Art and Design

Art brings home the grain drain

Sean O'Toole

A Cape Town landmark will soon become a major international museum that will focus primarily on work of African origin.

Man with a plan: German businessman and art collector Jochen  Zeitz will donate his collections to the art musem that will soon occupy the derelict grain silo in Cape Town harbour. (David Harrison, M&G)

The pigeons squatting in Cape Town harbour's derelict grain silo have been served notice: a new R500-million private contemporary art museum will soon occupy this historic building at the V&A Waterfront's southern industrial edge. Christened the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), the new museum will cover 9500m2 on nine floors of the silo, built in 1921. Nearly two-thirds of the renovated building will be devoted to exhibitions. 

"It puts us on par with other major museums in the world," Mark Coetzee, Zeitz MOCAA's executive director, said at a launch event on November 19. "It allows us not only to import culture but also to curate projects that we can export outwards."

The new not-for-profit institution is more a tactical venture than a philanthropic one. Among other things, it will enable the Waterfront's owners – Growthpoint Properties and the Government Employees' Pension Fund – to establish an uninterrupted corridor between their existing retail and hospitality properties and the rapidly expanding conference and financial district in the lower central business district. Culture will be the new so-called Silo Precinct's chief draw card.

"We researched different museums around the world and how they are pulled together: you need a building, a collection, curators and an endowment fund to finance all that," the Waterfront's chief executive, David Green, said. 

Having reviewed "dozens" of proposals to redevelop the grain silo since it was decommissioned in 2001, the Waterfront's management decided to bet on a strategic alliance with a German businessman and art collector, Jochen Zeitz. In ceding naming rights to Zeitz, the Waterfront will gain access to a youthful art collection pieced together by a globally connected businessman.

A trim man with greying reddish-brown beard and sharp nose, Zeitz (50) cut his teeth in business as a junior executive at Colgate-Palmolive's New York office in the late 1980s. The bombastic neo-expressionist painters like David Salle and Julian Schnabel were the toast of the town but Zeitz, who is proficient in seven languages, preferred the "very vivid" appeal of pop art, then on the wane.

In 1993, he took over the management of the sports brand Puma, ushering in a period of dynamic marketing and product innovation that saw the ailing company enjoy a decade-long run of profits. Puma is noted for its early adoption of African football as a brand platform. In 2002, the year Zeitz started collecting art, Puma, for instance, created a sleeveless kit for the Cameroonian national football team – it was subsequently banned by Fifa.

Zeitz, who first travelled to Africa in 1989, to Kenya, cites the acquisition of a work by Isaac Julien, a London-born filmmaker and visual artist of West Indian parentage, as kick-starting his current focus on artists from Africa and its diaspora. Since 2008, Zeitz, who is advised by Coetzee – a Cape Town-born artist who twice had his work censored on local exhibitions in the late 1990s before heading off to Miami in 2000 to manage the Rubell Family Collection – has set out to make his art collection broadly representative.

"I saw a great opportunity to contribute to something culturally relevant, and that is what ultimately got me to step up my commitment to take the collection to a level that would be able to be the basis for a major museum," Zeitz said.

Although he is not a shareholder in the new museum, Zeitz has agreed to commit his collection of African art to the new institution in perpetuity. He will also underwrite the museum's running costs and provide an undisclosed acquisition budget.

After Zeitz MOCAA opens in late 2016, it will be interesting to see how the museum interacts with other major collectors on the continent. They include Congolese businessman Sindika Dokolo, Tunisian financier Kamel Lazaar, Nigerian media tycoon Nduka Obaigbena, Egyptian telecom magnate Naguib Sawiris, Beninese asset manager Lionel Zinsou and South African credit entrepreneur Gordon Schachat, who has long considered opening a private museum. 

Zeitz is not the first European to collect contemporary African art. However, unlike the largely photography-based collection of German-American Artur Walther, a former Goldman Sachs partner, Zeitz's collection also encompasses painting and sculpture. 

And, distinct from the highly publicised Contemporary African Art Collection owned by French collector and playboy Jean Pigozzi, the Zeitz Collection has a more expansive and cosmopolitan understanding of the word Africa. 

