In scope and in ambition the Zeitz MOCAA is everything a starving audience has been waiting for
Words: Tshiamo Seape
Born out of the remnants of a once grand grain silo the Zietz MOCAA has taken its iconic heritage and repurposed it for a new generation. Coming from the mind of designer Thomas Heatherwick in collaboration with the Waterfront and German philanthropist (and former PUMA CEO) Jochen Zeitz. The original silo was the tallest building in Sub-Saharan Africa for a half a century and its looming physical and psychological presence only added to the aura of this would-be icon of modern architecture. After 3 million man hours to complete the atrium alone the wonders of this building cannot be overstated. Come with us on the journey through the Zeitz MOCAA
From its very inception, even the idea of the Zeitz MOCAA was an audacious one. Whenever global firsts are attempted, wherever they may be, they draw the attention of sceptics and hopefuls in equal measure. There’s something undeniable in the human psyche that is willing to embrace an endeavour of such scope, while at the same time wishing, even unknowingly, for failure. Having entered its great atrium and traversed its spiralling staircase to the highest levels, investigating its many rooms, I can say the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa the biggest museum of its kind anywhere in the world, is a triumph; more than a museum, but a marvel. It is an achievement the likes of which we have not seen before.
A platform for Africans to tell their own story and participate in the telling of that story
Mark Coetzee, Zeitz-MOCAA’s executive director and chief curator
Before setting foot inside the almost nine and a half thousand square metre masterpiece that is the museum, you feel the weight of the intention behind its construction. You feel this even before you’ve set foot outside your home. Months of hype, speculation, and anticipation have ensured that anyone with even a passing interest in the transformation of the former waterfront grain silos is aware of the magnitude and potential of the project.
So, it was with no small expectation that I stepped into the now infamous atrium of the Zeitz MOCAA, and was immediately struck by the sense of scale that the building, at least at the beginning, is meant to convey. If you’re lucky enough to be a member (a manageable R280 a year for the basic package will assure this), entrance is a breeze – an express pass to the front of the line with no more than a polite nod is all it takes.
Upon entering, the one-two punch of the grand, cavernous, architecture combined with Nicholas Hlobo‘s “Iimpundulu Zonke Ziyandilenda“, a striking piece suspended in mid-air, dares any visitor to not stop, admire, and of course take a few pictures. If at any point you forget the scale you have been confronted with, a loud guttural chant is played on a loop that echoes throughout the museum reminding victors of the multisensory experience the museum. Bewildered, but thoroughly enriched, I made my way to the top floor to work my way down through the buildings 80 odd gallery spaces
All in all the Zeitz is 7 floors of art, including the rooftop sculpture garden. The top floor also contains the restaurant. While on my visit it was closed for a private function but, I can only imagine the food and décor were of a world-class standard, and the clientele was exceptionally well bred. So, it was at the sculpture garden that my tour began in earnest.
The sculpture garden is an open-air arrangement of mostly primary coloured geometric sculptures that invite investigation without requiring too much analysis. The space provides great views and gives a sense of the museum’s place in the city as a whole; it provides a chance to gain some perspective. Moving from the bottom floor straight to the roof transports you from a space that is bewildering and otherworldly to a space that is grounding, albeit 33 metres in the air. Even the bathrooms on the sixth floor are something to behold: pressed or not, trust me, you’ll enjoy the visit.
Descending from the sixth floor via elevator or the spiralling staircase at the museum’s core takes you into the heart of the building where the permanent and temporary exhibitions are housed. The individual galleries are an intimate departure from the grand entrance and the scenic rooftop. Between the ground and the fourth floor (the fifth is reserved for technical services), the art shines and the spaces they occupy are duly accommodating. Some of the standout exhibitions include Nandipha Mntambo’s “Material Value” which makes use of cowhide. It explores the “cultural, historical, and universal associations we attribute to this medium”. Framed cow’s hair and rows of cowhide dresses suspended from the ceiling juxtapose the traditional with the modern.
Making your way through the building, it’s interesting to note the children running, the elderly analysing the artworks closely and quietly and the hordes of people of all ages taking photos. At this point, a visit to the Zeitz is worth a large sum of cultural capital and watching people compose, capture, and recapture the perfect shot – the most shareable piece of content – is an exhibit in its own.
Moving swiftly back to art by intention another notable piece, by Kendell Geers, entitled “Hanging Piece” features a collection of bricks suspended by red nylon ropes that steals your attention instantly. The entire museum is a must see and with Marlene Steyn, Gareth Nyandoro, William Kentridge, Michelle Mathison and many more filling the museum’s galleries, it is a real tribute to African art and the potential it holds to take on the world.
Leaving the museum, I instantly felt I wanted more, needed more. It begs for a return visit and I’m only too happy to oblige.
See below for our visual diary of the museum.
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