Zeitz MOCAA: Art Powerhouse

Art aficionados are descending on Cape Town from all corners of the world in September. They booked their hotel suites (preferably with a view of table Mountain) almost a year in advance and they’re here for the glamorous Zeitz Museum of contemporary art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) Professional and Patrons Preview Weekend that took place from 15 to 17 september. No matter that it coincides with Documenta 14 in Kassel and the 57th Venice Biennale, the Zeitz Mocaa preview promises to be the undisputed highlight on the world’s art and social calendar.

 

 

As the director of institutional advancement and external affairs at Zeitz MOCAA, Elana Brundyn and her team are responsible for the opening events. she has been involved in the planning phases of the museum since January 2015 and, as a seasoned commercial gallery owner before joining Zeitz MOCAA, she has always been a firm believer in the power of creative industries. “the museum,” she says, “is as much about cultural philanthropy as it is about the best in contemporary art.”

Elana goes on to explain, “at its heart, Zeitz MOCAA is a project that celebrates creativity in Africa and the ways in which that creativity influences people beyond our shores. It is a platform for different voices and a means of honouring what makes us, as Africans, unique. At the same time, it’s an expression of philanthropy, a gift that makes cut-ting-edge art accessible to everyone.”

 

And to underscore this, everyone will have free entry to the grand public opening weekend from 22 to 25 September. Taking place after the preview weekend, this event will be truly pan-African, with two of the exhibitions featured being early career retrospectives of the work of Zimbabwean Kudzanai Chuirai and Swazi-born Nandipha Mntambo.

Among many other featured artists will be the Angolan Edson Chagas, best known for his award-winning Luanda, Encyclopedic City.

The creation of Zeitz MOCAA came about as a confluence of factors. The V&A Waterfront had long recognised the importance of its Grain Silo Complex as an historic landmark and for years had debated possible uses for it. Eventually it was decided that the complex should house an art museum, but a suitable collection for it had to be found. The desire was that it should be of civic significance and also open to the public. Meanwhile Jochen Zeitz, a German collector of African art, was working with curator Mark Coetzee to build a world-class collection of contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora. The meeting of these two visions resulted in the creation of the not-for-profit public institution subsequently named Zeitz MOCAA.

 

 

The Grain Silo Complex comprised a suite of buildings that included the huge grain elevator, a storage annex and various sheds, and it was operational when much of South Africa’s trade relied on ships and steam trains. Hundreds of tons of wheat, maize, soya and sorghum were processed in the silo, which was sited within reach of both the docks and their supporting railway line. Under the control of South African Railways and Harbours, the complex was used for grading, weighing, cleaning, storing and handling grain. It was, in ef- fect, an integral part of a system that serviced the entire country. But then modern bulk grain carriers increased in length and draught and were no longer able to berth at Colliers Jetty, near the silo. And in any event, the high cost of transporting grain by rail from the maize-growing areas inland virtually put paid to exporting it from Cape Town. The last shipment from the silo, comprising 21 450 metric tons of barley, was loaded in July 1995.

When it was opened in August 1924, the 57m silo dominated the Cape Town skyline and was seen as an iconic building and an important contributor to the city’s character. When it became redundant, though, its future was uncertain. A dead space with no real activity, the complex had limited potential due to its unique construction. Then along came the ingenious idea to re-imagine it completely.

 

 

British designer Thomas Heatherwick was first made aware of the Grain Silo Complex in 2006 by Ravi Naidoo, the founder and managing director of Design Indaba. Known for prestige projects that include London’s Olympic Cauldron (the venue of the opening ceremony in 2012), Heatherwick was favourably impressed. “I loved how odd it was and how it had such confidence,” he recalls.

Heatherwick’s architectural aim for Zeitz MOCAA was to celeb- rate and preserve the industrial heritage of the Grain Silo Complex, creating a centrepiece for the V&A Waterfront. Remodelling the old silo’s 10 500m2 interior into a creative environment fit to house quality 21st century African art would prove costly, but the V&A Waterfront, through its shareholders, pledged to foot the bill and is gifting the use of the building to Zeitz MOCAA.

It was considered important to maintain the integrity of the land- mark building, so the exterior of the grain elevator has remained little changed. The interior, however, has been transformed into a hub of creative imagery. The excavation of the interior space involved the use of various concrete-cutting techniques to carve some 80 galleries and a large central atrium out of the silo’s 42 vertical concrete tubes. Toughened glass – strong enough for visitors to walk across – cap the concrete shafts, drawing light into the building from above and creating a cathedral-like inner core. Some tubes have been bisected and contain cylindrical lifts and a spiral stair- case, and the building also houses a conservation vault, a number of reading rooms, a bookshop, a coffee bar, a restaurant and an events venue. From a sculpture garden on the rooftop there are magnificent views of the city and Table Bay. Both inside and out, the entire structure is impressive in its monumental power; aesthetically, it is simply beautiful.

