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Museum of contemporary art Africa opens in Cape Town

The invites have been sent for the opening night, the displays readied in 80 galleries spread over nine floors, and 24,000 tickets have sold out in a matter of minutes. For a few short days there is quiet.

The calm will not last. In Cape Town, on one of the world’s most recognisable waterfronts in the world, a vast new art museum, the biggest ever in Africa, is about to open, creating the biggest buzz in the continent’s collective creative world for many years. The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) has already been described as “Africa’s Tate Modern”. This is, observers say, to underestimate its importance.

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa on Cape Town’s waterfront. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
Housed in a converted grain silo overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, against a backdrop of docks, the city and Table Mountain, the new museum is one of the most striking buildings to have been constructed in Africa. It is also the continent’s first such institution devoted to contemporary art.

“It really is significant … [And] the significance is not just for my lifetime … but in 200 or 300 years from now,” said Kudzanai Chiurai, a 36-year-old Zimbabwean artist whose work is being shown in one of the new museum’s inaugural exhibitions. The museum, built with $38m (£29m) of private funds but open to the public, will house the collection of the German businessman Jochen Zeitz, along with a series of temporary exhibitions. The opening, nine years after the project was launched, underlines the massive new global interest in African art.

“Before the first world war the most exciting artists were French; in the 1990s they were Chinese. Now the hot new place for contemporary art is Africa,” gushed the Economist in May. South Africa, where many of the continent’s most important contemporary artists work and live, has a vibrant scene with successful dealers who have built a global presence.

But there has been little public support or appreciation of contemporary artists and many struggle to find recognition. “[The new museum] gives an opportunity to archive the contemporary scene as it happens. In South Africa in particular we have had many, many artists over the decades whose work gets forgotten. A museum can create a narrative of the development of art. Galleries are more temporary, and a museum does not necessarily have the same interest in commercial gain,” said Sisipho Ngodwana, associate at Stevenson Gallery.

Not all are enthusiastic about the opening of the MOCAA. Speaking at the Johannesburg art fair last week, Mbadi Mdluli, a 40-year-old multidisciplinary artist and master’s student in fine arts at Wits University said she knew little about the new museum. Mdluli contrasted the creative scene in Johannesburg, the commercial capital, with that in Cape Town, a city which despite deep social problems is often regarded as a playground for wealthy white locals and international tourists.

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Artist’s impression of the interior of MOCAA. Photograph: Heatherwick Studio
The new museum will have top-end restaurants, cafes, shops and a 28-room boutique luxury hotel on its upper levels. “If the museum is in Cape Town it should stay there. It is a very different place to Joburg. In Cape Town there is a seriousness about the art. But almost anything goes here. It’s a bit more real. Cape Town is really for those who can go to Europe and buy a freaking Picasso,” Mdluli said.

Others from elsewhere in Africa also had some misgivings.

“People say the museum a big deal, but for me it’s a tiny idea,” said Daudi Karungi, a dealer who runs a gallery in Kampala, Uganda, and was exhibiting at the art fair. “You do a beautiful museum but who is going to go there? This is not Europe where people go to museums all the time. What is urgent is the education of artists, the public, critics and collectors. People should celebrate it but it doesn’t mean it will make a significant difference.” Mark Coetzee, the director of the MOCAA, defended the institution against charges of elitism. “A historical museum talks about the past, a contemporary museum speaks about now, the present … Museums are not places for observation of beauty; they are central to political debates and that’s where artists want to be,” Coetzee, raised in Cape Town, said.

Politicians in South Africa confronted with the challenge of dealing with deep poverty, minimal growth and entrenched inequality have not always appreciated contemporary artists. In 2012, Jacob Zuma launched legal action against a gallery for displaying a supposedly indecent painting of the beleaguered president which showed him in a pose reminiscent of Lenin, but with his genitals exposed. Some condemned the artist as racist.


Herman Mashaba, the mayor of Johannesburg, has pledged to clean away graffiti in the city which many critics say are important works of contemporary art. South Africa is entering a period of political instability, with a bitter contest under way to succeed Zuma at the head of the African National Congress (ANC), the party which led the liberation struggle against the repressive, racist apartheid regime and has ruled for more than two decades.

Coetzee believes MOCAA is a response to South Africa’s deep problems that is not only justified, but essential. “People say who cares about art? Who needs it?” the 53-year-old art world veteran said. “But contemporary museums … have become a public meeting place where you are challenged by ideas you can hopefully learn from … where you can discuss taboos and have a conversation about something that is different to you without killing each other.”

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa opens on 22 September. source/ Burke in Johannesburg

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