“I think that’s one of the most important things about the collection and now the institution. It’s from Africa, about Africa, by Africa. At least we get to write some of the history of our continent. As we know with colonialism and even now in a post colonial period, to a large extend the communication of our continent has been left in the hand of outsiders. And it would be nice that some of it is influenced by us!”
Says Mark Coetzee, director and chief curator of the future Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in his interview with Manon Braat.
Interview with Mark Coetzee, director and chief curator of the future Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa
The Victoria & Albert Waterfront in Cape Town, with more than 24 million visitors a year the most visited site in Africa, will also become a hard to ignore attraction for lovers of art when South Africa’s first museum of contemporary art will open its doors at the end of 2016. The museum will focus on collecting, preserving, researching and exhibiting contemporary art from Africa and its Diaspora. It will be named the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), after German businessman and art collector, Jochen Zeitz. His private collection will from the new museum’s founding collection. Zeitz will also provide a substantial acquisition budget to allow the museum to acquire new works. The museum will be located in the historic Grain Silo at the V&A Waterfront. The building will cover 9500m2 on nine floors. Nearly two-thirds of the renovated building will be devoted to exhibitions. Waterfront’s PR Manager Carla White explains the significance of the site: “Once the tallest building in Cape Town, the silo was at the heart of the operational life of the city’s waterfront dock, facilitating the sorting, storing and the exportation of much of the country’s grain for the better part of the last century. Heritage listed, it was decommissioned in August 2001 and there has been strong public interest in its future. With development work underway on surrounding buildings, the Grain Silo will be at the heart of this district.”
Chief curator of the Zeitz Collection and of the future Zeitz MOCAA is Mark Coetzee, an artist, writer, art historian and curator who in the past has been director of the Rubell Family Collection (RFC) in Miami and program director of PUMAVision.
MB: Could you tell me about the history and the content of the Zeitz collection?
MC: Mister Zeitz has been collecting since 2002. That’s not a very long time, but for this project that’s actually a good thing. I met mister Zeitz in 2008 when I was organizing an exhibition for the Rubell Family Collection called 30 Americans. This show was happening in the year Obama was running for the presidency for his first term. The question was being raised: how does one engage with this particular conversation at this particular time through the visual arts? We made an exhibition with works by many of the most important African American artists of the last three decades. To my knowledge it was the largest exhibition focusing on African American practice up until that time. There were interesting things coming from it and very problematic things too. Because obviously you’re grouping artists based on skin color and racial origins. At the time it seemed to be an interesting thing to consider.
At that time, mister Zeitz was still the CEO of Puma, a brand that, from the beginning, has had a very strong connection with the African continent. He wanted to extend the Puma brand beyond sports and lifestyle, to visual cultures as well. When he heard about the exhibition we were doing, he approached me and asked if he could be a sponsor. We were very happy because it meant we could do many wonderful things, we could fly the artists in, we could produce an extensive catalogue, we could do an educational program. Mister Zeitz came for the opening and afterwards he asked me what my career plans were. I told him about my life dream to one day go back to Africa and build a museum of contemporary art – but it needed to be a museum of a big enough scale and relevance to make a real impact. Right away he said: “That’s exactly what I want to do. Let’s do this together.” At that moment he made a commitment to start collecting works specifically for an institution. This is where the advantage of him being a recent collector comes into play, because we made a decision that we would want the collection to be cutting edge contemporary art. So from the 21st century onwards, and we wouldn’t collect backwards. Because he’d been collecting for a few years only, we didn’t inherit a collection of which we didn’t know what to do. From that moment we started working together, looking at the material and the opportunity to build, what we call, not the biggest, not the most expensive, but the most representative collection of art from Africa and its Diaspora.
MB: What are your criteria for collecting?
MC: In terms of the collecting strategy what we decided to do, instead of trying to be encyclopedic and collect one work of every artist, we wanted to identity seminal practitioners and then buy large bodies of work of these particular artists. And we decided to buy seminal moments in contemporary art practice as well. An example being the Angolan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2013. Before it won the Golden Lion, we realized this work was very important. Then, when it won the Golden Lion, we realized consensus was being formed around this work and we wanted to make sure that we secured it for an African institution. We wanted to secure that historical moment. So we bought it. Another example was at the last Documenta. We saw the work of Kudzanai Chiurai from Zimbabwe, and bought his entire exhibition. Of most of the artist we have in our collection we have between 85 and 95 pieces.
MB: Are there any other reasons for collecting this way?
