleries.”
South Africa’s few public art galleries have limited acquisition budgets and the government is facing a fragile economy that has just emerged from a recession.
The museum was the brainchild of a property developer who sought to restore and use the abandoned silo complex in a way that would keep the area commercially attractive. While Cape Town ranks among the top 5 cities in global TripAdvisor searches, it didn’t have a major cultural institution, said David Green, chief executive officer of the V&A Waterfront, Cape Town’s biggest tourist attraction.
Visitors from the rest of Africa can also benefit from the museum, said Azu Nwagbogu, the Nigerian director of the Lagos photo festival, LagosPhoto, who serves as a curator-at-large for the Zeitz.
“I’m really more interested in tourists from other African countries coming here to engage with the museum,” he said. “The Americans, the Germans, they are welcome too. But it really should be focused on making sure that we curate something for us Africans, so that we see ourselves in a positive light, and in a way that we feel like we can take ownership of our own destinies.”
With funding from institutions including the Public Investment Corporation, Africa’s biggest fund manager, the silo was under construction when Green learned that Zeitz, a German collector, was looking for a space to house his African art. Their meeting eventually led to establishing Mocaa, he said.
“This is not just about buildings and renting them out. It’s a brand that we’re creating - this compelling proposition of being able to work here, to live here, to appreciate culture,” Green said. “Internationally, that is where all smart cities are heading.”
Despite hundreds of sponsors, including Gucci and Standard Bank, Green’s plan to create an endowment has so far proved hard to realize. V&A Waterfront, which has a long-term target of 500 million rand, has so far raised less than 40 million rand, he said.
“It’s a big test for Africa, to put ourselves out there on an international platform,” said Borman of the Whatiftheworld gallery. “The focus on African art is, I don’t want to say fashionable, but there are a lot of international people who are very focused on African art.”
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