Interstital tube space, Zeitz MOCAA. Heatherwick Studio. Photogragh: Iwan Baan. Courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA

Africa Under Construction

ART AFRICA, issue 09.

“The mind of man is capable of anything – because everything is in it, all the past as well as the future”

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

 

Herman van Wyk’s photograph of Zeitz MOCAA under construction in the reflection of surrounding buildings. © Herman van Wyk, image courtesy of the photographer.

Herman van Wyk’s photograph of Zeitz MOCAA under construction in the reflection of surrounding buildings. © Herman van Wyk, image courtesy of the photographer.

 

Established as an instrument of trade expansion, Cape Town’s grain silo complex was the tallest building in Sub-Saharan Africa at the time of its completion in 1924 – standing at 57 meters – and remained so for half a century. Forming part of a network of railways and grain silos, the Cape Town silo came to symbolise South Africa’s remarkable capacity for connectivity, and played an integral role in the expansion of South African trade by providing both a vital infrastructure to the country’s regional agricultural economies, and contribution to the economic well-being of Cape Town. Located at the southernmost point of Africa, the silo delivered goods to the country’s trade routes, served as a door into Africa, and contributed significantly to the movement of ideas and concepts. Economics cannot be removed from culture, its methods, its tastes, and values which so intently define our lives – and it is in this regard that Zeitz MOCAA came to take-up the site for the trading of cultural ideas.

Setting out to play an immense role in subverting clichéd perceptions of Africa, Zeitz MOCAA has grown into a cathedral for the trade of culture and a symbol of African diversity. Built on the collection of Jochen Zeitz, and under the directorship of Mark Coetzee, Zeitz MOCAA was the vision of David Green – CEO of the V&A Waterfront – and the design of ‘starchitect’, Thomas Heatherwick. The old grain silo’s elevator house and adjacent storage annex – made up of six rows with seven silos each – was carefully deconstructed and redeveloped into a breathtaking cathedral-like structure for a celebration of Contemporary art from Africa – a feat much like Zeitz MOCAA itself.

According to Coetzee, the museum seeks to be “an international institution which is going to function in an international way, and present Africa to the world.” Opening to the public on the 22nd September, Zeitz MOCAA has promised to offer a platform for the exhibition of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora as an encouragement of intercultural understanding. And the global art world has high expectations. However, not only has Zeitz MOCAA physically deconstructed the old silo complex and redeveloped it, the museum has also promised to deconstruct current notions of what it is to be African, and redevelop a new world order in terms of how the art economy works – a cultural infrastructure that South Africa, and Africa has for so long been denied.

“I think we’re making certain assumptions about what ‘Africanness’ is – if you’re in a city like Cape Town, does that preclude you from being African? I don’t like it when people prescribe what African is. I am African – I have no claim to Europe, I have inheritance from Europe because of my skin colour and because of colonialism, but I’m self-identified as an African from this place.”

 

Herman van Wyk’s photograph of Zeitz MOCAA under construction in the reflection of surrounding buildings. © Herman van Wyk, image courtesy of the photographer

Herman van Wyk’s photograph of Zeitz MOCAA under construction in the reflection of surrounding buildings. © Herman van Wyk, image courtesy of the photographer.

 

With eighty individual gallery spaces, a rooftop sculpture garden, restaurant and educational facilities, Zeitz MOCAA is taking the lead in transforming Africa’s artistic landscape into one that will compete on an international stage – constituting the re-imagining of a museum within an African context, celebrating Africa and the preservation of its own cultural legacy, writing of its own history, and defining itself on its own terms. In a sense, Coetzee speaks for the continent: “We have aspirations – we are very utopian – and those aspirations are to create a global platform where our artists can compete on a similar international level, that they can have the same level of climate-control security, education, research, exhibition-making – as any other major artist, or any other up-and-coming artist has in the world” – the industry, however, requires more narrative than this.

Over the past century, there has been an indelible fascination with, and fetish for, art from the African continent – the Expressionists and the Picasso group drawing inspiration from the art they ‘discovered’, and reworking it into their own forms of expression – just a slight insight into this fascination. It is alleged that Picasso never set foot on the African continent, although he claimed ownership to a large collection of African art. Simon Njami states in an editorial written for the AKAA art fair that “all over we hear the word ‘discovery’, as if Christopher Columbus, Magellan, Vasco de Gama, and Marco Polo had turned into collectors, gallery owners, and museum directors: the only ones capable of extracting anything from primitive darkness.”

Whilst the fascination with Africa and the unrelenting abuse it endures has continued to grow – as is evident in Damien Hirst’s recent exhibition ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ – we must be careful not to let Zeitz MOCAA become yet another platform for the post-colonial gaze to dictate over Africa, as if collectors, gallery owners and gallerists are the only ones capable of ‘saving’ and ‘salvaging’ Africa.

South Africa is part of a continent whose very history is steeped in complex and contentious issues around exclusion. Hardly twenty years into democracy – and poverty, lack of education, corruption and racial prejudice remain a fact of life in a country still recovering from both apartheid and the crippling effects of colonialism. Whilst Zeitz MOCAA has promised a platform for intercultural understanding, transformation and development, the museum has received an extensive amount of criticism due to its very leadership and funding appearing otherwise.

 

View of atrium from tunnel, Zeitz MOCAA. Heatherwick Studio. Photogragh: Iwan Baan. Courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA.

View of atrium from tunnel, Zeitz MOCAA. Heatherwick Studio. Photogragh: Iwan Baan. Courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA.