MC: One of the reasons why Africa can’t get traveling exhibitions is because of the exchange rate. It’s impossible for us to buy major exhibitions because it’s just too expensive. But now we can offer something in return. We can organise large exhibitions and then send them out to other institutions worldwide. That means that our artists in Africa get to see international practice and it’s not financially backbreaking because we’re exchanging instead of just importing.
MB: In what ways will this make a difference?
MC: I feel that in the past years we’ve been exporting works of art from the African continent to other parts of the world a lot. Works of value were bought by international institutions or collectors on a large scale and very little stayed on the continent. There was no way to export culture because the objects had already left. Now with us being able to secure the objects for the continent, it means that we can actually allow people from Africa to write the history of cultural production in Africa and export the narrative as opposed to exporting the objects and allowing the international instutions to write the narrative. I think that’s one of the most important things about the collection and now the institution. It’s from Africa, about Africa, by Africa. At least we get to write some of the history of our continent. As we know with colonialism and even now in a post colonial period, to a large extend the communication of our continent has been left in the hand of outsiders. And it would be nice that some of it is influenced by us!
MB: In the Western world there is a current interest in African art. How do you explain the attention?
MC: The art world, like everything else in the world, has fashions. Africa is just going to be part of that fashion. This current interest in Africa is wonderful and exciting and I think it will position Africa centrally in the global art conversation. People tell me not to say this, but I think it’s very naive to think that the interest that is now building in art from Africa is going to stay there. It’s not. But I do think that when this focus happens, a continent, a country, a group, or whatever the focus is on, should put a professional system in place to best represent the art, to showcase everything there is to offer. And I also believe that you should take advantage of those moments to secure longterm public institutions. So when the fashion moves somewhere else, there’s something that remains.
MB: What are your thoughts on western institutions presenting non-western art?
MC: When one looks at antropological or historical objects and artifacts you have to remember that many things are so out of their context and have been for so long. Most of the African historical artifacts are no longer in Africa. The Benin Bronzes for example are all in museums abroad. The British colonialists basically took the entire Benin cultural heritage and brought it to Europe. These are obviously very contested arenas.
I think that when it comes to contemporary art it’s a whole different discussion. Because what is an African context? The Zeitz MOCAA is not the museum of African art; it’s the museum of contemporary art in Africa. Artists from Africa, like all other artists in the world, don’t want to be constantly associated with a specific country or area. There are particular things of course that influence them from their local environment but they want to be part of a global conversation.
I think it’s good that there are different viewpoints and ways of presentation. What we are saying with our museum is that we can’t just reproduce a European museum here. We’re going to have to imagine an African version. If Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons should ever do a show here, it’s not going to be the same as in Paris or London or New York. And that’s a good thing.
MB: How do you feel about the specific role of South Africa within African art? It seems that initiatives like this museum give South African art and artist a better chance to develop fully, while lack of infrastructure in other African countries might lead to artists moving abroad.
MC: All the institutions I know in Africa complain that there’s no funding, no resources, no support. For me it’s been the exact opposite and so the freedom for us to be able to do what we believe in as opposed to be compromising for whatever reason, I think it’s just unheard of.
Having said that, I think that one must first of all look at the mission of the new museum. It’s been very clear that’s it’s not a South African institution. If you look at the content of the collection, it’s not heavily focused on South Africa. South Africa is just one of 54 African countries represented. Currently we have the whole of East Africa represented, the whole of West Africa, Central Africa, North Africa, and Southern Africa. We have an incredibly good holding of African American artists, Afro Caribbean artists; we have a good holding of African artists working in Britain and in France. We have to work a lot more on Afro Cuban and Afro Brazilian artists, I would say.
We are not representing every single country from Africa yet, there is some lacking. In countries where there’s no infrastructure, where there are no galleries, no art schools, it’s harder to find good artists. I am sure though, that also in these countries there must be great cultural practice; it’s just harder to find it. Which means I have to go there myself and look for it. We have a pavilion at the Waterfront in Cape Town for the next three years where we do exhibitions before we open the big museum. We opened with a show by Nandipha Mntambo from Swaziland, later on we’ll do a show with artists from Zimbabwe, Kenya, Benin, and Angola and after that we’ll only get to South Africa. So we are going out of our way to make sure Zeitz MOCAA is not South African centered, or Cape Town centered, and that it does represent the African continent as a whole.
MB: Maybe build branches of Zeitz MOCAA in other African countries?
