Writing Art History Since 2002

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In an open letter to Jochen Zeitz and Mark Coetzee of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), Cape Town, Matthew Blackman addresses a number of critical concerns. From the comments on the original article (which appears on ArtThrob), it would appear that this kind of direct address might be long overdue.


Artist’s rendition of Zeitz MOCAA , Cape Town

“I write this having been a firm promoter of the project that is the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (ZMOCAA). I also write this conscious of the fact that I do not wish to be part of someone else’s agenda. There are many that would position themselves in a contrarian position to the ZMOCAA just to bask in a glorified notoriety by operating in the negative space of a project as large as ZMOCAA – this is not my intention. However, what must be said is that I have become, in the last few months, progressively more concerned with the direction that the ZMOCAA is taking. Below I put these concerns in point form so that they may be easier to answer if you so choose.

1) One-man selection system: My first concern is that there is still only one person who is selecting the work for the ZMOCAA and that selections are being made without broader consultation. This is problematic for several reasons. One is that it goes against all museums’ ‘best practice’. Museums of this nature (as opposed to private collections) have rigorous acquisitions policies and review processes. Not only do they consult with the curatorial staff, but would have an acquisitions committee, which would include academics and critics. The reason for this is that, as you well know, museums by their very nature codify and canonise. As much as museums include, they are also involved in very complicated and contentious issues around exclusion. In a country and continent whose very history is bound to notions of exclusion, the ZMOCAA will have to be extremely careful as to how it codifies and identifies ‘Contemporary Art Africa.’ This is a task that one man can simply not do. Certainly the major museums of this nature in the world would not allow this to happen and this should not be allowed to happen in the first Museum of Contemporary Art Africa. As much as the ZMOCAA will be there for the enjoyment of the public it is also an academic project, which will engage with contested ideas. No doubt at times ZMOCAA will be accused of getting it wrong, at other times it will hopefully be praised for getting it right. But with only one man’s vision the chances of getting it wrong and suffering both public and critical humiliations is the most likely result. The task of canonising and codifying is more often than not a regrettable one and is quite simply too large a responsibility for any one person to bear.

2) Conflict of Interest: My second concern is that the Scheryn Art Fund (a largely financially interested concern) has given the ZMOCAA a seemingly large endowment. The close relationship of some of the people managing this fund, with the ZMOCAA itself and Mr Coetzee is setting up clear and disturbing opportunities for what in other industries might be seen as ‘front running’ or a form of ‘insider trading.’ The Fund could quite well receive information as to the collection policies of the museum before the rest of the market does, creating what for me would be a disturbing ethical issue. Having personally been in meetings with the Scheryn Fund and having acted on one occasion as an advisor to the Fund, I am extremely worried about the closeness of the relationship of the Fund to the ZMOCAA and Mr Coetzee and what this will mean for the industry. We will need some finite and distinct assurances both from the Fund as well as from ZMOCAA as to how this relationship is going to function and how the conflicts of interest, that are inherent in this relationship, will be averted.

3) Transformation and development: I am also deeply concerned about the seeming lack of transformation and development within the ZMOCAA’s structures as they appear at the moment. This was overtly apparent at the recent ZMOCAA Ball, which was, in some circles, referred to as looking like ‘a DA fundraiser.’ What concerns me with regards to development is, as things stand, I can see no programme in place as to how the voices of the disadvantaged are going to be aired and potentially developed. Development is, more so than ever, an imperative in Africa, and where other public institutions have failed ZMOCAA could be at the forefront of providing this. This programme would, however, need serious consideration and consultation with the broader community – something that ZMOCAA at the moment has not done. The fact that we have no Polly Street, no Community Arts Project and no Rorkes Drift Centre anymore is a real issue that needs to be addressed in the art industry. What is concerning for me is that it is one that ZMOCAA has not expressed an interest in, other than saying it wishes to make the Museum accessible to people who can’t afford it. Development and transformation cannot be about window dressing, they are grassroots projects that need sponsorship and serious planning. If this planning is taking place I urge the museum to make it available to the public and to consult broadly with the various institutions who have experience with it.

4) ZMOCAA’s buying habits: The buying habits of the ZMOCAA is seemingly forming and instilling a hierarchy. As it stands ZMOCAA buy ‘Contemporary Art Africa’ from largely speaking White-run galleries who are these days merely cherry picking a certain demographic. I have had disturbing conversations now with several gallerists who, I have begun to realise, are developing their stables purely to fit the buying habits of ZMOCAA. These galleries seem far more interested in the idea that they look transformed than actually being transformed and are selecting artists more and more on the basis of colour rather than the strength of their work. It is in essence becoming a scramble for Africa with a diminishing critical engagement on the part of the gallerists. What this ends up amounting to is a skewed art world that looks transformed on the surface but is in fact solidifying a hierarchical structure – white promoters and black practitioners. This is not only not development and not transformation but is also a subversion of history as well as criticality. This in my view is beginning to create an art environment that does not reflect Africa but is instead a simulacra constructed by the commercial galleries at the behest of a museum. I am sure there are many theorists out there who are sharpening their poststructuralist weapons and licking their Lacanian lips at the opportunity to lead a charge against the institution and this structural manipulation. Certainly as things stand the argument could be made that ZMOCAA is promoting a white concept of what Africa looks like. I would strongly urge that this be avoided.

