The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), the world’s largest museum dedicated to contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora, brings yet another attraction to the city of Cape Town’s fabled V&A Waterfront—one of the world’s top waterfront districts and high on the to-do list of every visitor to South Africa’s Mother City.
While the main waterfront area is known for its lavish hotels, restaurants, and shops—all set against incomparable views of Table Mountain and the Atlantic—the south arm of the complex is more gritty and industrial, designed to serve Cape Town’s harbour rather than enchant tourists. But since the opening of the 500-million-rand (around 52-million Canadian) Zeitz MOCAA in September 2017, enchanted they are—and not just by the arrival of exciting new art, but also by the building itself, which is every bit as innovative and impressive as the works it displays.
Built in 1921, an ugly block of grain silos dominated the Cape Town skyline for decades, becoming a forlorn blot on the rapidly developing landscape when it fell out of use in 1990. But thanks to a partnership between the V&A Waterfront and German businessman and art collector Jochen Zeitz, plus the vision of London-based Heatherwick Studio in collaboration with three South African architectural firms, the historic silos have not only been revived but transformed into a thing of wonder for this museum.
Deep, multifaceted windows sit atop the towers, reminiscent of crystal extruding from stone. Inside, the lofty atrium has been cut from the centre of the densely-packed concrete tubes. Those that enclose the space have been sliced and shaped into fluid Gaudí-esque ovals, flutes, and arches, warmed by the natural light that floods in from long glass panels and from skylights set into hollowed-out forms. By some wizardry, the grim concrete and steel have lost their oppressive qualities and have been converted into an airy and inspiring three-dimensional work of art.
An exposed glass elevator allows visitors to soar up and down in the cathedral-like space, stopping at each of the floors to wander through the many galleries and exhibitions. Aside from the permanent Zeitz collection, there are temporary installations, film and photography exhibits, a rooftop sculpture garden, reading rooms, storage and conservation areas, a gift shop, and a restaurant-with-a-view, where those who are brave enough can sample the Zeitz’s signature black ice cream. Within the museum there will also be a costume institute as well as centres associated with photography, performance, and art education.
Cape Town—an acknowledged cultural centre—is a fitting location for this not-for-profit museum that celebrates and encourages creativity and art appreciation while showcasing works from all over the continent. The city backdrop is glorious and the gallery’s structure is unique, proving that you can indeed make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, given enough ingenuity and passion.
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