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Curator Mark Coetzee discusses Africa’s largest and newest contemporary art museum.

It was only a few years ago that this former grain silo (a national monument) stood empty and unused on the water’s edge of Cape Town’s shiny V&A Waterfront—the city’s premier shopping, dining, and entertainment development. But as of September 2017, the soaring building will be reinvented as the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), Africa’s largest contemporary art museum. London-based architecture firm Heatherwick Studio led the extensive interior transformation, which now houses seven floors of galleries dedicated to permanent and rotating exhibitions showcasing 21st-century African art. Developed in partnership between Jochen Zeitz (of the Zeitz Foundation), curator Mark Coetzee, and the V&A Waterfront, the museum is one of the most anticipated and significant new cultural institutions to open in Africa. Here, South African–born museum executive director and chief curator Mark Coetzee talks about how the museum came about, what we can expect from the opening, and why African art is currently experiencing “a moment.”

What do you think this museum means for Africa?
“We must differentiate between what it means for Africa and what it means for the art world. I’ll explain it in an anecdote: I was sitting with some very high-powered CEOs one day—who had invested millions into the museum—and we were talking about the museum and what it means. One of the extremely powerful businessmen turned to me and said: ‘I don’t really know what this means, all I know is it’s important. It’s important for our country and our continent to show that there’s more than what the world thinks. And that’s why we must support it, because it’s an icon of an alternative view of Africa.’ It’s a project that will change the perception of our continent. The impact is going to be across the board.”

You’re in the throes of the museum’s final stages before opening; I imagine you have a very busy schedule . . . 
[Laughs] “Everyone keeps saying: How is it possible, you’re ahead of schedule? But we’ve been preparing for this moment for nine years, so as long as we keep on track and do what we need to do every day, we’ll be fine. The artists currently installing work are doing extremely complex and ambitious projects, so we just need to make sure they’re happy.”

"The Night of the Long Knives" by Athi-Patra Ruga (2013)
How did you and Jochen get involved with this project?
“At the opening of an exhibition called Thirty Americans for ‘Miami Model’ in 2008, when I was running a major foundation called the Contemporary Arts Foundation, which was sponsored by Puma, Jochen Zeitz [the CEO of Puma at the time], approached me. We went for pizza and he asked me what my next steps were. I confided in him like a child with a dream: I wanted to build a museum in Africa where I could see the cultural artifacts of our continent. He expressed that he’s always wanted to do something to engage more strongly with the continent. He’d already established a foundation for environmentalism but he wanted to do something for culture—what if we did this together? He asked what we’d need to make this happen. And I said, three things: We’d have to find or build a building so we have a facility, create a collection, and then program/make exhibitions. And that was basically how it began.”

How did you build the collection?

“For the first five years of the project, we hadn’t made the partnership with the Waterfront; I was traveling all over Africa buying work with the idea of opening a museum one day. Jochen has been very clear that he’s never been a collector and never wanted to be. He just wanted to contribute—he saw this as an opportunity to do something that would matter. So we built this collection specifically with a museum in mind, which meant the purchases we were making had to be well-researched, of a certain quality, conservation friendly, and they had to be iconic objects that would warrant being preserved for future generations.”

How did the V&A Waterfront get involved?
“Growthpoint—a realty company who are 50 percent shareholders of the Waterfront—wanted to do something to give back to the people of the Western Cape, as well as encourage tourism. They had gone through a number of processes with some international public museums and they had approached a few private collectors, but they never got to the point where anything materialized. So they gave me a call and said, ‘We have this building, we’ve commissioned the architect.’ So I flew down to Cape Town and saw the building and what Heatherwick had planned and said, ‘This is it!’ It was really a coming together of minds—a fortuitous gathering.”
"Revelations" by Kudzanai Chiurai (2011)
What aspects of African art do you think have been misinterpreted/overlooked?
“What I don’t want to say is that the world’s perception of African art is drums and masks. We live in a global society where people are much more sophisticated than those simplistic viewpoints. We have to understand that the art world is quite trend aware. For a few years they focus on one place, then they focus their attention elsewhere. The attention happens to be on Africa in this moment. I think we have to be sophisticated about this and say: The world is looking at us right now, what do we do with that attention? Do we just bathe in it and go along for the ride? Or do we do something with it, so that when the attention does move elsewhere, there’s some kind of legacy that remains? We must be smart about how we use these moments of attention.”

Why do you think the attention is on African art?
“I guess it has to do with the quality of the work that’s being produced. I think there’s real stuff to talk about. In South Africa, we’re a society in transition. Art always flourishes when it has subject, so I think the artists have extraordinary material to draw from. In South Africa, we have exceptional art schools and commercial galleries. I think that’s what’s exciting, people are realizing that there’s innovation, there’s creativity and committed artists. There are different viewpoints on why visual art in Africa is riding the wave, but you’ve got the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Tate museum of British artists, so we’re just evening the playing fields.”

What was the process in selecting the artists?
“Initially, the way we built the collection was a collaboration between Jochen and I. Then, when we formed the partnership with the Waterfront, there was a mission that we became cognizant of: This is the space, this is what we need to do with it. We’re not only collecting for now, but for many future shows, too. Jochen has been very clear that although he’s building the collection, he’s not going to interfere with the exhibition of the collection. He feels very strongly that if we are going to be a public museum, the curators have to have curatorial independence and they must use the collection that he’s built as a resource to talk about the narratives that they’re interested in researching and exhibiting.”
"Emabutfo" by Nandipha Mntambo (2009)
What do you hope that people will take away from this museum?
“What I’d like them to take away now is the extraordinary innovation, commitment, talent, and how rigorous our artists are at tackling issues, so that they can truly appreciate the extraordinary individuals creating this work. In the long-term, I hope we can establish a museum that’s not prescriptive. We grew up in a society where decisions were made about our race, our gender, our religion, our allegiances. We didn’t choose anything—you were classified and told what you are and how to behave depending on your language and skin color. What I would like as an institution is to avoid that prescriptive structure.”

What we can expect at the opening?
“The artists have really stepped forward and said, ‘We are going to make something so extraordinary for the moment,’ so we are going to see a lot of ambitious things. There are some pieces which take up entire rooms! One installation occupies the entire foundation of the museum. There’s stuff that’s so heavy you need a crane to lift it. For the opening, each artist is dedicated one room, so they have a major presence in the museum. One artist has worked on a project that’s eight meters by eight meters [about 26 feet by 26 feet]—it’s huge! Everyone has extended themselves beyond what we might do from day to day for this opening moment. It’s hard to pick one thing.”


How to visit:
The Zeitz MOCAA debuts September 22, 2017; it's open Wed—Mon from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; entrance costs R 180 for adults. Website

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