Cape Town’s Museum of Contemporary Art Africa is a first for the continent, a private institution dedicated to Africa’s best artists, writes Cath Pound.

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, more pithily known as Zeitz Mocaa, in Cape Town is now the largest museum in Africa dedicated to contemporary art from the continent and its diaspora. A partnership between German businessman Jochen Zeitz and the city’s Victoria & Albert (V&A) Waterfront, a glistening complex of high-end restaurants and stores, it is housed in a 1920s grain silo whose interior architect Heatherwick Studio has transformed into a stunning contemporary cathedral by carving into the 42 concrete tubes of which it was originally formed.  

It was extraordinary to see how diverse our country is – Mark Coetzee

Containing 6000 sq m (64583 sq ft) of gallery space over nine floors, the founders of the Zeitz Mocaa, which opened in September, hope that its sheer scale, combined with an innovative exhibition programme, will be able to highlight the immense diversity of creativity on the continent.

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“For the opening exhibition we said, ‘We will represent everyone,’” says executive director and chief curator Mark Coetzee. “It’s very figurative, lots of portraiture, lots of images of the artists themselves in their own work looking back at the viewer. It was extraordinary to see when we put the work together how diverse our country is and how the responsibility is to represent everyone.”

Equally important is attracting an audience who have often felt excluded from cultural institutions.

“We’re on a continent and in an environment where museums have been seen as a colonial imposition, exclusive and inaccessible,” says Coetzee. “We’ve put in place a lot of programmes to break down those barriers. It’s all very well to say ‘let’s include all cultures in this project’ but if it’s not accessible then its madness. Why do it in the first place?”

The museum offers free entry to all South Africans – and anyone holding a passport from anywhere in Africa – on Wednesday mornings and is the first in the country to offer free entry to those under 18 years old all year round. They have also funded programmes to bus in school children, some from as far away as the Eastern Cape, an 11-hour bus ride away.

Their efforts have paid off in ways they couldn’t have dreamed possible. Most museums in South Africa would consider themselves fortunate if they had 45,000 visitors in a year. Zeitz Mocaa has had around 100,000 since opening.

On display

The success must come as some consolation for the criticism that dogged the project in its opening weeks, with much being made of the fact that the major players behind the museum were all white men.

Coetzee says he was aware when they were building the museum “that that was going to become an issue,” but having tried several different ways to finance a museum “these were the circumstances that allowed it to happen.”

We can take on subjects state institutions might not be able to – Coetzee

Zeitz’s collection “was built specifically for the museum”, and forms its core. Some have questioned how truly inclusive it is, and Coetzee acknowledges that it cannot hope to define an entire continent, but also points out that every institution has gaps and weaknesses and that the way to overcome that is to collaborate and share. The museum already has several projects in the pipeline.

It was the V&A Waterfront, who as Coetzee emphasises were taking a huge risk investing in the project, who chose Heatherwick, the mastermind behind the building’s renovation from grain silo to cutting-edge gallery space. He has previously been the creator of the cauldron torch for the Summer Olympics in London in 2012.  

The founders may be white but they were able to hire with diversity in mind and it is the young, ethnically diverse curatorial staff who are proving to be a vital key to the museum’s success. They, like all employees, work within the public spaces of the museum allowing them to engage with visitors in ways that conventional museums would not find possible.

“Our curators speak all the indigenous languages and we’ve had wonderful letters from teachers saying how much it meant to children to have someone speaking their own language about  issues which impact their communities on a daily basis,” says Coetzee.

Although Zeitz Mocaa is a public museum the fact that it is largely privately funded means “we can take on subjects which perhaps state institutions might not be able to,” says Coetzee.

The museum’s Curatorial Lab is currently investigating the representation of the LGBTQI+ community in the context of homophobia and the oppression of gay rights in South Africa, a highly contentious subject in a staunchly heteronormative society.

“These are the issues which are confronting us,” says Coetzee.  “There are visitors that find it difficult,” and curators have had “uncomfortable conversations,” but it is not a responsibility the museum is going to shy away from.

“My vision has always been that it’s not just a museum for art’s sake, it’s a museum for social change,” says Coetzee. “And the way we affect that is to make as much impact among young people as possible.”

“What we have found is that post-apartheid kids are flocking into the museum. It’s young people, deeply racially diverse; it’s not just white kids. It makes me so happy to know that it’s working.”

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