Cape Town’s new museum delights with monumental architecture and breathtaking space
BY ANJA FAHS
As soon as you enter the huge atrium, you stop involuntarily. My initial gaze wanders an unbelievable 33 metres up the massive concrete tubes. Here you can really feel space, the atmosphere is vibrant, like in a cathedral. My second look is at a giant dragon floating in space. Nicholas Hlobo’s archaic-looking bird is the first piece of art you encounter at the impressive new Zeitz MOCAA Museum in Cape Town. After nearly ten years of planning, the V&A Waterfront has opened Africa’s first and the world’s largest museum of contemporary African art. Former Puma CEO Jochen Zeitz is a driving force behind the museum and has provided his private collection. Here, he tells us how this came about and why it is finally time to give more votes to modern art from Africa.
Where does your love for Africa come from?
I came to Africa in 1989 and fell in love with the continent after being glued to the TV as a child watching everything I could about the continent. I have long felt a special love for Africa, its nature and its people.
When did you start being interested in African art?
My passion for Africa stretches back many years and whilst travelling across the continent, I came across a huge amount of creative and artistic talent. At the time, I was CEO of Puma, buying art here and there, but the turning point came when I sponsored the ground-breaking show “30 Americans”. It totally ignited my passion for contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora. There was a significant need for a substantial cultural institution in Africa that would focus on contemporary African art, and we decided to build a collection with the specific vision of one day finding a home for it in Africa.
Why African art and not, for example, a South African vineyard?
I believe in the transformative power of art. Art contributes to cultural evolutions and it changes perceptions, behaviour and opens new horizons. For too long, there have not been enough opportunities for the incredible creativity and artistic talent from Africa to be presented to the world. Together with the employees of Zeitz MOCAA, I believe that the creation of such an important platform will allow these creative voices of the African continent to create their own narrative. Furthermore, Zeitz MOCAA will place significant emphasis on educational enrichment and school programmes in the hope of inspiring the younger generations whilst maintaining our principle of Access for All.
Please explain how it came to the development of this extraordinary building that is now housing art in Cape Town.
The idea for the museum came about when I met with the V&A Waterfront who were looking to repurpose the heritage listed grain silo building as a cultural institute. Once the V&A Waterfront identified the grain silos as an essential part of the redevelopment of the Silo District and earmarked it to be a cultural institution, they then searched for a partner with a significant collection to showcase. I have been committed to building a representative collection of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora for many years, and after five years of considering venues across Africa, the V&A Waterfront offered the right criteria for what was required for my collection.
What were the biggest challenges to convert the silos into a museum?
The design studio, Heatherwick Studio, envisioned an oval atrium cut from the huge central section of the massive 33-metre tall, 5.5-metre wide concrete cylinders that comprised the heart of the old silo building. To create the multiple-volume public atrium, the architects had to cut through the existing circular grain silo tubes, elevator building and basement tunnels, and re-sleeve the concrete tubes with new concrete rings to support the existing structure before the demolition work began. A long process of testing many different techniques ensued to find a workable system.
Can you remember what your feelings were when you first stepped into the silos and realised the magnitude of the building?
I was extremely excited because drawings and even 3D models can only take it so far. It was now clear to me that we had created something truly unique that would become an attraction for visitors from Cape Town, South Africa and all over the world. I also felt a bit impatient as I couldn’t wait to see the art on the walls!
The building resembles a cathedral. Did you ever fear that such spectacular architecture could steal the limelight from the art?
No, never. The building and the entrance hallway are the perfect venues to house contemporary art. It allows us to show art at scale before and as soon you walk into the silos. Come and take a look at the enormous dragon by Nicolas Hlobo that flies through the atrium, or Yinka Shonibare’s installation in the Dusthouse, or Edson Chagas’ award-winning pavilion installation in the basement. These are the perfect venues for art along with the many galleries that are designed to display art in any shape or form.
How are the changing political situations of Africa reflected in art?
I believe art has great power. From the beginning of civilisation, we have seen challenging social and political times reflected in art. African art is no different. African artists have a lot to say, and we are trying to establish an important platform to ensure their voices are heard. Whether personal, social, environmental or political, these messages are a powerful reaction to what is happening in Africa today. I think that expression can help inspire people and encourage action in a constructive way, and eventually help transform culture.
The history and society of a country also influences its artists – is this particularly the case in Africa?
Definitely, and having 54 countries and so much cultural diversity throughout this vast continent and its diaspora creates so many different perspectives.
The museum has certainly drawn a lot of attention to contemporary art from Africa. Has this already become visible in the international art market?
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 around the globe. The amazing thing about contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora 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 the excitement that surrounds Zeitz MOCAA will help to enhance this.
Many enthusiastic voices say that the museum will contribute to change in African culture. What do you think? How will African culture change in the foreseeable future? Will there be a new African confidence?
I don’t think there is such a thing as African culture. Africa is huge and immensely diverse. There are so many different cultures, languages, countries that you cannot put it all under one umbrella. I see a lot of confidence already, and having a vibrant art scene throughout the continent will contribute to it in the long term. The voice of Africa has been defined by too few players, so the mission of Zeitz MOCAA is to be a platform for a multiplicity of voices who look forward rather than back. Africa is made up of 54 countries and has a wide range of cultures, each unique in their own way.
What do you personally wish for African art and culture in the future?
I wish for art from Africa to become a cornerstone of the global art market with many institutions throughout the continent and more and more collectors in and outside of Africa.
What is your favourite place in Africa?
That is easy to answer. My favourite place is Segera in Kenya, which I bought and transformed over the last 14 years. It’s 200 square kilometres of immense natural beauty that guests from all over the world are now visiting and immersing themselves in its incredible nature, wildlife, communities and cultures.
Jochen Zeitz, born in 1963 in Mannheim, joined the sporting goods manufacturer Puma in Herzogenraurach in 1988 and became its chairman in 1993. Zeitz led the ailing company out of the crisis. In 2011 he gave up the chief post. Zeitz is regarded as an expert on Africa and is committed to environmental protection and sustainable management with his Zeitz Foundation, founded in 2008. Jochen Zeitz is co-chair of the Zeitz MOCAA Board of Trustees.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin, issue Q2 2018. Picture credit © Iwan Baan