Cape Town's contemporary African art museum celebrates first birthday

CAPE TOWN, Kristin Palitza (dpa)- One year ago, the first museum in Africa dedicated to contemporary African art opened its doors in Cape Town. The Zeitz MOCAA has been a hit with visitors to the city's upmarket waterfront, but its first year has not been without controversy in the leadership ranks.
Robert Mugabe is sitting at a long table covered with opulent food and wine, surrounded by world leaders including the Queen, the pope and Barack Obama.

In front of him is a whole chicken, its feet pointing haphazardly towards the ceiling and its head hanging off the table. The former president of Zimbabwe's arms are spread wide, palms facing upwards. There are 12 people at the table - just like at The Last Supper.
This painting by Richard Mudariki is part of an exhibition currently on show at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) in Cape Town.
"Five Bhobh – Painting at the End of an Era" is one of various initiatives to mark the museum's one-year anniversary this month.
The exhibition's name refers to the average cost of minibus fare in Zimbabwe and, more broadly, questions about the future of the nation.
Opened on September 22, 2017, the museum is the first in Africa to focus exclusively on contemporary African art.
Through exhibitions like "Five Bhobh," which focuses on art dealing with the changes in Zimbabwe since the downfall of Mugabe in 2017, the Zeitz MOCAA aims to offer a unique platform for African artists.
The museum is named after German businessman Jochen Zeitz, former CEO of sports brand Puma, whose private collection forms a large part of its permanent offering.
The first year has been "a gigantic success," the 55-year-old says.
Located in the famous shopping and entertainment V&A Waterfront area directly on the Atlantic Ocean, the museum has drawn 350,000 visitors since its opening - more than double the number originally hoped for.
Compared to other major international art museums, such as the Tate Modern in London or the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, which pull in millions of visitors each year, the figure is modest.
"But the institution is just a year old," Zeitz says. "One must be realistic."
Last year's opening was a big moment for Zeitz in more ways than one. It was not only a museum that was born - but also, a few days earlier, his son Jesse. Zeitz's partner, Kate Garwood, was pregnant when she travelled from Germany to Capetown to attend the museum opening - and then the baby came unexpectedly, two months premature.
In its first year, the museum launched many projects. There were 17 solo and group exhibitions featuring more than 60 artists, as well as regular tours, concerts, lectures, panel discussions, film screenings, performances and workshops for schoolchildren.
This was all part of the museum's goal of providing contemporary African artists with a platform on the continent and helping to create an image of African art that is not dominated by Western perceptions, Zeitz says.
And it is not just art that has drawn the visitors. The building, a former grain silo that was restored by British star architect Thomas Heatherwick, has received many awards since its opening.
It was included in Time magazine's list of the World's 100 Greatest Places and was also named as cult magazine Wallpaper's best new public building of 2017, and as Building of the Year by ArchDaily in the category of "cultural architecture."
But not everything has gone smoothly.
A scandal cast a shadow over the museum when chief curator Mark Coetzee was suspended for "professional misconduct." Local media reports said the suspension followed complaints by staff members about racial slurs and sexual innuendos. The highly esteemed art expert, who had worked for Zeitz at Puma, resigned soon afterwards.
"The leadership change was emotional and complex," says Azu Nwagbogu of Nigeria, who was named acting chief curator after Coetzee's departure. "But we've steadied the ship and regained the trust of the public."
Zeitz refers to the incident as a "regrettable situation" that caused a great deal of "stomach pain." When Coetzee left, his duties were divided between three different positions in order to spread the responsibility more evenly, Zeitz says.
Brooke Minto of the US was made chief of institutional advancement, while South African Michael Farquhar was made director of operations.
The "Five Bhobh" exhibition is an example of the museum's desire to give a voice within Africa to artists whose work offers an important perspective on historical events in the continent.
"We want to mirror the spirit of the times and give artists the opportunity to take on an important historical moment," Zeitz says.
All the artworks to be displayed were created specially for the exhibition.
In addition, during the jubilee month, there will be a series of ceremonies, lectures and performances, including a Museum Night, puppet show workshops for children and the start of a regular series of fashion films.
"We want to our own narrative of contemporary African art," says Nwagbogu. "We would like to arrive at a point where talented African artists have just as much success on the continent as they have in Europe or the United States."

Tuesday, September 25th 2018
Kristin Palitza

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