AiW Guest: Katarzyna Kubin.
September was a busy month of cultural events in South Africa. The Jozi Book Fair in Johannesburg took place over three days from 31st August to 3rd September. The Open Book Festival followed in Cape Town from 6-10 September, then again in Johannesburg, the FNB Joburg Art Fair (8-10 September). Internationally recognized and diverse in scope, these events point to South Africa as a vibrant place where there is an audience and a unique energy around initiatives that bring the cultural and the political into dialogue.
The buzz from these annual events has not yet subsided, and already there is a new thing.
On Friday, 22nd September in Cape Town the first and largest museum dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and the African Diaspora – the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa – officially opened its doors to the public, with an inaugural ceremony to match the ambition and stature of the institution’s image and mandate.
The museum is housed in what was once the tallest building in Southern Africa, an imposing industrial-era structure that served as a grain silo in Cape Town’s busy, internationally connected harbour. The 9,500 sq metres of space was custom designed into a state-of-the-art museum – with its appealing acronym, Zeitz MOCAA – by the London-based Heatherwick Studio, at the impressive cost of 500 million Rand (c. 30 million GBP).
The transformation took four years. At the heart of the building was a dense cellular structure of forty-two vertical tubes, which had stored vast stocks of grain for some 80 years before the building fell into disuse. The idea was to preserve the historical architecture whilst developing a new, functional cultural space. Thomas Heatherwick, founder of Heatherwick Studio, explained: “The technical challenge was to find a way to carve out spaces and galleries from the ten-storey high tubular honeycomb without completely destroying the authenticity of the original building. The result was a design and construction process that was as much about inventing new forms of surveying, structural support and sculpting, as it was about normal construction techniques.”
The final effect is a museum that spreads over nine floors, seven of them filled with art, and over 100 gallery spaces. A section in the centre of the building was hollowed out to create a cathedral-like atrium that stretches upward to a glass ceiling, which showers light into the massive space. The building façade displays the original, raw concrete, but large windows were installed on the upper floors, their shape reminiscent of honeycombs, which soften the overall structure and usher more light inside. There is a roof-top sculpture garden, as well as a restaurant and a museum shop, the last two scheduled to fully open later this year. Zeitz MOCAA is also distinguished for six specialized centres it houses – including the Centre for Art Education and the Centre for Curatorial Excellence – which extend the museum’s potential influence not only over the art space it curates, but also over time, with educational programmes and initiatives to support and develop innovative practices into the future.
Zeitz MOCAA decisively cuts itself from the “African art” that was identified primarily by an “ethnic/cultural” origin, was often seen to have a practical function, and an anthropological or sociological value, and had no artist’s name attached. Zeitz MOCAA’s mandate is to collect and preserve contemporary (i.e. made from 2000 onwards) cultural artefacts and discourses in and from Africa, its Diaspora, and the influences thereof. The museum strives to be inclusive, but also distinctly Afrocentric – it focuses on artists who live in any of the 54 states of Africa, who are originally from Africa but live abroad by force (e.g. African Americans displaced through slavery), who immigrated away from the continent by choice (e.g. born in Africa but have a studio practice in another part of the world), who were born outside of Africa but have immigrated to Africa or who spend a large part of their time on the continent and their cultural production engages largely with or is influenced by Africa, as well as artists who were not born in Africa but identify as African in some way through Diaspora inheritance (e.g. Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Brazilian). An annual acquisition budget will allow Zeitz MOCAA to develop a permanent collection and to grow collections of bodies of work by select artists.
Questions of Privilege, Power and Self-Definition
One may rightly imagine the formidable resources behind the Zeitz MOCAA project, and those are a primary source of controversy around the museum’s creation. For example, the Zeitz MOCAA founding collection is possible thanks to a long-term loan of the personal art collection of Jochen Zeitz, a former Chairman and CEO of the German multinational sports brand, PUMA. Zeitz is also underwriting part of the museum’s operational costs. The museum building stands at the heart of the V&A Waterfront, whose CEO is a British national, David Green. The V&A Waterfront funded the redevelopment costs of the building and is renting it at no charge to the museum. Then there’s also support from institutions like BMW South Africa, the museum’s official “vehicle partner.”
One effect of this is that the individuals who occupy the four most powerful positions involved in creating Zeitz MOCAA and whose voices have thus far been speaking for the museum, are white, mostly European, men: Mark Coetzee, the museum’s Executive Director and Chief Curator, although South African, is white; Thomas Heatherwick, the founder and director of the London-based firm that redesigned the museum’s building; and David Green and Jochen Zeitz, who are also the Co-Chairs of the Board of Trustees.
These might seem like details. It may even be considered problematic that identity politics get in the way of an exceptional event, which should be about Africa and Africans. Still, how remarkable that the world’s first and largest museum dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and the African Diaspora, carries the name of a German businessman and a German automobile company (the “BMW Atrium”), and is located in a harbour originally built by European colonizing powers, whose names remain its trademark – it was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (i.e. V&A), who oversaw the construction of the original harbour in the 1860’s, leading to the integration of Cape Town and indeed the entire Southern African region into global colonial trade networks. If these choices of names are insignificant, why not a name that speaks to the content and mission of the museum?
Economic power is certainly related to these choices. But if it is a question of acknowledging the source of the resources behind the museum, there are arguably higher stakes to be had. The V&A Waterfront has clear financial interests in the museum’s international renown. Heatherwick Studio already bolstered its reputation with the Zeitz MOCAA project, its first in Africa. The concern is thus also about Zeitz MOCAA’s future alliances. How will the museum balance its mission to serve Africans and African(a) cultural production, with the drive to advance its own status on the international art scene, and with the interests of the companies and individuals investing in it?
