Africa’s Largest Contemporary Art Museum Opens in Cape Town

But some critics have questioned whether the institution adequately represents black African artists

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Iwan Baan

Fuelled by a $38 million renovation project, a decrepit grain silo complex in Cape Town, South Africa has been transformed into the largest contemporary art institution on the continent. As Khanya Mtshali reports for Quartz, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) opened its doors to the public last week. The museum offers an expansive, impressive space devoted to African art and artists—but it has been dogged by controversy since its inception.

MOCAA is located on the V&A Waterfront, a popular cultural hub that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. More than 100 galleries, spread out over nine floors, exclusively showcase the work of 21st-century African and diaspora artists, as the Guardian reports. Many of MOCCA’s works were drawn from the private holdings of German collector Jochen Zeitz, a former CEO of PUMA and the building’s namesake.

The museum itself is a post-industrialist marvel. The building, comprised of 42 silos, was built in 1921, and it was once the tallest structure in sub-Saharan Africa. A design team fronted by British architect Thomas Heatherwick sliced through the silos to fashion a concave building filled with towering cavities. A boutique hotel crowns the top floor of the museum, and the building also houses six research centers, performance spaces, a curatorial training program and a costume institute.

While MOCAA swiftly sold all of its 24,000 tickets for opening weekend, the museum has not been uniformly embraced by South Africa’s art community. One point of contention for MOCAA’s critics is the racial makeup of the museum’s top-ranking players. As Antwaun Sargent notes in Artsy, both Zeitz and Heatherwick are white. So are Mark Coetzee, MOCAA’s chief curator and director, and David Green, CEO of the V&A Waterfront, which funded a large portion of the renovation. Nearly 80 percent of South Africa’s residents identify as black, prompting questions about whether MOCAA can adequately reflect the demographic it claims to represent. 

Sargent quotes Art AFRICA staff writer Ellen Agnew, who, in a profile of the museum, wrote: When researching Zeitz, there is certainly some difficulty in ignoring the overarching amount of white, male voices present in the construction of the museum”.

The decision to build the museum in Cape Town, a city often condemned for its treatment of black residents, also rankled some South Africans. Even MOCAA’s price of admission has come under scrutiny. Although the museum offers free entry on Wednesdays to South Africans and African citizens, critics have said that the 180 rand ($13.50) standard admission fee “is beyond the means of the majority of South Africans,” as Sara Roffino reports in artnet News.

Zeitz does not appear to be particularly phased by the criticism. “If people don’t have a critical viewpoint and aren’t talking about something, it’s irrelevant,” he tells Roffino. “So the fact that people are talking about it—sometimes even without knowing enough to actually comment on it—shows that it’s a relevant institution already.”

In spite of the controversy, many African artists are cautiously optimistic about the new museum. “We are all very excited about it, of course,” Bisi Silva, a Nigerian curator, tells Sargent of Artsy. “[B]ut what we do definitely want to see is that it reaches out across the continent, and that’s something that’s sometimes not as easy from South Africa. I think that is going to be very important.”

Whether MOCAA will live up to its mission statement in the coming years remains to be seen. But its inaugural galleries, at least, make a concerted effort to represent a diverse range of African artists. Among the works on display at the museum is a dragon-like installation by South African artist Nicholas Hlobo, a captivating photographic series by Kenya’s Cyrus Kabiru, and a group exhibition featuring more than 40 artists from across Africa and beyond. 

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