For years, German-born businessman and philanthropist Jochen Zeitz puzzled over a simple question: “Why is contemporary art from Africa not being seen?” The question came to Zeitz during his eighteen-year tenure as CEO of sportswear brand Puma, where he spearheaded innovative collaborations with fourteen different African football teams. It gained urgency during his travels to southern and eastern Africa in search of a base for his eponymous foundation, a centre for socially sustainable ecological projects. Rather than leave the question unanswered, Zeitz, a self-described pragmatist with a “straightforward mind,” began collecting contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora. At first, he displayed his modest collection at Segera, his luxury wilderness retreat and sustainability institute in Laikipia Plateau, near Mount Kenya, in 2009. But soon this small-scale initiative became a full-blown project, and the collection outgrew its rural setting. To showcase his art, Zeitz needed to find a space with greater visibility.
“There is no point having a cultural institution that nobody goes to see,” Zeitz said recently. “To sustain it and make it meaningful, you have to get many visitors.” So in 2013, after unsuccessful scouting trips in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, Zeitz turned to South Africa’s second-most populous urban area – Cape Town, a vacationing hotspot with abundant nature, a thriving art scene and an eager audience. He was looking for a historical building and a way to attract visitors from Africa and abroad. He found just that in Cape Town’s Victoria & Alfred Waterfront development, a popular Atlantic seaboard destination whose directors had already engaged the services of noted London-based designer Thomas Heatherwick to repurpose a derelict grain elevator and silo complex into an art museum. The site met Zeitz’s criteria, and the entrepreneur’s collection met the Waterfront’s needs. Now, less than four years later, Zeitz’s artworks form the core of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), which opens to the public on 22–25 September.
At 100,000 square feet, Zeitz MOCAA is the largest museum to open on the African continent in more than a century. More important, it is the only institution of this size entirely devoted to collecting, preserving and exhibiting works from the present century created by artists from Africa and its diaspora. “It is very important to have a major institution on our continent which promotes and elevates contemporary artists on the same competitive level as anywhere else,” says Zeitz MOCAA’s director Mark Coetzee, formerly of Miami’s Rubell Family Collection. While Zeitz has no financial stake in the new public museum, which is part owned by the Government Employees Pension Fund (Africa’s largest pension fund), he has loaned his collection of a thousand-plus works to Zeitz MOCAA. It represents the foundation of an institution organised around six focus areas: photography, moving image, curatorial and performative practices, costume and education. “We have decided not to take the traditional museum model of departments with temporary shows,” Coetzee explains. “Rather, we identified themes or concerns that are new, which would get our audience excited, or alternatively, mediums that we feel are important in Africa.”
Locating his art collection in Cape Town was a canny move by Zeitz. The city’s 300-acre Waterfront is one of South Africa’s most-trafficked destinations, drawing up to 24 million visitors per year – a healthy reserve of potential museumgoers. Located within the Waterfront’s most recently developed Silo District – so named for the grain elevator and silo complex billed as the “tallest building in South Africa” when it opened in 1924 – the new 500 million rand ($38 million) museum’s multiple galleries, rooftop garden, reading rooms, cafe, restaurant and bar look set to redefine both the contemporary culture and the orientation of the city centre, which is still a patchwork of disconnected locations.
“The museum is the cathedral in the square,” says David Green, the Waterfront’s CEO, by way of explaining Zeitz MOCAA’s central role in the redevelopment of Cape Town’s harbour area. “Or the raisin in the muesli, as Thomas [Heatherwick] put it,” he continues. Green met Heatherwick in 2009, and the designer immediately expressed “real connection and empathy” for the Waterfront’s urban redevelopment project. Heatherwick Studio – a 200-person concern consisting of architects, designers and makers – agreed to take on the job and proposed carving a vast interior cavity in the shape of a corn seed into the 42 colossal and densely packed concrete vertical tubes the silo contained. One of the key challenges Heatherwick faced was “seeing whether it was possible to use concrete like a ceramic,” a challenge he viewed as essential in lending the building a “hand-made” quality. “Many places just feel assembled” and wear their iconicity on the outside, the designer remarks, adding, “there aren’t many building interiors that are iconic in the way that outsides are.” Responding to the site’s singular configuration, Heatherwick says he “deliberately took it on internally and tried to create iconicity with an interior.” The result of this convention-breaking approach is now the museum’s primary feature and the threshold to one hundred galleries spread across nine floors.
