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‘Africa’s Tate Modern’ – Cape Town’s Zeitz-Mocaa gallery opens

A week before its public opening, the social spectacle surrounding the preview of Cape Town’s Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz-Mocaa) threatened to eclipse the art on display. There was a soiree hosted by Gucci. Hanging above the makeshift dancefloor was a giant rubber flying dragon by South African artist Nicholas Hlobo. In one of the museum’s white cubes, an installation of half-mannequins made from cowhide – Emabutfo by Swazi-born Nandipha Mntambo – became a backdrop for selfies. But the buzz was good and the free tickets for all four days of this weekend’s public opening (22-25 September) were accounted for online (the museum promises more will be available on the door).

A sculpture by South African artist Nicholas Hlobo dominates the main hall in the Zeitz-Mocaa in Cape Town, South Africa.
 A sculpture by South African artist Nicholas Hlobo in the main hall of the Zeitz-Mocaa. Photograph: Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images

The Zeitz-Mocaa building is in a converted grain silo overlooking the Atlantic on the Victoria and Alfred waterfront, an area regenerated 30 years ago for retail, real estate and tourism on the remnants of two dilapidated 19th-century harbour basins (Victoria and Alfred). The silos themselves were built over coal sheds that once supplied steamships, which, in turn, were part-funded by capital from slave compensation after abolition (the owners were compensated, not the slaves).

The £28m museum’s architect is English (Thomas Heatherwick), its patron is German (Jochen Zeitz, former CEO of Puma) and the executive director is South African (all three are white men), and it has been hailed as Africa’s answer to the Tate Modern.

Zeitz-Mocaa is not the first of its kind, but it is the largest such institution on the continent, with 100 galleries spread over nine floors – and a boutique hotel at the top. It will focus exclusively on 21st-century work from Africa and the diaspora, centred around the private collection of Zeitz.

His collection is “very pop, very graphic,” says art critic and author Sean O’Toole, with most works post-2010 and dominated by young South African artists. “But that’s not the same as telling the complicated, multi-vocal African story,” says O’Toole.

However, Mark Coetzee, Zeitz-Mocaa’s executive director and chief curator, insists that the vision is to provide a “platform for Africans to tell their own story and participate in the telling of that story”. He says the museum is “geographically situated in Cape Town but has a dialogue with all 54 African states”.

The basement level in Zeitz-Mocaa in Cape Town, South Africa.
 The basement level in Zeitz-Mocaa. Photograph: Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images

Besides the permanent collection, there are centres for photography, performing arts and the moving image, a dedicated arts education centre (a full schools programme is promised in 2018), a costume institute and a curatorial training programme. Access has been designed to encourage local visitors, too. There are public transport stops for local as well as tourist buses, a nearly completed pedestrian walkway into town and free entry for African citizens on Wednesdays and under 18s every day.

As a public not-for-profit institution, however, questions remain: when the project was first announced, Zeitz committed his collection “in perpetuity”. Now many of the works are listed as being on long-term loan instead. Although many young artists have been persuaded to donate works, O’Toole says he is also concerned there is no information provided about the museum’s annual budget, or its acquisitions budget.

“I think what is going to define all of this in the end is what is represented in the museum,” says Coetzee, explaining that in the past the majority of South Africans were “excluded not only from visiting [museums] but also from being represented, or the way they were represented was problematic. It is going to win if the audience see themselves represented by their own artists.”


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