How the new Zeitz MOCAA will transform South Africa’s art scene

Oct 10, 2017

The opening of a monumental contemporary art gallery in Cape Town promises to shake up the South African art scene as well as change the way the city is experienced.

As cultural moments go, the much-anticipated opening of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) on September 22 – amid the concrete, tugboats and faint fish smells of Cape Town’s docklands – is akin to the landing of an alien spaceship. Apart from luring the curious hoping to catch a glimpse of something wondrous, it’ll likely change the way people perceive Cape Town – a city with a reputation for being, perhaps, too pretty and hedonistic to be taken seriously.

The new institution is situated in a once-rough harbour precinct that, since plans for the museum were unveiled in 2014, has been transformed into the chic Silo District – an expansion of the existing Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.

Scaled for greatness

ZEITZ MOCCA ELEVATOR SILO

What will inevitably astound anyone stepping from the docklands into the museum are its scope, scale and imaginative grandeur. By all accounts, it’s a game changer – the first such cultural edifice in Africa since the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities opened in Cairo, Egypt, in 1902. The gallery’s British architect, Thomas Heatherwick, transformed a disused 9,500 sq m silo complex with 42 concrete storage cylinders into South Africa’s first-of-its-kind cultural institution boasting the continent’s biggest exhibition space – some 80 galleries (below) across nine floors.

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In the R500-million (roughly US$38 million) building’s atrium, lifts (above) glide up and down half-exposed concrete cylinders, and spiral staircases resembling gigantic drill bits sit in the open. Standing in it is similar to being inside some kind of living industrial organism – or being on board a spaceship.

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There was no other way to tackle this project – how else to create an institution that rivals the likes of London’s Tate Modern and Bilbao’s Guggenheim? Except, in terms of what is exhibited, Zeitz MOCAA is a different animal from those cathedrals of art in the Northern Hemisphere; its focus on 21st-century art from Africa and its diaspora is meant to radically shift perceptions of what African art means.