Zeitz hopes that many of the works presented inside the new museum will become iconic too. Key to realising this aspiration is director Coetzee and his support team of five full-time curators and nearly two-dozen privately sponsored trainee curators. A South African-born painter who segued into curating, Coetzee has been Zeitz’s close ally over the last decade. The two met in Miami in 2008, when Coetzee organised a Puma-sponsored exhibition of 30 prominent African-American artists acquired by the Rubell Family Collection that included Glenn Ligon, Kehinde Wiley and Hank Willis Thomas – all artists now represented in Zeitz’s collection. Zeitz says he immediately hit it off with Coetzee: they shared a common annoyance at the lack of visibility for African and diasporic artists, as well as the conviction to remedy it. “We decided it is important that Africa tells its stories through the eyes of artists,” says Zeitz. Coetzee crystallised their plan into a strategy encapsulated in the mantra: “By Africa, for Africa, from Africa.”
In 2009, Coetzee left Miami for Nairobi, Kenya, to join Zeitz at Puma. In his new role as programme director of PUMAVision and chief curator of puma.creative, his first big project was the company sponsored social networking website Creative African Network. At first, “Jochen didn’t have any intention of building a collection of contemporary art from Africa,” Coetzee recalls. But that year, at the Marrakech Biennale, Puma sponsored a screening of British filmmaker Isaac Julien’s Western Union: Small Boats, 2007, a three-channel video reimagining of migrants’ perilous journeys across the Mediterranean. Zeitz has often credited Julien with kick-starting his interest in seriously collecting African art. “His message is so urgent and relevant, even more so today,” he says. From that moment, Zeitz’s acquisitions continued steadily. At the Venice Biennale in 2011, he discovered South African artist Nicholas Hlobo’s dragon sculpture, Iimpundulu Zonke Ziyandilandela (All the Lightning Birds Are After Me), a physical imagining of a mythological lightning bird from Xhosa folk tales made from inner tubes and silk ribbons. Two years later, also in Venice, he noticed Angolan photographer Edson Chagas’s installation Luanda, Encyclopedic City,2013, 23 street scenes from the Angolan capital printed in multiple and stacked on pallets in Palazzo Cini, a private museum, which won his country a Golden Lion for best national pavilion. Both pieces became part of Zeitz’s collection.
Chagas’s installation is part of Zeitz MOCAA’s five inaugural exhibitions and other showcases, which include a survey of Swaziland-born sculptor Nandipha Mntambo – a key artist with more than 70 pieces in the Zeitz collection, including photographs and her signature cowhide sculptures molded from her own body – and a long-term group show spread across two floors. The latter show features works from the founding Zeitz collection as well as newly donated works by benefactors to the Zeitz MOCAA Collection. As Coetzee points out, Zeitz’s collection has played a vital “catalytic” function, prompting other collectors to “feel secure” donating to the museum. Among notable early benefactors, Johannesburg-based photographer Roger Ballen has given one signed edition of each of his photographs since 1968 and also pledged a signed edition of all his future work.
Ballen’s gift highlights two noticeable facets of Zeitz MOCAA: its predisposition toward artists who explore figuration and its strong preference for photographic work. There is a very good reason for these preferences: “Photography is the definitive medium of our age,” says Azu Nwagbogu, a Nigerian cultural entrepreneur. “It really illuminates every aspect of our society.” Nwagbogu is one of Zeitz MOCAA’s five consulting curators-at-large, a group that also includes Performa director RoseLee Goldberg. He has organised an early-career survey of the work of Zimbabwean mixed-media artist Kudzanai Chiurai, whose installation Conflict Resolution, 2012, Zeitz purchased after it was included at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany, in 2012. According to Coetzee, the baroque staging of identity that characterises Chiurai’s photographic work – as it does that of Cyrus Kabiri from Kenya and Mohau Modisakeng from South Africa – should serve as a mirror to the museum’s prospective younger audiences, who will recognise themselves in his art. Similarly, the director hopes that much of Zeitz MOCAA’s content will evoke a “physical identification process” that he says South Africa’s colonial-era public museums, many currently in dire straits, have failed to achieve.
For his part, Zeitz, who has lived in Florence, London, Paris and New York, recognises the pattern of urban change materialising in Cape Town. “I’ve seen the whole downtown transformation of Los Angeles, with LACMA and the Broad,” he says. “I was there 25 years ago, when you could not walk in the street. The same thing is happening in China and the Middle East. It has been exciting to see all of this happening firsthand, and it is exciting to now see it happen here in Cape Town.”
Sean O’Toole is a writer and editor based in Cape Town. He is a regular contributor to Artforum and Frieze.
Zeitz MOCAA opened to the public on 22 September. Learn more about this museum.