Modern African art gets pride of place in bold new Cape Town gallery

Towering over Cape Town's Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a clutch of abandoned grain silos has been transformed into Africa's largest museum dedicated to the continent's contemporary art.

With its honeycomb lattice windows reflecting the Atlantic Ocean and the city's landmark Table Mountain, the audacious structure is home to the new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MoCAA) which opens Friday.

Inside, visitors are greeted by a riotous assault of painted colour, including a portrait of deep greens, explosive reds and shocks of turquoise.

In the centre of the rainbow, a woman sits cross-legged on a wicker peacock chair, her head tilted regally. "Miss Azania" says the sash across her chest, a reference to the historic name for southern Africa.

The artist, Athi-Patra Ruga, likes to think of the woman -- called "Umesiyakazi (Queen) in Waiting"-- as MoCAA's patron saint.

"It's a beautiful thing to see -- to know that my nephews and nieces are gong to be coming through this space and calling me and speaking about my work," said the artist, who describes his style as "the clash between material and memory".

The journey to this week's opening began over a decade ago. The owners of the V&A Waterfront, a popular tourist and shopping destination, sought inspiration from the London-based Heatherwick urban design studio on how to revive a forgotten corner of the harbour.

At stake was the future of a hulking grain elevator made up of 118 separate storage compartments that had long since fallen into disuse and filled with pigeon droppings.

After years of extensive remodelling, the silos themselves are now a piece of art, their bare concrete cylinders contrasting starkly with the geometric, glass-clad office blocks nearby.

- 'Place I now call home' -

On the top floors, the multi-panelled windows bulge out like insect eyes, reflecting a dozen different views of sky, city and sea.

In the museum's main atrium hangs a dragon, its head a ram's skull, its long tail trailing far below.

Like many pieces here, the dragon sculpture by South African artist Nicholas Hlobo is on long-term loan from Jochen Zeitz, a former chief executive of sportswear company Puma, who bought his first pieces as a young man living in New York.

"I never considered myself a collector -- it was just art to surround myself with," he said.

Once he began collecting in earnest, Zeitz sought out pieces representing the enormous diversity and creativity of Africa -- and its diaspora.

"I came to Africa 30 years ago and fell in love with it. I wanted to give something back to the place I now call home," he said.

Among the influential pieces in Zeitz's collection now returned to African soil is the work by Angolan photographer Edson Chagas, whose installation at the Venice Biennale in 2013 won him the Golden Lion prize and worldwide recognition.

Now housed in the tunnels of the gallery's basement level, the work invites visitors to take home one of its thousands of images, which chief curator Mark Coetzee describes as an act of "great generosity".

"That piece then starts to exist in the community around us," he said.

- 'I think we've arrived' -

Gabon's Owanto, who uses a wide range of media including light-boxes, paint and video, said the opening of the new space had left her "full of emotion".

"It's quite amazing to think all the artists of Africa will have such an amazing place to speak," said the artist, who goes by just one name.

Making the space accessible to locals was also a priority for the project, one of the most significant new African cultural spaces in decades.

Entrance to the museum will be free for African passport holders every Wednesday.

"Because of the history of apartheid, most of our public museums in this country were not accessed by most people," Coetzee said.

"For us as an institution it's very important to empower not only the voice and the narrative coming out of Africa, but also the audience -- so they can actually see their own cultural production and develop a sense of pride in the production of the artists that are representing them."

But the choice to house the museum in Cape Town, a city criticised as less African than continental powerhouses like Lagos and Nairobi, has drawn some criticism.

Forced removals of non-whites during apartheid and modern-day gentrification have compounded the perception that the city caters more to wealthy tourists than its own residents.

"What is important is that we are here now," said South African multi-disciplinary artist Thania Petersen.

"The only way to change things is by being present in these spaces. I think we've arrived."

ePaper - Nawaiwaqt