5) The collection itself as I encounter it: I also have some concerns as to where the focus of the collection seems to be heading. There is a strong emphasis on ‘African’ notions of fashion and adornment. Certainly there is nothing wrong with this. The collection’s acquisition of the work of Nandipha Mntambo are welcome. Her work is a strong and interesting reinterpretation of this idea and its relationship with European tropes and forms. Again these ideas are inherent in the works of the other artists being collected like Mohau Modisakeng, Cyrus Kabiru, Athi-Patra Ruga and Jody Paulsen. However this is seemingly becoming the main focus of the collection as the recent announcement of the ‘costume collection’ and fashion design exhibitions seem to confirm. What this is beginning to do, in my opinion, is exclude and diminish the vibrant plurality that is Africa. Africa has no one identity and its identity is not exclusively based on adornment. Africa’s strength and interest lie in its protean and plural nature and it is, certainly as I see it, the ZMOCAA’s role to explore these complicated ideas rather than reduce them to one notion. The heavy focus on fashion and adornment could very well become reductive and it could begin to trivialise artists like Mntambo’s practice, reducing her works to merely ones of ‘African adornment and fashion.’

6) The problems of ‘looking like the West’: Like the recent Zeitz Ball, which was openly based on New York’s ‘Met Ball’, it seems the ZMOCAA wishes to replicate the Metropolitan Museum’s practices and ways of operating – although not their acquisitions policy. The announcement at the Ball that the first exhibitions will be those of fashion designers is a clear ‘copy’ of the recent ‘Charles James: Beyond Fashion’ exhibition, which was the inaugural exhibition of the newly renovated ‘Costume Institute’ at the Met. However, there is a distinct difference between James, whose retrospective comes long after his death in 1978, and the work of Gavin Rajah, who will be one of the first people to have a retrospective at the ZMOCAA. James’ work has attracted a large amount of academic reflection while Rajah, who is a living South African fashion designer, most recently has attracted attention largely due to the fact one of his dresses was seemingly ‘plagiarised’ from the work of another designer. This desire to replicate Western museum practices must be well thought out and not merely be a weak and diminished attempt to show that ‘we can do it too.’ If there is a replication it must lie in its strength to do so, competing on equal terms and with equal academic interest and not an unsuccessful pale copy of the West. What is more, while some felt the Zeitz Ball was ‘fun’, as a Capetonian, who strongly identifies with the city in which much of my family has lived for over 150 years, I felt I was in a foreign land. This was not Cape Town (the only piece of Africa that I can claim to know) and it certainly wasn’t any other part of Africa that I have been to. The closest experience I could place it next to was going to a performance of Verdi’s Aida at the Nico Malan on DF Malan Street in the 1980’s. One of the criticisms that the ZMOCAA will inevitably face will be that it is merely a copy of a ‘Western museum.’ It is already a collection funded by a European (Jochen Zeitz), designed by a European (Thomas Heatherwick) and curated by a white male (Mark Coetzee). Warning bells should be sounding.

7) Rewriting history: What also seems to me to be deeply concerning is the fact some of the Zeitz collection, or at least works by artists in the Zeitz collection, are being donated to the Iziko South African National Gallery – according to the labels in ISANG they are donated by ‘Mark Coetzee.’ This, although seemingly an act of philanthropy, is not best practice. At its root it will rewrite history and distort the voice of ISANG and promote the art historical interpretation of ZMOCAA. It is in essence creating a false history. Of course ISANG are complicit in this rewriting by accepting the work. But, as we are all well aware, ISANG’s budget for acquisitions is so small that they are no doubt simply desperate to receive works by creditable artists. However, what is happening here is that one voice is being promoted at the cost of another. Moreover, it bares some rather disturbing similarities to colonial hegemonic practices – Mark Coetzee’s donations are in a sense colonizing ISANG, replicating ZMOCAA’s look in a ‘foreign’ institution. By doing this what ZMOCAA (or Mark Coetzee) is ultimately doing is furthering its own ends, over and above that of ISANG. This is not only creating a hegemonic distortion of history but also a distortion in the market, in that the stature of these artists is increased by the fact that they are now part of two prominent collections rather than one. For me the dangers of this practice are clear to see and both Mark Coetzee and ISANG should consider them far more closely.

In closing I would like to say that I do not think that these questions and concerns are irresolvable – they are not. They can be addressed and the museum could very well prove to be the project that many of us in the art world hope that it will be – that is to say a rival to many of the great museums around the world. However for this to happen the questions above will have to be addressed carefully. I have said elsewhere that I think that it is a shame that the Zeitz MOCAA seems to be heading in a regrettable direction. I offer this call again: Don’t make this project into a shame!


Matthew Blackman”

This article originally appeared on the ArtThrob website, and can be viewed here, and was re-published with the permission of the author.

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