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19 October2017

by Greg Cooke

Zeitz MOCAA, the world's largest contemporary African art museum, is a momentous mark on our continent's cultural canvas and an incredible addition to the world of art.

One month ago, Zeitz MOCAA, Africa’s largest collection of contemporary African art, welcomed eager members of the public into its curated confines. Thousands of enthusiastic faces streamed through its doors, peering up in awe at the alluring atrium while Nicholas Hlobo’s dramatic dragon gazed grotesquely back. The public opening, aptly held over South Africa’s Heritage Day weekend, was a momentous mark on Africa’s cultural canvas. This new addition to our continent is a museum which represents the artists of today and tomorrow, an aspiration for artistic youth across Africa, and a hotspot of both local and international exposure for everything the museum represents.

This representation, however, goes beyond the beauty of the redeveloped building, and even the art which adorns its walls. The museum, acting as a cauldron of cultural dialogue, should also embrace the political debates surrounding the art, the discussions regarding who controls the representation, why, and how?

Critics have certainly raised interesting points which touch on this in the run up to Zeitz MOCAA’s launch, and while the celebratory opening of the museum’s doors may too have opened a cynical can of commentary, the fact that these issues have arisen is as important as the art itself. Imperative for any change in Zeitz MOCAA’s collective representation, or in the perceived political and societal injustices surrounding the representation, is the acknowledgment and comprehension of the contrasted opinions. While it is impossible to address all censures, it’s important to engage with some of the core critiques.

In a country where nothing escapes the confronts of being exclusive, elitist, supremacist, or patriarchist, a characteristic crucial to our democratic construct, it’s no surprise that Zeitz MOCAA has come under similar scrutiny.

The museum aims to represent contemporary African art. Critics point out that white, both local and foreign, male influences have had what they believe to be a domineering role in the museum’s trajectory. However, while the Executive Director and Chief Curator is indeed white, a culturally mixed team of over 20 curators have been integral in the museum’s decisions. This team, which has plans to expand twofold, vote in exhibition decisions and will work towards a holistic, authentic African representation.

Various critics have argued for the inclusion of certain artists above others. The sheer scope of talented contemporary African artists is all too large for each to be included from the museum’s onset. The art on display will evolve over time and the exhibitions will change regularly.

While some have criticised the use of a foreign architect, Heatherwick’s celebrity status throughout the world of design has generated worldwide recognition of the museum and attracted the interest of a new kind of international visitor.

With the immediate expectation for Zeitz MOCAA to represent Africa and its art, an extremely difficult yet aspirational task adopted by the museum, there will undoubtedly be those who are quick to find and attack the inevitable blind spots. While to some degree this is important, the museum has just been born, and like anything, needs time and guidance to develop into the iconic figurehead of contemporary African art it could become. While there has been much hype surrounding the curators and representation of the art, a failure to engage with the current exhibitions would be a great pity. To find out more about the unique, and sometimes startling works on display, visit the museums exhibition and events page here.

Zeitz MOCAA is not a nationally funded institution, but has done a remarkable job in creating a public, easily accessible centre for cultural cultivation. This access for all philosophy is insured by allowing African passport holders free access every Wednesday from 10am to 1pm, and free access for all under 18’s at all times.

The phenomenal media exposure received across the globe will play a significant role in attracting international investment into our country through tourism. In addition, the museum is actively engaged in numerous community projects, creating jobs, and nurturing the artistic youth of today.

Rather than cast aside any critiques in conflict with our own, we should actively embrace this diversity in dialogue, as this crucible of challenging art and its representation is surely the inception of a contemporary frame of mind. Zeitz MOCAA, like all great museums, exists to challenge and inspire, inherently attracting opinion and critique.

But at the end of the day, it’s hard to deny that Zeitz MOCAA is a remarkable achievement for Africa. And a welcome addition. If you haven’t already, we urge you to visit the museum, to strike up a conversation with fellow museum-goers, and together, to actively engage with the incredible art our continent is producing.

To find out more about Zeitz MOCAA, it’s operating hours and current exhibitions, visit our Zeitz MOCAA page here.

Below are a few recent opinion pieces about Zeitz MOCAA that are worth reading:

Dezeen 

Financial Times

Art Times

Wallpaper*

The Daily Maverick

Art News

Sunday Times

What’s your take on Zeitz MOCAA and its contribution to South Africa? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Images courtesy of Iwan Baan and Zeitz MOCAA. All stays at The Silo Hotel are inclusive of museum entrance. Guided tours can be arranged by our concierge team.

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