Inside Zeitz MOCAA

PHOTOS Micky Hoyle PRODUCTION Sumien Brink WORDS Lindi Brownell Meiring

The grain silo complex in the V&A Waterfront, built in 1921, was once the tallest building in Sub-Saharan Africa. This historical structure has now been transformed into a landmark for 21st century contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora.

“Today is the most important launch moment that my studio has ever had – and we’ve been going for 23 years.”

This, a statement from lead architect Thomas Heatherwick of renowned London-based architecture firm Heatherwick Studio as he introduces us to the monumental space that is the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa.

In fact, it is the first time that Thomas has seen the completed project since he got involved with it more than 12 years ago, and it is more powerful in reality than even he could have imagined.

To retain the texture, heritage and soul of the 96-year-old building, it was important for Thomas to make use of as much of the original concrete as possible. It is the iconic tubular exterior that initially draws you in, but it is the colossal inner atrium that takes your breath away. Crafted by sculptors alongside contractors and engineers, it is a work of art in itself. It is a literal reminder of the building’s agricultural history: A grain of corn found in one of the silos was digitally scanned and enlarged to 10-storey scale, and then cut out of the centre of the structure.

Making the heart of the building as iconic as the facade was something that Heatherwick Studio, along with the local architects who worked on the project, considered imperative.

“I tried to imagine a person experiencing a place,” says Thomas. “We wanted something that, when you come in, would be unlike anywhere else in the world and you have a moment when you think, ‘How did they make that?’ You can’t just contract that and you can’t just assemble that. That is sculpted.”

Shooting off from the atrium are nine floors featuring 80 individual gallery spaces, a combination of the old and the new, of white cubes and silo concrete, of traditional gallery space and disrupted space, of narrow corridors and display walls reaching 9 m high.

The museum is divided into centres for photography, costume, the moving image, art education, curatorial studies and performative practice. It will open with 14 exhibitions, including solos by award-winning South African artist Nandipha Mntambo and well known Zimbabwean activist artist Kudzanai Chiurai, alongside the museum’s permanent collections, which include work by artists such as Mohau Modisakeng, Zanele Muholi, Thania Petersen and Athi-Patra Ruga.

The museum will be run by a diverse team of more than 35 curators from across the continent.

Jochen Zeitz, who co-chairs the MOCAA Foundation Board of Trustees with David Green, never wanted to be a collector without a purpose, and always intended to find a home in Africa for his art collection. Whereas the museum’s team of curators will be wholly responsible for the ongoing acquisition of new works, the Zeitz collection now forms part of the museum’s offering.

“The reason for the museum,” says Jochen, “is so that Africa and the artists here define its own narrative. I think it is important that the purpose of this museum is to really be a platform where artists from Africa tell their story, and where curators on this continent and the diaspora curate the shows the way they see it. Art should no longer be the viewpoint of outside in, but rather inside out.”

Integral to the museum’s mission is making sure the people of Africa have access to art created by African artists. Thus, entrance to the museum will be free on Wednesdays and public holidays to African citizens, and every day to those under the age of 18. The single day entrance fee will otherwise be R180 and half-price on Fridays.

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