The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, otherwise known as the Zeitz MOCAA, is a public not-for-profit contemporary art museum that collects, preserves, researches, and exhibits twenty-first-century art from Africa and its Diaspora. The museum is a striking building located on the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town and shares a plaza with the newly opened Radisson RED Cape Town. With such an incredible institution right on our doorstep, we jumped at the opportunity to chat to executive director and chief curator of the museum, Mark Coetzee. He told us the fascinating stories behind the inspiration for the museum, gave us an insight into the architectural design processes, and of course shared with us his love of contemporary African art and the city of Cape Town. Be prepared to be inspired!

  Lucky Beginnings…

The project itself came about thanks to a chance meeting when– Mark met Jochen Zeitz, then CEO of Puma, when he was hosting the world’s biggest exhibition of African American art at the Contemporary Arts Foundation in Miami around 10 years ago. They both discovered that they shared a passion for African art and an instant friendship was formed.Mark and Jochen knew they wanted to bring contemporary African art to a wider audience and agreed the best way to accomplish this would be to work together. At the same time this friendship was formed, the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town was in the process of being re-developed and in particular, there was a hunt for the perfect project to repurpose the giant abandoned grain silos dominating the harbor skyline. “The entire harbour front… is full of national monuments: the old battery museum, the old jail, the maritime museum, the aquarium… as well as buildings which were basically South Africa’s Ellis Island, where immigrants would come from all over the world and get processed, so it’s a very important venue in South Africa.”

A couple of ideas were floated about for the unused silos including suggestions of design or maritime museums, before a museum of contemporary African art was decided upon: “They came up with the idea that they wanted to preserve this building and make it a kind of cathedral let’s say, or the centrepoint.” The buildings’ cultural significance is something Mark feels the Zeitz MOCAA properly honors, “It meant that we could have one of the best architects in the world, we could have this extraordinary heritage structure (one of the few remaining in the world) and we could have one of the best collections in the world of contemporary art from Africa.”

“I think beyond that there is also a vision to build an institution that gives all the people of Africa access to representation of their own culture and to build the first major institution on the continent that focuses solely on contemporary art.”

With so many creative in-puts, Mark’s role in the project was to ensure the all the visions reach fruition and serve the public. The shared dream was to “to build an international platform to give the creative voices of the continent a voice for the world to understand their innovation and creativity.” But it was more than that too, Mark is persuasive in his vision of how much the museum could influence people; “I think beyond that there is also a vision to build an institution that gives all the people of Africa access to representation of their own culture and to build the first major institution on the continent that focuses solely on contemporary art.”

A new purpose…

The building which houses the museum is itself a work of art. Renowned London-based architect Thomas Heatherwick re-designed the structure which incorporated the huge un-used grain silos, and created a totally unique space to showcase the art. Thomas was heavily influential on the feeling and atmosphere in the museum: “Remember that the building was built for machines for the storage and transportation of grain so was never intended for human inhabitation. And in the process of trying to find a solution of what to do with the building, he [Thomas Heatherwick] had to do some pretty radical interventions”

Heatherwick aimed to really incorporate the past uses of the building into the new design. Mark laughs as he tells us about the architect’s innovative but unconventional creative process; “So what he asked us to do was to Fedex him a piece of grain, an actual grain kernel. He then 3D scanned the grain and took the shape, blew it up thousands of times, and then cut that shape out of the tubes in the interior of the silos.” And so, the impressive atrium of the museum was formed. “He then sliced out the tubes around the massive kind of intersection in the middle of the tubes and made a series of white cube galleries.”

Whilst drawing inspiration from the building’s past, Heatherwick also needed to bring it into the 21st century and create something more practical. The whole museum is made up of three buildings, originally built in the early 1920s, that had previously been unattached. Now they have been ‘consolidated into one experience’ so visitors can move between the spaces as though they are one. Mark is enthusiastic about Heatherwick’s ability to transform a building that wasn’t intended for public use, into an innovative gallery space: “…it’s a very sensorial, experiential building, where he has had to transform something that was never intended to be public, into a public space; a building that had not one straight wall, into a series of white cubes where art can be shown properly; and then also connect buildings which were never intended to operate as extensions of the floors of each space.”

“…it’s a very sensorial, experiential building, where he has had to transform something that was never intended to be public, into a public space…”

The structure is a striking feature on the Cape Town waterfront and this distinctiveness isn’t lost on the interior. Spread across nine floors with seven dedicated exhibition spaces, eighty more traditional ‘white cube galleries’, plus twenty alternative, unexpected zones for art display and performance pieces – what Mark calls ‘incidental happenings in unexpected corners of the museum’. There are always 12 different exhibitions on display with three to four changing each month, meaning the museum is constantly keeping its content fresh and exciting.