 

Named Zeitz MOCAA (and not MOCAA Zeitz) after Jochen Zeitz – the German businessman who has loaned his collection of contemporary African art to the museum – it is hard to digest that the museum’s very beginning may be considered as truly African. On top of this, Mark Coetzee has been chosen to direct and curate the museum. The architect responsible for the design and transformation of the grain silo into the museum – Thomas Heatherwick – is also male. When researching Zeitz, there is certainly some difficulty in ignoring the overarching amount of white, male voices present in the construction of the museum, almost an ‘all boys club’ – and one is reminded of Sartre’s words about how the “white man has enjoyed the privilege of seeing without being seen for the past 3000 years.”

However – given the global uncertainty that we are currently facing, society is in dire need of an alternative perspective of the world, and with western civilization slowly shifting from the apex of global understanding, perhaps we should reconsider our critique of Zeitz MOCAA. Eurocentrism consists of the centering of European and western culture as the zenith of society, simultaneously appropriating other cultures and erasing their contribution to world history. Whilst the lasting effects of apartheid and colonialism may be guilty of this, perhaps we should begin to see Zeitz MOCAA as the amendment of these atrocities, and the evidence of seismic shifts in the placement of civilisations’ apex – histories are being rewritten, new perspectives are afoot.

 

Although Zeitz MOCAA seems to demonstrate a desperation to be recognised internationally, the platform itself is a chance for Africa to be exposed to the ability of Africans, and ultimately contribute to the transformation and decolonization of institutions that the ‘Fallists’ fight for so fervently. No serious form of social change and radical transformation can occur across South Africa, and the rest of the African continent, if we are not sufficiently educated in the discourses and powers that shape our social reality. If we are not well-read – both in literature and the visual arts – around the historical processes and events by which we arrived in our current state, we will not be liberated from the grasp of Eurocentrism and the post-colonial gaze. This is where Zeitz is tasked to deliver results.

 

Atrium Vault, Zeitz MOCAA. Heatherwick Studio. Photograph: Iwan Baan. Courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA.

Atrium Vault, Zeitz MOCAA. Heatherwick Studio. Photograph: Iwan Baan. Courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA.

 

Geographically located in Cape Town, the museum is a platform where South Africans and Africans alike – as well as all the international visitors that this destination seeks to attract – will be able to exchange concepts and ideas by assuming responsibility of the old grain silo complex as a symbol of South Africa’s remarkable capacity for connectivity. Creativity at once transforms and questions the future, and the foregrounding of pressing social issues is essential to the building and establishing of relative and new narratives.

Coetzee reminds us that the challenge Zeitz MOCAA has undertaken is much greater than the location of Cape Town itself – which was designed as a space of exclusion – where to be Capetonian does not exclude you from being African. “I think we’re making certain assumptions about what ‘Africanness’ is – if you’re in a city like Cape Town, does that preclude you from being African? I don’t like it when people prescribe what African is. I am African – I have no claim to Europe, I have inheritance from Europe because of my skin colour and because of colonialism, but I’m self-identified as an African from this place.”

Perhaps Zeitz MOCAA will also find its strength in the ability to demonstrate that some South Africans are not less relevant than others, regardless of race, age, gender and economic standing. In promising to re-imagine a museum within an African context, and defining itself on its own terms – all artists will be able to find a home in this continent. Amidst all the confusion that the past few years have brought about in South Africa, it is essential that Zeitz MOCAA explores these complex ideas of ‘Africanness’ and identity – expanding on and celebrating the vibrant plurality that is Africa.

In his autobiographical novel, Pale Native, Max du Preez writes that as whites, “we should not be ashamed of our history, the history of the first white settlers, the subjugation of all indigenous peoples, the grabbing of land, the damaging effects of migrant labour and Bantu Education laws, the devastation and humiliation and violent oppression of the apartheid years. I say we should not feel ashamed because these were not our actions, but the actions of our fathers and grandfathers and earlier ancestors.”

 

Exterior at dusk Zeitz MOCAA. Heatherwick Studio. Photogragh: Iwan Baan. Courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA.

Exterior at dusk, Zeitz MOCAA. Heatherwick Studio. Photogragh: Iwan Baan. Courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA.

 

Du Preez goes on to write that what we should do is to “go to the trouble of finding out about that history and understanding the impact of those events on our black fellow citizens. Without understanding what colonialism and apartheid have done to the psyches and the physical well-being of the black majority, there cannot be an understanding of black poverty, or of poor education levels, or indeed, of political attitudes today.” One only needs to visit the District 6 museum in Cape Town to be made aware of this.

If we are to devise new perspectives for what it means to be African, as well as the way we transact, connect, and exchange goods, knowledge and ideas – then it is eminent that we understand our history and remember that it is a construct. According to French historian, Fernand Braudel “Europe invented historians and then made good use of them,” and it is in this regard that Zeitz MOCAA, like the mind of man, may be capable of anything – because everything is in it, all of the past as well as the future.

Ellen Agnew is a staff writer for ART AFRICA. The article was written in collaboration with Brendon Bell-Roberts.

 

This article was featured in ART AFRICA, issue 09. For more exclusive images of the inside of Zeitz MOCAA click here. Read our editorial for Liberation is Not Deliverance here.

FEATURED IMAGE: Interstital tube space, Zeitz MOCAA. Heatherwick Studio. Photogragh: Iwan Baan. Courtesy of Zeitz MOCAA.