MC: I don’t think we can build another Zeitz MOCAA somewhere else in Africa immediately, but we wanted to do something in East Africa as well, so we’ve set up an important residency program in Kenya, where artists from Africa and international artists can work together, fully funded, where they can spend time together and create bridges. Once you connect artists, they know what to do, they take the next step.
MB: But in the end, don’t you think Cape Town and South Africa will benefit the most from this museum?
MC: Well, let’s wait and see. Mister Zeitz also asked me: “Are you sure we‘re going to do this in Cape Town? South Africa seems to be getting everything.”
I did a lot of research and finally came up with a list of four possible locations, one in West Africa, one in East Africa and two in South Africa. Considering the demographics: the Waterfront is the most visited site in Africa. There are many local visitors that return on a regular basis, a lot of visitors from Southern Africa, including Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland, and Lesotho, visitors from the rest of the African continent and also visitors from other continents. We felt we had to choose a place where we could reach the highest amount of people from a broad spectrum of interests.
But of course, even though it’s not only a Cape Town project, it is in Cape Town and we want to uplift cultural practice in the city. So, yes, for the young kids in town, for the teenagers, the education departments, the art schools, it’s a huge resource which is right in their back yard. So it’s a great opportunity for the city of Cape Town, I believe.
MB: I assume it’s your ambition to get a new local public interested in contemporary art. How will you try to achieve this?
MC: Absolutely. Already I can say that the numbers of visitors we’re getting in the small pavilion we use right now are a hundred times more than any other public museum in the city. And we’ve just opened. So there’s definitely a hunger for good contemporary art. We have a lot of good institutions in this country but we don’t have, as yet, a major institution for contemporary practice and I think it’s inevitable that people are going to be interested to come. Just like they go to the Tate, the Pompidou or the MoMA. People are really engaged and artists are becoming very relevant again. It’s no longer art for art’s sake. People, especially younger people, want to see work that’s technology based, that’s innovative, and that’s engaging, dealing with the issues of their time.
But obviously we are going to great lengths to encourage and facilitate that. At the pavilion we have free admission, which helps a lot in a country where there’s a huge divide between rich and poor. The whole world talks about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, but here it’s something we inherited from the apartheid years. We are very aware that we have to develop a museum-going audience and break the barrier for them. People will stand in the door but won’t enter. So we have to encourage them. Our staff actually sits in the pavilion (and later in the museum), not in offices, and they have to make sure visitors get a very service oriented experience. In the pavilion we see that once they come in, they spend hours inside and come back with their family.
MB: What are your plans regarding education?
MC: I think it’s all about service, engagement and education. In our standard way of thinking education means giving lectures, workshops, guided tours. And we do that, too. In the new museum an entire floor will be dedicated to education. But I think education is also very much about breaking down the barrier of the exclusivity of art and letting people know that this belongs to them, that this is their heritage. As much as the education of the public needs to take place, also the education of the art world needs to take place. It’s something that both European and American museums have been going through for a number of years: learning how to be institutions of excellence but also places of service. When you look at all the museums that are relevant in the world, they’ve really started to understand their responsibility to the visitor. And it’s not only about the quantity of the visitors but also about the quality of experience. That’s something we’ll have to work on as well, and educate ourselves as art professionals in Africa.
MB: Will the new museum have free admission too?
MC: We don’t know yet, we might use the Tate model: most sections will be free, and the traveling exhibitions, the blockbusters, will be paying. But we might also, for instance, have ‘free Fridays’, so there are always opportunities for everybody to see the work. We don’t want to turn anybody away.
MB: Mister Zeitz has also set up the Zeitz Foundation for ecosphere safety, doing international work for environmental protection. Does the philosophy of the Zeitz Foundation correspond to the future Zeitz MOCAA?
MC: Absolutely. We have many specialists helping us with sustainability. We are making sure that the building itself has little environmental impact. Because we are by the ocean, we can take water from it, pump it up and cool the building, so we don’t need electricity for that. For the renovation, we reuse a lot of the material that is already in the existing building.
On top of that, we made sure this project will also be financially sustainable. Whatever happens with mister Zeitz or the Waterfront, the museum will continue in perpetuity. We didn’t want to run the risk of announcing the project and then having to cancel the plans. That would create negativity: ‘Africa can’t deliver’. And there are so many negative stories about Africa already. We want to have a positive story.
Zeitz MOCAA Pavilion is situated by the Bascule Bridge at the V&A Waterfront, Cape Town. Open Wednesday – Sunday 12 – 8 PM. Free entry for all. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Brief bio: Manon Braat is a Dutch art historian, freelance writer and curator. She published in several art magazines.