                                                  Businessman and art collector Jochen  Zeitz  (David Harrison, M&G)                                                                        

That said, but for Nandipha Mntambo, a Swazi artist who the Zeitz Collection has invested heavily in, it's a predictable grab bag of well-known names and safe bets. Alongside English Turner Prize-winning painter Chris Ofili, its holdings include works by Zimbabwean Kudzanai Chiurai, Americans Glenn Ligon, Kehinde Wiley and Hank Willis Thomas, South Africans Marlene Dumas and Nicholas Hlobo, as well as Kenyan-American collagist Wangechi Mutu and Ethiopian-American painter Julie Mehretu. 

But it is still early days for this brash, publicity hungry collection, which has benefited artists as much as dealers.

In June earlier this year, flanked by Coetzee (a heavyset man with a blond mane and pinched eyes), Zeitz visited the 2013 Venice Biennale. There he bought Angolan photojournalist Edson Chagas's eccentric but beautiful photographic installation, which had just clinched first-time exhibitor Angola the coveted Golden Lion for best pavilion. In 2011, a year before he resigned from the board of Puma, Zeitz was also in Venice shopping — he bought a large rubber and ribbon sculpture portraying a winged creature by Johannesburg sculptor Hlobo.

"Not only are we interested in putting together a great collection that will be publicly shown here but also acquiring the most important, seminal objects, installations, moments that are happening right now and securing them for Cape Town," Coetzee said at the launch, held in a new temporary pavilion near Bascule Bridge.

This venue is chiefly given over to showcasing Mnthambo's sculptural and photographic work, examples of which are also on view at Zeitz's luxury Kenyan retreat, Segera, on central Kenya's Laikipia Plateau. 

But the self-assured launch of the pavilion has been marred by a diverting legal dispute. 

Placed outside the new pavilion is a raw steel sculpture by Mohau Modisakeng. Last year Zenprop, a Johannesburg-based property company, commissioned Modisakeng to produce a bisected button-shaped sculpture at its Newcastle Mall venture in KwaZulu-Natal. Zenprop claims that the new work is a copy and wants it? removed. The artist has rejected the allegation.

News of the proposed Zeitz MOCAA has been optimistically received.

"The project speaks of vision and volition, as well as sustainability for the future, elements that are sadly lacking – if not altogether absent —in public museums in South Africa, in which creativity and transparency are stifled by lack of money, bureaucracy, self-censorship and a desire to please government," Marilyn Martin, formerly director of the cash-strapped South African National Gallery, said.

In the early 1990s, during the first decade of her long tenure at the public museum, Martin was involved in a proposal for a publicly owned contemporary art space for Cape Town. Later, with art-interested retired judge Albie Sachs and architect Vanessa September, she was also involved in a separate project to transform the Athlone power station into an art venue. All these projects came to naught. 

She believes the new museum will have a substantial a "ripple effect" that will benefit the art industry broadly.

I asked Zeitz if his heritage, a white, European, part-time resident of Africa, might not dilute perceptions of the museum's foundation collection.

"I believe in diversity," said Zeitz, who earlier this year paid R2.8-million at an auction for the yellow Gipsy Moth biplane used in the film Out of Africa. "My life has been built around friendships, associations, cultural understanding and travelling the globe." 

The question, which clearly piqued him, is neither fatuous nor out of bounds, especially given Zeitz's own loud attempts to flag issues of race and visibility in the art world. In 2008, Zeitz, with Coetzee and the Rubell Family Collection, organised, 30 Americans, an exhibition of 31 African American artists. The show, which is still touring the United States, featured some of the artists now held in his collection.

At the launch of Zeitz MOCAA, contrary to Zeitz's public declaration that it was the "first-ever African-American major exhibition in the United States", history reminded us that a group of New York-based African American artists organised the now seminal exhibition, First Group Showing, in 1965. 

This minor fudging of the truth points to the need for sobriety in a cultural backwater belatedly entering the era of the mega-museum.

"A threat to ourselves may be our cultural insecurity and parochialism," Martin said in response to a query about the strengths and weaknesses of the new museum. 

"On the one hand, this will negate many benefits while, on the other, we may be so overwhelmed by the presence and power of the Zeitz MOCAA that we follow trends and ideas blindly and neglect to engage critically with the museum and its projects." 

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