23 September 2017

African Art Finds a Home At Zeit MOCAA

Contemporary African art has a new home at the southernmost tip of the continent. The Zeitz Museum of Modern Contemporary African Art, also known as the Zeitz MOCAA, opened it's doors in Cape Town, South Africa on September 15.

Before the official opening, journalists had a sneak preview of the museum's first exhibition which is housed at the V&A Waterfront's historic grain silo complex, re-purposed through a design by Heatherwick Studio to house the museum.

The V&A Waterfront is Cape Town's most popular tourist attraction, home to a myriad of shopping, dining, entertainment venues and museums and the Zeitz MOCAA is a world class addition for the more than 24 million tourists who visit annually.

The Zeitz MOCAA is the world's largest museum solely dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora. The museum has 9,500 sq metres of custom designed space, spread over nine floors, carved out of the monumental silo complex.

The galleries and the cathedral-like atrium space at the centre of the museum have been carved from the silos' dense cellular concrete structure of 42 tubes that pack the building.

The development includes 6,000 sq metres of exhibition space in 100 galleries, a rooftop sculpture garden, state of the art storage and conservation areas, a bookshop, a restaurant and bar, and various reading rooms.

The establishment

The museum will also house a Costume Institute, and Centres for Photography, Curatorial Excellence, the Moving Image, Performative Practice and Art Education.

The establishment of the museum came about as a confluence of factors.

The V&A Waterfront recognised the significance of its Grain Silo complex as an historic landmark and for years debated possible uses. An art museum was eventually decided upon but a collection was needed.

The desire was to house something of public civic significance, and something open to the public. It was through Ravi Naidoo, the founder and managing director of Durban-based Design Indaba and its founding company, Interactive Africa that Thomas Heatherwick, founder of London-based design practice Heatherwick Studio was introduced to the Grain Silo complex in 2006, and again in 2011.

Meanwhile, since meeting in 2008, German entrepreneur Jochen Zeitz, a noted collector of contemporary African art was working with curator Mark Coetzee to build a world class collection of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora with the vision to create the first major museum dedicated to it.

Right location

On their search for the right location in Africa, they came to the V&A Waterfront, and were introduced to Mr Naidoo and Heatherwick, which resulted in the creation of the Zeitz MOCAA at the Grain Silo complex.

The museum is a not-for-profit partnership between the V&A Waterfront and Mr Zeitz. The V&A Waterfront funded the redevelopment costs, and is gifting the use of the building at no cost to the institution.

Both the V&A and Mr Zeitz equally shared the operating costs of funding Zeitz MOCAA during the development phase of the museum from the start of the project.

The Zeitz MOCAA will house part of the Zeitz Collection, founded in 2002 by Mr Zeitz.

The collection is one of the most representative contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora. Its mandate is to collect and preserve contemporary cultural artefacts of Africa.

The Zeitz Collection is held and exhibited in spaces in Switzerland, Spain, South Africa, and through an extensive presentation of art at the Segera Retreat in Kenya.

Among the first African artists to have exhibitions at the Zeitz MOCAA are two Kenyans; the now Nairobi-based Wangechi Mutu, considered by many to be one of the most famous and successful contemporary African artists of recent years and who still maintains a studio in New York, and the Nairobi-based Cyrus Kabiru, who has been described as "one of the leading names associated with Afrofuturism in Africa."

Mr Zeitz is no stranger to East Africa, and in fact, owns the 50,000 acre eco-luxe lodge, Segera Retreat in Laikipia, central Kenya.

He is also the founder of the Zeitz Foundation for Intercultural Ecosphere Safety to support sustainable solutions that balance conservation, community, culture and commerce.

Before the grand opening of the museum on September 15, I had an exclusive interview with Mr Zeitz on a wide range of issues. Below are excerpts:

When did your love affair with art and specifically modern contemporary African art begin?

I love Africa and have had a home in Kenya for the past 14 years, but my passion for the continent started decades ago.

I bought some art here and there but only decided to build a serious collection when the idea to find a home for it in Africa came about.

That was when I met Mark (Mark Coetzee, Zeitz MOCAA's executive director) during the ground breaking show '30 Americans,' one of the first major exhibitions of African- American artists.

At the time I was chief executive of Puma and, thanks to Marie Claude Beaux who was an advisor at the time, I sponsored the show with Coetzee curating.

I was just blown away by the art. The show was such a success it is still touring today. It totally ignited my passion for contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora.

You are a well-known businessman, do you bring your business eye to your enthusiasm for African art and conservation or are these passions driven more by your heart?

I think I approach business, conservation and art with the same passion, otherwise I would not put so much energy into everything I do.

While Puma was a great chapter in my life, conservation and sustainability is very much a constant in all aspects of what I do, commercial and otherwise.

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa is opening in Cape Town, what steered you to Cape Town and not Johannesburg or even Nairobi for that matter?

Cape Town is such a diverse city that acts as a gateway to Africa. It took us many years of searching but we were lucky enough to meet the V&A Waterfront administrators who were considering how best to repurpose the iconic Grain Silo.

The Waterfront is the most visited destination in Africa, attracting both local and international visitors, so it felt like a fitting destination for such an important cultural institution.

What more can you tell us about the Zeitz MOCAA?

Zeitz MOCAA will be the first museum in Africa dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora with a focus on the 21st century.

We want to continually evolve, to maintain relevance and to be as representative as possible of the African continent.

We felt that for too long, there were not enough opportunities for the incredible artistic talent of Africa to be presented to the world.

We believe that the creation of such an important platform will allow the creative voices of the African continent to define their own narrative.

Zeitz MOCAA will also place significant emphasis on educational enrichment and school programmes, in the hope of inspiring younger generations, while ensuring access for all.

How do you see the development of contemporary African art over the next decade?

The amazing thing about collecting contemporary African art is the speed at which it is evolving and the sheer diversity of the work.

There is a shifting cultural landscape that is emerging and we hope that the excitement around the opening of Zeitz MOCAA will only help to enhance this.

There is no doubt that the world is finally waking up to the quality and talent of contemporary African artists -- we can see this in museums, galleries and auction houses across the globe.

Who are some of the names we should be on the lookout for?

Come to Zeitz MOCAA and find out. But we will also be launching our website with the opening, so you can take a look online.

You own the eco-luxe lodge, Segera Retreat in Laikipia, central Kenya. When did you first visit Kenya and was it love at first sight or did you have to visit a few times?

I first visited Kenya in 1989 and immediately fell in love with its natural beauty and people. I decided very quickly that it wasn't enough for me to just visit Africa frequently as a tourist; I wanted to make it a home.

When did you purchase the Segera Retreat and how often do you visit?

I purchased Segera in 2004 and founded the Zeitz Foundation a few years later, which invests in conservation and community projects in Laikipia and around Segera. I generally try to spend three to four months of the year there.

Mwangi Githahu is a Kenyan journalist based in Cape Town.

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