The debate also concerns the museum’s location. The V&A Waterfront is important to the image of Cape Town as a modern, dynamic, culturally cutting-edge city. The Waterfront includes 123 hectares of prime real estate set against truly riveting views of Table Mountain, with up-scale residential buildings, hotels, retail and dining, as well as heritage and tourism sites. Up to 24 million people visit annually, making it the most popular landmark not only in South Africa but on the African continent. Yet the oldest working harbour in the southern hemisphere also has a less honorable side to its history, which is directly implicated in the racial and socioeconomic inequality in today’s Cape Town, and beyond. How will Zeitz MOCAA engage with the history of colonialism and slavery, even with the presence of the nearby Nelson Mandela Gateway, the departure point for Robben Island (visible from the upper floors of the museum)?
Then there is the issue of access. The museum’s mission is to ensure that “the people of Africa can see some of the best of artistic production from their continent, that young people can be inspired in the belief that their culture has value and a place in society, that the discourse around art in Africa can be led by Africa.” Yet the price of a ticket to the museum is 180 Rand, a sum that could cover the cost of groceries for a week in South Africa. The museum offers free entry (on specified days) to under 18’s and South African citizens, as well as citizens of any African country. Such categorizations, although well-intentioned, ring awkwardly in contemporary, post-apartheid conditions. It is also doubtful that they will actually ensure popular access to the museum. Visually, Zeitz MOCAA certainly fits into the setting of contemporary opulence at the Waterfront, but the overwhelming majority of the visitors central to the museum’s mission – the “people of Africa” – are worlds away.
The museum reported around 5000 visitors per day during the official public opening weekend, which started on Friday, 22nd September. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with the weight of his post-apartheid, postcolonial reparative legacy, spoke at the cutting of ribbons ceremony, invoking Nelson Mandela. His presence was a forceful reminder that just twenty-five years ago people classified as “African” in apartheid were not allowed to use certain beaches and park benches, let alone to have art-work displayed in a world-class museum. From that perspective, the opening of Zeitz MOCAA is also a triumphant celebration of a reality that was once unimaginable.
On opening, among the works on display in the museum collection are pieces by world renowned South African artists, such as William Kentridge and Zanele Muholi, as well as by artists from the continent and the Diaspora, such as El Anatsui (Ghana) (see more about the artists here). An impressive programme of exhibitions and events highlight the diverse range of art and cultural practice that Zeitz MOCAA aims to promote and celebrate. One of the inaugural exhibitions is by Edson Chagas (Angola) – Luanda, Encyclopedic City, an installation that consists of twenty-three stacks of five thousand mass produced images from the artist’s photographic series Found Not Taken (2009-2013), which won the Golden Lion Award at the 55th Venice Biennale (2013).
The opening exhibition at the Zeitz MOCAA Centre for the Moving Image is Wounded Negatives, works by Samson Kambalu (Malawi) that reflect on the role of film as a carrier of memory and an agent to disseminate information. The first project in the museum’s Curatorial Lab, a multi-disciplinary space for experimental curatorial practice and research, investigates the representation of the LGBTQI+ community with Zanele Muholi’s Faces & Phases series.
There’s also a group exhibition of works by African American and African artists, All Things Being Equal…, curated by Mark Coetzee and others from the museum curatorial team, which is meant to address the question “How will I be represented in the museum?”.
Although the process of creating Zeitz MOCAA has provoked nagging questions about the entrenchment of colonial-era patterns of privilege and power, and about neocolonialism, the museum has the potential to move us into an Afrofuture of art and culture. The diverse curatorial team holds promise for the inclusiveness of future projects, for balancing the power between artists, founders and director, as well as for the museum to leverage its resources against market-driven notions of African(a) art. With its specialized centres and programmes, Zeitz MOCAA can also pursue meaningful dialogue and collaboration with other art institutions in South Africa and across the continent, many of which have a long history of desperately under-resourced existence, but which may be more rooted in local communities.
Mark Coetzee said in an interview for The Telegraph that, “Zeitz MOCAA constitutes a re-imagining of a museum within an African context: celebrating Africa preserving its own cultural legacy, writing its own history and defining itself on its own terms. Our commitment to showing cutting-edge contemporary art practice from across the continent of Africa and its Diaspora is a huge responsibility.” This declaration is as admirable as it is ambitious – reaching such standards could be transformational not just for Zeitz MOCAA, but for our postcolonial world in general. Ultimately, it is our common interest to see Zeitz MOCAA flourish.
 Kwame Anthony Appiah considered many of the above issues as well as the question of marketing “African Art” in an article about a 1987 exhibition at the Center for African Art in New York City, titled “Perspectives: Angles on African Art.” He wrote: “To sell oneself and one’s products as art in the market-place, one must, above all, clear a space in which one is distinguished from other producers and products – and one does this by construction and the marking of differences.” (p. 342). See: K. A. Appiah, “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Winter, 1991), pp. 336-357.
Katarzyna Kubin has been writing for and curating Africa in Words series since 2016. She is a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, based at the Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies (CCLPS). She is also co-founder and current Executive Board member of the Foundation for Social Diversity (FSD), a non-government organisation based in Warsaw, Poland, that deals with issues of migration, equality and social diversity.