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A Sneak Peek at What May Be Africa’s Most Important Museum Ever

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Johannesburg-born Mark Coetzee, Executive Director and Chief Curator of Zeitz MOCAA, talks bringing African art back home.

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“The official opening weekend is February 18­–19, 2017, and the world is invited. Really, we already know, the entire world is coming. There are museum groups from all over telling us they’re coming in, and there will be many, many tourists as well. That’s partially because Cape Town is a highly popular destination as it is, and our location, the V&A Waterfront, is the most visited site in Africa—even more so than the pyramids.

See all in “The Next Great Art Cities.”

But people also want to see the building itself. The architect, Thomas Heatherwick, is one of the top architects in the world right now. This is the first museum project he’s done, and it’s an extraordinary undertaking. Normally you construct museums, but we’re deconstructing a historic grain silo to make space for a museum. It was a machine inside, so there are all these tubes, and we have to make them something humans can feel comfortable in, as well as make space for the art. It will be massive: nine floors, and 80 galleries.

Of course, people are curious for the nature of our collection here. I’ve been working with Mr. Zeitz, the funder and collection owner, for many years now. We met in Miami, when I was still working there. Unlike many private collections, which end up being kind of a mishmash of things, we decided that he would buy what the museum needed, so his collection has been designed specifically for the Zeitz MOCAA. The pieces are relevant and cutting-edge.

What happened was this: We noticed how so many important historical pieces of African art are in museums elsewhere in the world. These things were taken away from African in, let’s say, uncertain circumstances. Contemporary art is an open market, meaning a lot of the pieces aren’t owned by museums, so all the best artworks are leaving Africa yet again because outside museums can afford to buy them. So Mr. Zeitz and I looked at anything from this century that’s important to keep in Africa or to bring back to Africa, and he bought it for the collection.

That’s also how we got Nandipha Mntambo’s work. We saw it many years ago in Sydney. She takes cowhide and salts it, then drapes it over a woman’s body and dries it so it remembers the body shape. It’s very evocative, especially from a symbolic point of view. The female body has been such a contested place, and her work evokes these questions of women’s roles in society and feminist or human rights issues. We have the largest collection of hers in the world—65 pieces—because we made a commitment to collect from our artists more in depth than anywhere else. We collect fewer artists, but we collect 50 to 120 pieces from each, instead of just a few.

We also scouted out Edson Chagas, who won the Golden Lion award at the International Art Exhibition two years ago. It was the first time that an African artist won that award, so we bought the entire exhibition to make sure it came back to Africa. Our goal is to make sure that African people have access to their own heritage, as it is in places like America and Europe. Artwork has extraordinary power, especially when it’s in context, so it’s very valuable for at least some African art to stay in Africa. Now, people have to come here to see it.”

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