 

 

A permanent collection and temporary exhibitions of African art will be housed in the various galleries. In addition, six ‘institutes’ of the museum will be dedicated to art education, curatorial excellence, performative practice, photography, the moving image and costume. The idea overall is to ‘give back to Africa and to tell the African story through art and culture’, and to this end the museum aims to promote and preserve the art and culture of the continent and its diaspora, and to make a core collection of art accessible to the public, whatever their income level. It will also run an appropriate schools programme to expose children to art and culture from an early age, kindling their imagination, enriching their experience and inspiring in those so inclined the possibility of one day seeing their own works displayed.

An entire floor of Zeitz MOCAA will be set aside for art education. The view that museums are no longer merely centres for culture but also vital educational institutions is one shared by Elana Brundyn. She believes that as well as being the subject of public discourse, they can have a profound effect on society. “Museums can testify to other cultures, identities and faiths in ways that go beyond the spoken or written word and provide means for us to understand other people’s realities, histories and influences,” she says. “They are hubs that protect diversity and pluralism and promote the exchange of ideas and the enrichment of the intellect.” After a moment of reflection, she adds, ”It is the exhibitions housed within that provide the tools needed for this communication.”

In the run-up to the inauguration of Zeitz MOCAA Elana, a self-confessed plaasmeisie (farm girl) with roots in the Northern Cape, can look back to where it all began for her. “I started out avidly acquiring contemporary art and soon became increasingly interested in researching, and in fact ‘searching’, that art. I was drawn in deeper and deeper, eventually becoming an adviser to many collectors and spending 13 years as a commercial gallery owner.” She remembers going to an exhibition and noticing that only one of the 32 paintings had been sold. On the spur of the moment she promised the despondent artist that she would try to sell the remaining works. Elana doesn’t know how she could have even made such a promise, but within days all 31 pieces that she took home in her car had been sold.

 

 

The excitement of promoting and selling art became Elana’s North Star. She established her first gallery 17 years ago, when she converted an old milking shed into a ‘white cube’ space on the family farm just outside Durbanville. “It was my platform; it was gorgeous,” she recalls. “No one expected to find a contemporary space that exhibited work by some of the best and most sought-after artists at that time on a farm in the Western Cape.”

Whether people are making connections in a white cube on a Durbanville farm or in an innovative new museum at the V&A Waterfront, it’s really those connections – rather than the spaces themselves, however lovely they may be – that are, according to Elana, the most important thing.

The Waterfront’s Silo District has been developed with a substantial investment of more than R2.5 billion (from V&A shareholders Growth Point and the Government Employee Pension Fund, man- aged by the Public Investment Corporation) and it is already home to multiple award-winning developments. Zeitz MOCAA, at its heart, is surrounded by Silo Square, a pedestrian plaza that provides a gathering space for local and international visitors.

 

 

The Silo Hotel, part of the prestigious Royal Portfolio owned by the Biden family, is located atop the museum and boasts 360 ̊ mountain and sea views. It quite literally adds a new dimension to the original silo complex and is a tribute to glamour and contemporary luxury living. Perhaps its most striking feature is the windows in the form of pillowed glazing panels that bulge gently outward, giving the impression of being inflated. At night they transform the hotel into a glowing beacon that dispenses light over Table Bay harbour.

Another international hotel is located in No.6 Silo. This Radisson Red hotel is described as ‘inspired by the trends and lifestyle of the millennium, totally tapped into modern, high-octane and high-tech travellers’.

The Silo District as a whole has introduced over 80 000m2 of sustainable mixed-use development, which includes new corporate offices, a residential component, internationally branded hotels and a Virgin Active Classic Health Club. More than 2 500 people will come here daily to work. At the core of this enterprise and activity is Zeitz MOCAA. There is something truly magical in the idea that art can bring about such innovation and idealism. As Elana attests, art is a uniquely compelling form of communication, and creativity in general is a powerful force that fosters better understanding and empathy, both of which are currently in short supply around the world.

So when those international art aficionados are in Cape Town to celebrate the inauguration of Zeitz MOCAA, they too will be making a contribution to better connections between people. The proceeds from the preview weekend’s ticket sales will undoubtedly benefit the endowment of the museum and that, together with local and international interest, will ensure the sustainability of this venture into cultural philanthropy. V