African art in focus

Crowds were eager to see the impressive new museum at the Silo District at the V&A Waterfront.

“I’m getting a phone call from upstairs… Madiba says yes. This is what we strived for.”

These were the words of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu as he brought his unique brand of humour to the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA), the continent’s largest contemporary art gallery at the Silo District of the V&A Waterfront, on Friday September 22.

The R500 million museum, which was described as the “eighth wonder of the world” by speakers at the opening ceremony, was officially opened just before Heritage Day, which was marked on Sunday September 24.

Zeitz MOCAA houses the largest collection of contemporary art in Africa, with 100 gallery spaces, and is expected to accommodate up to 900 people at any given time.

The museum was named after businessman and philanthropist Jochen Zeitz, who was also at the ceremony.

Mr Zeitz had been working on a collection of contemporary art from Africa around the time the V&A Waterfront started looking into the redevelopment of the silos.

Also at the opening was former Constitutional Court Judge and Clifton resident, Albie Sachs who said: “What moves me deeply about this building is not just the artwork. It is the building in which the workers were hidden, unseen shovelling the grain to go all over the world. The next wave of workers were the construction people who worked on converting the building, they were also unseen.

“Now it is a chance for them to take pride in the building.

“I see this as a cathedral to labour. To the artists doing fine art but also the labour of the brick workers. It is a wonderful connection of our buried past and going to the future.”

On Archbishop Tutu’s speech, he said: “He’s come out of retirement, I think inspired by the meaning of this building, with his humour and sense of fun. It was joyous and wonderful to see him presiding over the opening.”

One of the exhibitors, Thania Petersen, who is from Observatory, said she got involved with the project after Mr Zeitz and curator Mark Coetzee visited her solo exhibition at the Everard Read Gallery at the Waterfront and had subsequently bought paintings, which now belong to the Zeitz permanent collection.

She said she was very excited to be part of the first contemporary arts museum of this scale in Africa. “It was very exciting to see my work up, and all the little children in awe of not only my work, but others as well. I was actually very emotional. Also to know that its open to everyone now, and it’s free for children under 18, so they can be exposed to our work as well.

“It is also an opportunity for the South African National Gallery and the Zeitz Mocaa to work together to have a platform for local artists to show their work.”

Architect Thomas Heatherwick said about 12 years ago, he was in the building, scraping more pigeon poo than he had seen in his life.

“There were more than 100 tubes where grain was stored. Walking through it, you can almost imagine the dancing of the workers. It was just silos split up. We wanted to create togetherness in the building, and put a heart in a place that did not have a heart, so we decided to cut through the tubes already there and create something beautiful.

“(My colleague) Mark Noble had (an ear of) corn (which had been) stored in the building, and he gave us a grain of that corn. (We) digitally scanned it and expanded it over nine floors to create the heart of the museum.”

Now, the impressive building, which will probably be as famous for its architecture as for its artworks, sports nine floors of contemporary art in all forms including digital, sculptures, modern art and paintings.

The floors are built around the “heart” of the museum, as Mr Heatherwick refers to it, which is carved from the old silos’ structure of forty-two tubes that pack the building.

Speaking at the ceremony, mayor Patricia De Lille said the opening of Zeitz Mocaa showed the confidence the world had in Cape Town and the continent.

And while the world had its eye on Cape Town’s art scene, Ms De Lille also used the opportunity to promote emerging artists, and encouraged guests to visit the Artscape Theatre, where six emerging artists’ work was on display as part of the Emerging Arts Programme (“Artscape launches new development programme,” CapeTowner, September 20).

“Please take a walk down and see the work of our emerging artists from previously disadvantaged areas. We have given them a platform to showcase their work. Our young artists need your support.”

She also announced the first Mayor’s First Thursdays event on October 5, where artists from all over the city will have a chance to display their work on Greenmarket Square.

Western Cape premier Helen Zille described the Zeitz Mocaa as a game changer. “The size and scale of the building does justice for the art coming from Africa, and Zeitz will not only be a destination for art, but for architecture as well, seeing that architectural tourism is a growing niche.”

The Zeitz Mocaa museum is the latest venue to open at the Waterfront’s Silo District, dubbed Cape Town’s newest art district. Other venues which recently launched there include the Radisson Red hotel, a hotel and gallery space with a focus on fostering creatives; the Yard at Silo, a new store-cum concept eatery and the Flagship Premium Boutique by fashion designer Kat van Duinen.

Tickets for the museum are R180 each for adults and free for under-18s. It will also be free for South African and African citizens every Wednesday between 10am and 1pm. For more information visit