Africa has long enticed visitors with ancient and natural lures, but increasingly it’s the modern and man-made that thrills. Every year more than 23m people visit the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town’s chic harbour district, to stroll, to dine and to gawk at Table Mountain. Built around the beach where the first Dutch colonists landed in South Africa in 1652, the Waterfront was turned into a leisure strip during the final years of apartheid, becoming one of the city’s first multiracial public spaces. Now, it is an emblem of Cape Town’s rise as a touristic honeypot.
In September the Waterfront will add another draw to its roster of attractions: the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA), a $50m three-way partnership between Jochen Zeitz, the German sportswear tycoon who is lending it his acclaimed collection, Growthpoint, a property company, and Public Investment Corporation, the state pension fund. Comparable in size and ambition to the Tate Modern in London, it will help rebrand Cape Town as a cultural mecca (much as the Guggenheim redefined Bilbao) and create a global centre of African contemporary art which in turn will stem the flow of African art out of the continent into the hands of rich collectors in Europe and America.
The timing is perfect, as African contemporary art is flavour of the year. A series of displays by African artists is being put on at Documenta, the quinquennial art show in Kassel, Germany, and two exhibitions at the Fondation Louis Vuitton are drawing in crowds in Paris. One of these, “Being There”, is a survey of contemporary work from South Africa and the other is a richly coloured display of works from the collection of Jean Pigozzi, heir to a French motor fortune and lover of African art. Both capture the complexity as well as the potency of the continent’s artistic visions.
All that power and variety is hard to corral, though. That task falls to MOCAA’s director, Mark Coetzee, a 53-year-old South African curator, who came home to head the museum after 20 years working for collectors and museums in Europe and America. He says MOCAA is necessarily risky. “The freedom we have to find an Africa model is so exciting. We don’t know what it’s going to be. But we mustn’t be scared.”
Enter Thomas Heatherwick, a British designer who doesn’t do scared. He specialises in grand, improbable ideas, such as the Seed Cathedral (Britain’s amazing pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo), the 2012 Olympic cauldron and the not-yet (and likely never-to-be) built Garden Bridge over the Thames.
Heatherwick leapt at the chance to create MOCAA’s astonishing home. Built in 1921, it was originally a grain silo. Heatherwick took out most of the elevator tubes, replacing them with a fluted central atrium. Natural light filters through a glass ceiling that doubles as a rooftop sculpture garden. Heatherwick was keen to preserve the contours and character of an industrial structure. “It felt too easy to knock it down because tubes are regarded as not good for showing art in, and to build a spaceship.” The time-scarred beauty of the silo’s concrete – long hidden under coats of “magnolia gunge” – seduced Heatherwick’s team, who were bored with the blankness of new surfaces. “The silo has something that a new structure rarely has – a spirit and a texture. And when the sun shines on it, it has this warmth which reminded us of Petra.” He was not keen to make an ersatz nod to African aesthetics. “In China there was a phase when every new architectural project alluded to a dragon, and had an egg in it. It became a formula…We felt that the existing building could be the local representative.”
Wealthy visitors will be able to stay on the museum’s upper floors, which are home to a new luxury hotel, the Silo, that boasts a stretch of vast, billowing windows: crystalline facets that swell outward as though inflated by a paused explosion. It is inevitable that the building will suck in foreign cash. Africa used to earn its living mostly from selling commodities. Now it aims to make money by attracting art lovers from across the world.
One challenge excited Heatherwick more than any other: most South Africans have never set foot in a museum. He believes that a flashy building might have kept out passers-by, by prompting them to snap a selfie outside and walk on. “We took it upon ourselves to make the inside the captivating sight. It’s an ‘inny’ rather than an ‘outy’. Its heart is the thing. You can’t say you’ve seen the project unless you’ve been inside.” The museum hopes to become a destination for Cape Town’s working-class youth: an extensive public-education programme will bring schoolchildren into the museum every week, both to see art and to make it.
Despite all these efforts, the museum will be judged by its collection. That Zeitz, a former CEO of the sports-shoe giant Puma, was hunting for an African home for his art collection just at the same time that the Waterfront was planning a contemporary museum is a coincidence. Crucially, both parties had enough capital to subsidise the museum as the South African state has other priorities. Zeitz has loaned his artworks for his lifetime (he’s 54), and for 20 years beyond. MOCAA is already creating a permanent collection to replace it. Zeitz will also pitch in to help with running costs, and South African collectors have donated dozens of works.
Critics will bemoan the fact that it took a German mogul, rather than an African one, to provide the critical mass. But Zeitz has a long connection with Africa. He lives in Kenya and, in the 1990s, helped the rise of African footballers in Europe by insisting the company sponsor African players and teams. Puma was drifting when he took it over. At 30 he was the youngest ceo of a listed German company; when he retired in 2011, its share price had risen 40-fold, and the company’s brand value rivalled those of Nike and Adidas.
Zeitz collects to create a comprehensive portrait of the African contemporary scene, not to satisfy his own tastes. “I don’t draw any particular satisfaction from individual artworks. We have a very broad viewpoint.”
He and Coetzee met in 2008, when the curator was working for the groundbreaking Rubell Family Collection in Miami and Puma sponsored a show there. Coetzee shared his dream of a contemporary African museum, and Zeitz offered to help. The pair began shopping hard. Since the MOCAA deal, they’ve shopped even harder.
When Angolan artist Edson Chagas won the Golden Lion at the 2013 Venice Biennale for his installation of photographs of Luanda, Zeitz bought the lot. “We wanted to secure that seminal moment for an African institution,” Coetzee says. (They also bought 84 other works on show at the Biennale.)
The strategy is to buy bodies of work by rising stars; for example, a year’s output by the Kenyan “Afrofuturist” Cyrus Kabiru. His uncanny spectacles-cum-sculptures, made from Nairobi’s urban detritus, solder the aesthetic of the African mask to the idea of consumption and waste. “You can’t understand what artists are doing with one piece,” says Coetzee.
The museum will give understandable prominence to artists from South Africa and its neighbours: Zanele Muholi’s elegiac portraits of violently persecuted black lesbians; William Kentridge’s seductive charcoal animations; Athi-Patra Ruga’s exquisitely disorienting tapestries and Zimbabwean Kudzanai Chiurai’s darkly ribald tableaux, which satirise both Western fantasies about African despots and the despots themselves.
Zeitz and Coetzee are also working hard to buy key works from west, north and central Africa to balance their collection. There are aesthetic echoes between the regions: the Afrofuturist wit shared by Kabiru and the Beninois sculptor Calixte Dakpogan or the lyricism of Cameroon’s Barthélémy Toguo and South Africa’s Kemang wa Lehulere – both equally masterful in two and three dimensions, and at home on both mystical and political terrain.
MOCAA will also look north: to the romantic palimpsests of Nigeria’s Njideka Akunyili Crosby and the sugary confections of the Congolese neo-surrealist Chéri Samba. Cramming a whole continent’s artistic landscape into one building is a wonderfully quixotic project. Like many impossible things, it cannot be done until it is done.