Mark is particularly excited about the atrium space. This main hall is 52 meters high and offers completely new opportunities for artists and creators. BMW South Africa has recently partnered with the museum which will allow them to use the atrium space in unique and innovative ways to display art. Mark seemed thrilled at the prospect of allowing artists to collaborate on pieces in this incredible space, allowing them to break boundaries like never before: “There are very few places which are able to do this in the world…And we now have a purpose-built atrium where we can envision ambitious, grand, truly immersive moments. We are working right now with many artists from across the continent, who will have an opportunity to dream bigger than they have ever dreamt, to really push the boundaries of what public art is.”

Master Curator…

Mark’s vast experience as an art curator and collector has put him in good stead to lead the museum. There are 39 separate curators in the museum, managing everything from moving image artists to art that is created using the body. Mark oversees the total program and tries to ensure everyone’s needs are met. He wants to facilitate the stories of the artists and curators, but also the public at large. This is definitely an ideal that Mark returns to a lot as we talk to him – the idea of accessibility and representation of all is obviously very important to him and a key part of the museum’s mission statement, we suspect because of his passion: “So all of these exciting things are cool, but if the public don’t engage with it [the art], don’t have access to it, and don’t understand it, it’s like living in ivory towers.” He is genuine in his sentiment too: “So part of my role is to oversee the mission of the museum, to oversee the standards of the work shown, the programming etc., to oversee the access of the public. But most importantly it is also to build bridges between the makers and the viewers.”

There is a research element to his work too. He is keen to keep up to date with the constant political, social and economic factors affecting South Africa today, as well as features of its very politically-charged past: “What are the conversations that are pertinent or relevant? What are the controversial issues that young people are talking about? What is the socio-political-economic manure of different places? I need to make sure each of those conversations, both happy and sad, celebratory and fearful, all have a place in the museum.” This is more than just art, it is an on-going discourse into South Africa’s changing cultural scene: “The museum is very committed to the idea of embracing what it means to live in the 21st century and to deal with the issues, so it’s not a place that you come and see pretty pictures, it’s a place where you are going to be confronted, like straight in your face, by these artists and these issues. And we hope that the artists give us the tools to negotiate how to live in this time.”

“I need to make sure each of those conversations, both happy and sad, celebratory and fearful, all have a place in the museum.”

More than just a museum…

From the start, it was clear for Mark that it would be really important to understand who the museum’s audience was. He stresses a ‘commitment to the local audience’, specifically the underprivileged and marginalized, who perhaps wouldn’t have access to art often, or even at all. “We have an art education space for children from all surrounding schools, both from privileged schools, but most importantly from underprivileged schools who don’t have any art curriculum or access to art materials in their schools… we fulfil a very important role in offering these young children the dream of creativity.”

The museum hosts over 1000 different guided tours annually, in many different languages. There are also focused projects such as lecture series’ and forums, encouraging interaction and engagement. The museum also runs the most successful curatorial training program in the country. This prestigious scholarship offers budding curators the chance to hone their skills and learn from some of the best in the business. This opportunity aims to give the next generation the tools to carry on the important mission of protecting art culture globally.

“We fulfil a very important role in offering these young children the dream of creativity.”

South Africa = Home

Of Cape Town itself, Mark is obviously proud to call the city his home. His role and mission at the museum makes him enormously aware of the important role the city has played in South Africa’s history and culture, and he feels it is important for visitors to see and experience this: ‘What I would say is Cape Town, like all cities in South Africa, bears the wounds of Apartheid. There are still great reminders of the separation of the people from this country”. He also stresses the natural beauty of the place and the focus of Cape Towners on living healthy and balanced lives. Nourishment and living an organic a lifestyle as possible are important to the people of the city – quality of life in Cape Town is ‘extraordinary’

“But I would like to encourage people to visit Zeitz MOCAA so that they can actually reconsider their view of what contemporary art is, but even more importantly, reconsider what their view of Africa is.”

Mark is keen for people to visit the country for themselves and formulate their own idea of this often-misunderstood country: “Many people have visions of Africa…Africa as poor, Africa as destitute, Africa as corrupt. But I would like to encourage people to visit Zeitz MOCAA so that they can actually reconsider their view of what contemporary art is, but even more importantly, reconsider what their view of Africa is.” He is also adamant the contemporary African artists in the museum have an important role to play in the global perception of the country, as well as the overall political discourse happening across the world: “Artists are now stakeholders in that very important global conversation and that’s the reason I invited people to come to the museum, because they will see a view of Africa which is advanced, which is ambitious, which is positive, and which is confident…we are saying we are ready to function at a whole other level right now.”

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