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Culture

First contemporary African art museum opens in Cape Town

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA), the first ever museum of modern African art, has opened to much fanfare in Cape Town, South Africa. Art lovers are over the moon – but there has also been controversy.

Some people say they look like honeycomb cells, others feel reminded of an insect's compound eyes. The blue-tinted convex windows of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) have already become the building's trademark. There's no getting around superlatives when writing about  Cape Town's newest museum: with 100 exhibition rooms, the Zeitz MOCAA is Africa's largest museum, and more importantly, it's the first museum dedicated to contemproary African art on the continent.

Its significance should not be underestimated, says Mark Coetzee, the museum director and head curator. "It finally acknowledges the huge contribution that artists from our continent have made in the dialogue of visual practice around the world and locally," he told DW.

Building MOCAA in Cape Town, Africa's "whitest" city, created quite a stir in the African art world during the four-year planning phase. But former Puma CEO and founder of the musuem, Jochen Zeitz, argues the choice was a stroke of luck. "Of course cities like Nairobi were also in the running, but the operators of the Waterfront had this empty building, and we were looking for a home for the collection," Zeitz told DW.

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art MOCAA , view of inside (Getty Images/AFP/R. Bosch)

A spectacular space

Three white men in Africa

In 2013, Zeitz and the operators of Victoria & Alfred Waterfront decided to create the museum. The deal: the Waterfront would foot the bill for the 32 million euro ($38 million) restructuring of the old grain silos, a relatively affordable sum for such a large project, while businessman, philanthropist and art patron Zeitz pledged his considerable collection of contemporary African art as a permanent loan. Zeitz has long been collecting contemporary African art by the young avant-garde – as opposed to traditional masks or cult objects and especially works that question the art world's eurocentrism.

Read more:Defining Black art in the age of Black Power

Four yeas later, the metamorphosis from a 1921 grain silo is complete after London architect Thomas Heatherwick created a vast industrial-style exhibition space.

The storage silo's structures were cut open in the middle of the building, making them look like huge organ pipes that dominate the soaring atrium. A dragon-like sculpture by coveted South African artist Nicholas Hlobo hovers in the boundless space. The 2002 Zeitz Collection, with artworks by Zanele Muholi, Athi-Patra Ruga, Kudzanai Chiurai and El-Anatsui, to name just a few, in on display on nine floors.

Heatherwick and Zeitz (MOCAA) in Kapstadt (J. Jaki)

Thomas Heatherwick and Jochen Zeitz

The fact that three white men – Zeitz, Heatherwick and Coetzee –were responsible for the creation of a museum for African art was criticized, though usually behind closed doors. Coetzee dismisses any criticism, saying the MOCAA will eventually be run by up to 150 people, with 21 curators already on staff. "Many people are running this museum, who are making the decisions about content, about narrative, about the storytelling and I think that is something that is very important to remember,” he said.

Zeitz says he only created the platform: it is now up to the African artists to pick up the megaphone. "We live in a globalized world and we must overcome black/white cliches," Zeitz said. "We are only here to create opportunities."

Reaction to criticism

Art needs well-heeled investors, says artist Atang Tshikare. Busily preparing for an exhibition in Amsterdam in his studio in Cape Town's Woodstock neighborhood, he told DW the Zeitz MOCAA is good for the city because it brings "a lot of different artists to a central place that is accessible to people from around the world."

street, buildings, mountains in background (MOCAA) in Kapstadt (J. Jaki)

The Victoria & Albert Waterfront is a popular shopping destination for locals and tourists

The museum is also focused on art education in addition to exhibitions, which will help it counter potential criticism.  

In this regard, the Zeitz MOCAA aims to draw locals and tourists alike by making admission free on Wednesday mornings and many holidays  while children under the age of 18 also get in free. An annual ticket costs the equivalent of 15 euros, not much more than a single ticket.

Whether the museum can live up to its claim of offering a representative cross section of contemporary African art remains to be seen – especially after the exhibitions move away from the core Zeitz Collection and the next generation of curators call the shots. 

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