I enter a world of concrete, steel and glass towering me. Elevators are going up and down like the pistons of an internal combustion engine. In a cylindrical staircase movement is created by spectators going from one level to another. Looking up, the spiral of the staircase resembles a drill bit. Following the steel pipes running along a concrete tunnel, I notice rusty handles. They used to control the opening of the silos to load the grains onto wagons. The wagons would then take them straight to the boats anchored in the nearby harbour. Of the 42 57-metre tall cement cylinders that used to compose what once was the tallest structure in Sub-Saharan Africa, eight are left, all cut out or carved. Turned into a world-class museum, this industrial landmark has kept its soul and now hosts more than a hundred galleries exhibiting contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora.
Located on the Victoria and Alfred waterfront with Table Mountain in the background, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz Mocaa) is the largest of the kind. Standing among the most expensive real estate of all of the continent, it was made possible thanks to the private collection of Jochen Zeitz. The ex-CEO of Puma definitely has a taste for African modern art and has given a stage to some carefully selected African artists to express themselves.
Architecturally, the Zeitz MOCAA project was very ambitious: it took no less than three years and a half to cut out the silos at a pace of a metre and a half a day. Deposits of limestone and granite from Table Mountain are visible in the cross sections as they composed the cement when the grain silo was built back in the early 1900’s. Not only was the industrial soul of the building respected by the British architect Thomas Heatherwick, but he also endowed the exhibition galleries with one of the best climate control. As they float in the building not touching the outside walls, the art is kept at an almost constant ambient temperature and humidity.
The jewel case highlights its content perfectly. The powerful and minimalist black and white photographs of Zanele Muholi are displayed against the dark grey walls of this specific gallery, creating a great intimacy with the highly symbolic self-portraits of the South African artist.
The colourful threads sewed on Ghada Amer’s canvases pop against the white wall with her strong message about the oppression of women in a male-dominated society.
The abstract landscapes and silhouettes of the award winning Penny Siopis engage the audience: the result of a combination of ink, glue and paint, these process paintings slowly change shape and colours as the glue hardens.
Many more artists from all over the continent are represented. If medium and techniques vary greatly, these contemporary African artists seem to share some common themes: nationhood, empowerment and more specifically women empowerment, violence, search for democracy, slavery, post-colonial identity, and gay rights to name the most striking. With Zeitz Mocaa, they have a stage to address and question the world.
Marcella & Claire
- To plan your visit, refer to the Zeitz Mocaa.
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