International opening - Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town

Eleanor Mills, Issue 118/05, p36-37, 01.05.2018
Eleanor Mills talks to Mark Coetzee, the director of a new museum of contemporary art that is aiming to make a big impact on the lives of people in South Africa
The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, or Zeitz Mocaa for short, opened last September as the largest museum of 21st-century art from Africa and its diaspora. It is part-named after the collector, Jochen Zeitz, who has helped fill its huge cavern-like galleries with contemporary art.

Like all of South Africa, Cape Town suffered hugely from apartheid, the racist ideology that created laws forcing different racial groups to live separately. Apartheid was introduced in 1948 and did not end until the early 1990s after many years of resistance by groups such as the African National Congress. Its effects are still being felt today, with poverty a huge problem.

Conveying South Africa’s complex and troubled past and present is what Zeitz Mocaa is all about. The art in the museum reflects this, covering everything from racism and sexism to homophobia and female genital mutilation.

The museum features monumental works from artists such as Mary Sibande, Isaac Julien, Wangechi Mutu, Nandipha Mntambo and El Anatsui. The art is displayed across 100 galleries over nine floors in a 1930s-built converted concrete grain silo, which has been redeveloped by the British designer Thomas Heatherwick. The building is a marvel in its own right, having once held the world record for the longest concrete pour (it took three days). Situated on Cape Town’s harbourside and operational as a grain silo until 2003, the museum has been fondly described by Heatherwick as “the world’s tubiest building”.

What inspired Zeitz Mocaa?

Mark Coetzee: I grew up in Cape Town when there was nowhere in Africa to view our artefacts and art exhibited on the level I saw elsewhere. I left South Africa during apartheid because I did not agree with it and vowed I would only return if I could build a museum.

How did the project come together?

I met Jochen Zeitz, the former German chief executive of the sportswear brand Puma, in 2009 while I was working for the Rubell Family Collection in Miami. Zeitz sponsored a show of African-American art that we put on. We got chatting and I explained my dream of a museum for contemporary African art in Africa. He suggested working together – he loves Africa and a lot of Puma’s brand identity was built there – so we started collecting art, but with no museum to put it in.

How did you find it a home?

The grain silo is a protected building, so the property owners couldn’t bash it down. They were working with Heatherwick, and their idea was that it should be a museum. Unbeknownst to all of us, they had the perfect building for our collection. They got in touch out of the blue and we opened Zeitz Mocaa two and a half years later.

Biggest challenges so far?

The visitors come in their thousands, about 2,500 daily. When I come to work and I see a four-hour line wrapping around the museum twice and it’s only 10 o’clock, I think, oh my god. Dealing with our success is the biggest challenge, making sure that we behave ethically and don’t lose the visitor experience.

How do you cope with the crowds?

We had to come up with innovative ways to engage. One of those is for all staff to work in public spaces so when it gets busy, we talk to our visitors.

What difference has staff working in public made?

We become bridges of understanding. A lot of the work deals with complex difficult issues. We can help demystify those. For example, we had some work up by Zanele Muholi about rape – what happens with many black lesbians in South Africa is that they are gang raped in the townships to “teach” them to be straight. It’s a major issue. Muholi’s series Faces and Phases depicts women this has happened to in heroic portraits. I saw some white Afrikaans lesbians in the gallery I was in, and they were looking at the art saying, “look at the ugly black people”, so I went over and offered to tell them about the work. Afterwards, I heard them saying, “well, hello sisters”. All of a sudden what was rejection became acceptance. That’s how positive an effect we can have.

How do you cater for very poor communities?

For the communities that have to make a choice of transport or food, I’ve personally made a commitment to inreach. A lot of museums take facsimiles to the townships – what we do is bring those individuals to the museum, because it’s important they see the original artefact for scale, colour, perfection, imperfection. We bus people in by their thousands. All the schools of the Western Cape and some of the Eastern Cape we bring to us and we run a scheme for all at-risk children within a 15km radius. They’re also provided with lunch, because if they don’t get their state subsidised lunch at school, they might not eat the whole day.

Is entry free?

We calculated that 50% of our visitors could afford to pay to visit, and we wanted the other 50% to enter for free so all under 18s do. Every Wednesday is free for African citizens and all public holidays are too. Our membership is only five rand (30p), which is a tiny bit more than an admission ticket. All our fundraising goes to the Access For All endowment to allow more free days, so we hope eventually we will be completely free. The building also has escalators that allow visitors to see parts of the building without payment.

What impact has the museum made so far?

When some local people come here they break down in tears. Cape Town used to be pretty small, it had some good galleries, but that was it. I just can’t help thinking that art really does change lives.
Project data
Cost 500m Rand (£29.2m)
Main funders Jochen Zeitz; V&A Waterfront
Designer Heatherwick Studio
Heritage consultant Nicolas Baumann
Delivery architects Van der Merwe Miszewski Architects; Rick Brown Associates; Jacobs Parker
Project manager Mace
Structural engineers Arup; Sutherland
Sustainabililty engineers Arup; Solution Station
Contractor WBHO